Teaching In Socks

47Black Cats
October 26, 2009, 4:32 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

The 47 Ronin are Ako’s most notable contribution to Japanese history. In Edo Period Japan, 47 Samurai from Ako exacted revenge in the name of the former master- Asano, the Lord of Ako, against his enemy Kira. To accomplish this, they executed a masterful plan which involved them feigning disinterest and deceiving their enemy for two years before attacking. The immediate reward for their service was that they were forced to commit seppuku by the Shogun as punishment for the murder of Kira. The greater reward however, was that they had restored their honor (as well as the honor of the Ako domain)  and today their story is held in high regard as an example of loyalty and bravery.

Oishi Kuronosuke cat

Oishi Kuranosuke cat

I have noticed that the 47 Ronin are often depicted in cartoon form as black cats. There is even a series of black cat samurai dolls that seem to make a yearly appearance in Ako station as well as at local city events.  The choice to portray them as cats was something I questioned, albeit passively, never giving much thought into why they would be cats. I suppose that I casually  assumed that it was somehow related to the popularity of Hello Kitty.  However, since I am more of a dog person, I did think it was a little regrettable that these fearsome and treasured Samurai were not bestowed the honor of being a creature that perhaps inspired more respect. Also, cats are creatures more known for their independence and less for their loyalty.

Recently, I have started to do a little extracurricular study of Japanese history. My investment paid its first significant dividend last week as I was able to uncover and understand why the 47 Black Cats are black cats.

Last Tuesday a representative from the Post Office dropped by my school and asked if we would put up a promotional poster in our lobby. The poster was advertising a line of post cards which chronicle the story of the 47 Ronin using the Black Cat characters. While putting the poster up, I scanned through the listed of characters and noticed that one character, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was depicted as  dog.

During my reading I came across a short biography of him. He was the 5th shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate–the dominate shogunate of the Edo Period. He was also the Shogun who punished both Asano and 46 of the 47 Ronin by forcing them to commit seppuku.

The beginning of his reign as Shogun was actually rather successful. He enacted many popular reforms; He chose advisers for their merit as opposed to their lineage, he was known to reward common people who were generous to their parents and he kept close tabs on local bad governors.

Unfortunately, in his late 40’s he decided to hand over the daily mechanics of the government to his close advisers-which resulted in political chaos. In addition, the economy began to decline. This was partly a result of Tsunayoshi’s extensive government spending and issuing of bad currency.  Tsunayoshi’s decline in popularity came a direct result of his fondness for dogs.

He established a law forbidding the killing of dogs across Japan–which seems like a positive reform, but he also began to build large (and expensive) kennels for stray dogs across Japan.  Under normal circumstances this is a policy I would support, but  the fact that he was nick-named the “Dog-shogun” is probably evidence that he took his obsession to an unhealthy extreme. When people begin to think the government cares more about dogs than them, it usually is cause for dissent.

As a result his legacy is not one of a prudent and pragmatic leader, but instead he plays the snarling canine foil to the noble and heroic Black Cat Samurai from Ako. Let this be a lesson to us all; if you try to do something good and this is what happens.

Images via The 47BlackCats Blog


Animal rescue
October 19, 2009, 1:52 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
The Shi Shi; In better circumstances for dancing

The Shi Shi; In better circumstances for dancing

The Shi Shi–a mythical snarling lion–bobbed its head up and down in a series of fluent movements. Occasionally, it would stop and erratically shake its mane, shedding white strips on the floor. The men surrounding it shouted “yanyoi!”(give up?).   Suddenly, in a quick direct movement is thrust its head up, inches from me.  After a momentary pause, it tried to drop its head back towards the ground, but stopped abruptly midway down. The Shi Shi was caught on something. With the light above me shaking, I noticed the pull-chain from the overhead lamp was protruding from the lion’s mouth. The two men operating the suit attempted to shake free. I wanted to yell “stop” but in the panic I had forgotten how. Instead, I thrust my hand into the beast’s mouth yelling “matte, matte!” (wait, wait). It was quite tangled; however, with some clever maneuvering we were able to free the costume and avert electrocuting any mythical creatures for the evening.

Seconds from near tragedy. Don't try this at Home kids.

Seconds from near tragedy. Don't try this at Home kids.

In some sense,  every season is festival season in Japan. Autumn can make its claim to the title as shrines across Japan hold festivals to celebrate the rice harvest. This happens nearly every weekend–and sometimes weekdays–throughout October, as the celebrations are for each shrine or neighborhood and are staggered throughout the month. As they are for different shrines, each festival has it’s own unique imprint on traditions costume and dress, and the festivals depending on where they are located and the size of the shrine can be local affairs or events with national recognition. Last weekend I had the pleasure of  attending my girlfriend’s neighborhood’s festival, which was a small, intimate but extremely lively affair.

In the morning the portable shrine, called a Mikoshi, is carried out of the shrine in a parade like manner with many locals carrying the shrine or playing the role of a fabled character related ot the shrine. The Mikoshi can vary in size and number– some being about the same size as a typical litter (not the cat type) while other can be large, multi-story tall structures that have to be pushed on carts.  The Mikoshi–which houses the temple god– is then taken to a sacred spot in town. Presumably, this is like a day trip vacation for the temple god. Everyone gathers for the day and depending on the shrine, there are usually some sacraments performed involving children and then at night a bigger parade forms when the shrine is taken back to the temple.

At the particular festival I attended, the night parade involved traditional dances by men dressed as both the aforementioned Shi Shi–which is the rather iconic looking lion figure as well Tengu–a half-bird, half-human demon (although not necessarily evil). Both of these creatures are major characters in Japanese folklore– from what I have read, the Tengu was traditionally a conniving villan of sorts until about two centuries ago when it started appearing as an aid to monks or travelers in certain stories.   Either way, I wasn’t able to discern what their roles where in this particular story, nor their affiliation to the shrine, but I did like their moves.

With the roadside fires lit, I knew they would be dancing through the street on their way back to the shrine–a route which passed just in front of my girlfriend’s house. What I did not know was that they would be doing a dinner performance as well. I heard them in the distance  as we ate, I was a little surprised to suddenly find myself dodging the jaws of the Shi Shi–and then ultimately rescuing from the danger of modern life.

Apparently, it is local custom for children of one year of age to place their hand in the Shi Shi’s mouth to receive good luck. I’m about 25 years too late for that(although I may act that age at times), but as I am one year Japanese I’m hoping I deceive the gods into the same result.

Trick or Treat. Tengu and Shi Shi

Trick or Treat. Tengu and Shi Shi

The Berlusconi

The train home from Kobe last night was bit crowded. My girlfriend was able to grab a seat, but I had to stand next in the aisle and brace myself by holding on to a ring hanging from the ceiling. Next to my girlfriend was an old man. The old man was part of some local tour group. He had a booklet, a full backpack and he was eating an assortment of rice balls. As a person who eats breakfast on the train once a week I’ll refrain from criticizing his etiquette too much, but it’s one thing to down a donut in an empty train and another to have a hot meal during rush hour.  My girlfriend didn’t seem entirely pleased to be sitting next to him, but she wasn’t about to give up her seat.

Then he opened his newspaper; double-page wide, his left arm stretched well into her personal space.  This is rude on it’s own, but it was exacerbated by the fact that that he opened to the exact page that happened to have a half-page black and white picture of a naked woman. Classy. I don’t want to get into detail, but let’s say the woman in the picture was proportioned in a way that made everyone in the area (did I mentioned it was a crowded train?) simultaneously double-take. Luckily for everyone involved (and extra luckily for my girlfriend), the old man was kind enough not to hastily turn the page.   For some reason, I want to name this man’s maneuver The Berlusconi–I just feel it’s appropriate.

This seems like a perfect moment to go with something completely different and share some cartoon mascot I have seen around Japan.

Ako's mascot.

Ako's mascot.


Dad? what are you doing here?

Dad? what are you doing here?


Dad, why are you a castle?

Dad, why are you a castle?

all dogs repair locks.

all dogs repair locks.

Serenity Now!

Last week was Silver Week in Japan. “Silver Week” is actually not a holiday, it’s a branding construction contrived by the adwizards in mainstream media. It’s actually three separate holidays that happen to fall within the same week (this year). Also it’s not even a whole week; it’s only three days, Monday–Wednesday. Still, someone wanted to be clever and craft and autumnal cousin to Golden Week–which actually is a full week, yet runs from a Wednesday to a Wednesday. It goes without saying that Japan could use some lessons on how holidays work.

Still, contrived or not, I’m a fan. This mostly hinges on the fact that, unlike other commercially constructed holidays, Silver Week actually gets me out of work. Thus, I used my three-day holiday to visit what could be described as Esoteric Buddhism’s Cozumel (most people do not describe it this way), Koyasan.

Koyasan, as I learned from a series of painted doors in a temple and their accompanying placard descriptions, was founded by the monk Kukai during the Heian Period. In 804 AD, Kukai returned from a trip to China where he had studied and developed new ideas about Buddhist methods and teachings. The defining characteristic of his new ideas about Buddhisms was that enlightenment was not an unachievable state taking multiple lifetimes to approach, but instead an attainable reality for everyone based purely on their spiritual devotion and training.

Upon his return, Kukai sought to form a new school sect of Buddhism based on this belief. Hiking in the forest one day he encountered two dogs, a black one and a white one (there were not dogs, but indeed Gods), who lead him to a mountain surrounded by eight hills This shape resembled a lotus–a prominent Buddhist symbol—and convinced Kukai that the Gods had led him to the site of his future monastic complex.

Today, Koyasan serves as the headquarters of Shingon Sect of Buddhism–or as it’s translated, “Japanese Esoteric Buddhism”. The city is filled with beautiful wooden temples and is home to one of Japan’s most famous cemeteries, Okunoin.

Koyasan looks a bit like Candyland (R)

Koyasan looks a bit like Candyland (R)

Several of my friends had traveled to Koyasan before nad had given it a favorable reviews. Many of the temples allow you to stay in them overnight and participate in Buddhist services and ceremonies.

The promise of the possibility of eternal spiritual enlightenment was all too enticing. It really is the ultimate trump card (well that and heavily-backed will) at any family dinner table argument. Also, eternal salvation and inner piece is probably pretty nice too.

Thus, I made the four hour trip to Eko-in temple in Wakayama Prefecture which included two trains, a subway, a bus and a cable car.

On the bus, I discovered, via eaves dropping, that the two French couples sitting in front of me were staying at the same temple as me (I later learned that this is the only temple you can make a reservation at online, and as such is pretty much the foreigner hub of Koyasan).

I noticed the French couples were having a small debate amongst each other regarding the bus map. As I had directions translated by my girlfriend, I considered intervening, but as the directions were untested and I didn’t want to be the one to lead everyone astray–especially considering that their bags looked heavier than mine. Furthermore, I believe it’s a global axiom that one should never get in the middle of a French debate. I feel like Churchill would have stayed clear of this one, and I would be smart to do the same.

The bus approached the stop my directions designated me to get off at. I quickly hurried to the front of the bus and disembarked. When I got off, I noticed one of the French girls had made her way to the front of the bus behind me and was attempting to ask the bus driver question for directions.  I didn’t catch all of their conversation, but as the door closed it sounded like the bus driver has as much enthusiasm for this interaction as bus drivers have for…well, anything.

It was short twenty-yard walk from the stop to Ekoin. As I entered the gates I noticed the the bus had made it’s next stop, about a hundred and fifty yards beyond the temple. I didn’t wait to see if the French couples got off the bus, but evidently they did because they ended up staying in the two rooms next to mine. One way to look at it was that it was nice to have some international awkwardness of a European variety. I had missed that.

As I check in a women explained ot me the Temples rules and schedule. However, because my girlfriend had helped me make a reservation in Japanese, she explained it all to me in Japanese. Unfortunately I know know enough Japanese where I can sound like I know Japanese but where I am also to proud to ask for clarification during the many moments when I should.

Dinner would be brought to my room at 5:30. The bath/showers were open from 4:00-10:00. The morning services were either at 5:30 or 6:30 (I forgot) and the zen meditation course I had signed up for was at…. some time…maybe tomorrow.

The room was nice, it had a simple table, tea, a television, a phone and tatami mats. I dropped of my stuff and went for a quick walk around the city. I returned at 5:15, just in time for dinner.

The meal was quite interesting, It was three trays of dishes, including a separate bowl of rice and a beer that I had ordered–which happened to be the champagne bottle size. The Monks are vegan, so the meal, save for some tempura, seemed to follow their dietary guidelines. I ate some soba, a variety tofu, an orange, and a lot of rice. I ate rather slowly and helped some of the more interesting bits down with the beer–which i finished.

I assume I was the last to finish dinner, because the monks checked to see if I was finished three times. After the third time, I gave up–realizing that I was perhaps holding things up.  A monk came to collect the trays and set up my futon. After he left, I switched into my pajama pants and sat down to read for a bit. About ten minutes later the monk came to my door and announced it was time for meditation practice.   I should have asked for the woman to repeat that last part.

Instead,  I was off to meditation practice in a a collared shirt, pajama pants and a bit buzzed from drinking a magnum of Asahi. I also happened to be the only foreigner participating, so my eccentric attire was doubly ensure that I stood out.

The practice itself was great. As  I entered, a monk asked me to sit in the back so he could translate the instructions for me. There was about twenty minutes of instruction followed by twenty minutes of meditation (I think). I’m not sure if I achieved enlightenment or not, but considering I couldn’t even sit in the proper positions, and spent the entire time thinking about trying to think about nothing (insert Seinfeld joke here), I perhaps have a bit to go on the road to Nirvana.

The next morning I woke up just in time for morning services. Again, as I was confused as to what attire people wear to services–regular clothes, or the robes they provided us with, I opted for the hobo option of wearing pajama pants and a t-shirt. It really was my only option as there is too much kneeling to be comfortable in jeans and I don’t have enough confidence in my Kimono tying ability to risk a wardrobe malfunction. Still, I scored poorly on the group-think quiz as everyone was wearing jeans.

The services turned out to be one of the memorable hazes. I can’t really recall a specific moment but the experience as a whole really stands out. I think it’s the chanting. I don’t know if death has an internal sound (it probably does) but if it does, I am confident it sounds like the chanting at the service. It’s that odd mixture of being both beautiful and haunting–sort of like French Cinema (which let’s face it, is what death looks like).

After services, there is a fire ceremony. This sounds cooler than it really is. Basically, one guy makes a small fire, while another bangs a drum and chants. I am sure in the spirit word this resembles the Fourth of July. I, on the other hand, was starting to get tired of sitting on the floor. For all it’s cracked up to be, enlightenment involves a lot fo time switching between sitting Indian style and risking a a rather mundane ACL/MCL tear.  Achieving oneness should incorporate more chairs and cushions but I understand why others see differently.

After the fire, I had a quick breakfast and checked out my room. I walked through the cemetery (not pictured), which was really beautiful. A lot of wealthy and famous people are buried there and many have chosen ornate, perhaps even eccentric, grave markers. There was one rather larger mausoleum type tomb that had a stone marked at the front that read “Panasonic Corporation”.

AND Japan's largests Rock Garden!

AND Japan's largest Rock Garden!

I then headed back to the station and caught a train home. While I didn’t discover full spiritual enlightenment,  I did find a bakery selling blueberry bagels and upscale bacon, egg, and cheese McMuffins in the Osaka Train Station, so close enough for me.