A Travellerspoint blog

March 2011

Naked Men and Brazillian Women

The naked man festival (Hakada Matsuri) in Okayama is the original and biggest of dozens of similar festivals around Japan.

Technically there is only one naked (and totally shaved) man at a naked man festival usually (and in Okayama none at all), but there are plenty of scantily clad ones in special loin cloths.

In many ways the Naked Man festival is the polar opposite of the fire walking festival. This is a big and well known festival, it's noisy, crowded with people from all over and somehow totally impersonal. You can't help but feel that it's only the naughty sounding name that's bringing in so many people, and (I guess) for some Japanese people the chance to cut loose a little as participants are encouraged to drink copious amounts of sake to psyche them up and proof them against the February chill.

We drove over from Shiga and arrived just in time to see the last few groups of men chanting and marching (or hopping in the case of one guy we saw who was missing half a leg; see bottom left below) to gather around the main temple.

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Once there they wait until the stroke of midnight when special good luck tokens (in the form of small wooden batons) are dropped from inside the temple onto the waiting throng below. What follows is probably a spectacular free for all as everybody fights to get these lucky charms. I say probably, because high screens are erected around three sides of the temple, meaning that unless you get one of the limited seats up front (which I guess you have to pay for) your only chance to see anything is a narrow angle view from the rear corners. Meaning this was all we got to see.

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However, here is an artist's impression of how the internal action must have looked - recreated with me and mural painted on the side of a local shop (guaranteed to possibly be approaching an approximation of quasi-factual accuracy probably).

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Unable to get any closer we drifted off to get something to eat and see what else was going on, this is obviously a very intense and very physical event and every year there are people who get the worst of the cold weather and the crushing throng. Just as we came past the ambulances I was surprised to recognise a fellow JET getting checked over by medics, CJ (from the other side of the lake) had had enough of being smashed around and wisely got out.

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We paused to check he was OK then moved on to the sound of rhythmic drums??

For some reason there was a group of Brazilian's trying their hardest to defy the cold weather and spread a little carnival cheer, it just seemed so oddly out of place. I went over to snap a couple of quick shots and got a flier thrust into my hand, suddenly it all made sense, they were promoting a Brazilian theme park somewhere around here.

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By the time we headed back to the temple it seemed like things were winding down, the last of the loin cloth clad figures were being encouraged to leave and the temple was opened up again for anybody to check out.

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For me the most interesting thing of the evening was seeing all the attendants and police officers line up to get appraised and dismissed by their officers at the end of the evening, I don't know why there was just something about it that was even more Japanese than the festival itself somehow.

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Considering how long the drive down had been I think that we were both a little disappointed with what we saw, but we'd decided to make a weekend of it so I pulled out the haikyo guide book and found an interesting looking site near by for exploration in the morning and then set about finding a hotel on Andrew's smart phone.

We found one near where we needed to be so I called and asked about a twin room, they said there was one so we drove over, only to find out when we got there it was a double bed not a twin at all. Still, too tired to care we took it anyway.... and I'm sorry to disappoint everybody, but nothing happened despite what Haru keeps suggesting now.

Next morning we drove over to the Rainbow Hotel haikyo, a massive 6 floor place with a sky view tower and a very impressive collection of graffiti artwork.
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We spent a few hours exploring and documenting that (a full report will be on the haikyo blog when I get to it), before turning our attention to the other side of the road where we could see a couple of roller coasters and other rides.

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Curious to find out what was there we headed over, and found out that by pure chance we chosen a haikyo next door to the Brazilian theme park the girls had been promoting at the festival the previous night. Pulling the flier out of my pocket I realised we had discount tickets as well, so we decided to check it out.

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The park was quite small, but it has a couple of nice roller coasters and being an off season early spring day there were no lines, so we got to jump on and off anything we wanted to ride - which meant I got to learn all about Andrew's habit of screaming on roller coasters; I say habit as it obviously is a conscious choice as this clip shows!
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Interestingly this is actually the very roller coaster that was used to set the world record for 'Longest continuous time spent on a rollercoaster'.

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It ended up being a fun morning and I got to try out a couple of new things -

1) Having a nap in a hammock.

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2) Finally getting to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Ross on Japanorama and ride a giant mechanical panda!!

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Now that has to be one of my proudest moments.

Posted by DKJM74 01:55 Comments (0)

Holy Firewalkers, Batman!

Firewalking at Sugahara-Jinja

OK It's time to resume normal service and get back to travel reports instead of disaster updates I think.

So after the ice of Mt. Rokko it's time for the fire of Sugahara-Jinja.

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I've been to quite a few festivals in Japan since I arrived, many are grand affairs that take place on public holidays or weekends and pull in huge crowds. This one by contrast took place on a Friday morning (meaning Andrew and I had to take a day off work to go) and was held at a small unassuming shrine on the east side of Lake Biwa.

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It was, however, probably the best festival experience I've had yet. The festival is essentially a spring rite of rebirth and purification, symbolised by a passage of fire. I've never tried fire walking before, and as it's important to start the New Year on the right (blackened) foot it seemed like a good thing to try.

We drove over early and put our names down on the list of walkers and then watched the preparations. All the priests were in full ceremonial gear and welcoming local officials who had come to participate. Soon the head priest went inside the shrine and intoned a ritual blessing chant, then the crowd were blessed with green branches and bells before a flaming bamboo torch was brought out and walked down to the waiting pyre.

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The pyre wasn't finished just yet though, inside it was a stack of Jenga style towers covered with green branches, outside though special boards had to be placed that had been covered in prayers and wishes for the coming year - this is what we'd be walking on.

Once this holy pyre was finished the bamboo torch was thrust deep inside and smoke began pouring out.

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The fire, like any big fire, was both impressive and quite hypnotic to watch.

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There was one moment of high drama when a hot flying ember got caught one of the overhanging trees and set it alight. The flame wasn't so big, but it was high up, hard to reach and spreading. It was time to call... a small doddery old man with an aluminium ladder and a low pressure garden hose....?? Hmmm, not so effective, and in the end they did have to get out a proper fire hose and douse the flame.

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Meanwhile, despite the fire hazard, the festival continued unabated. The first to walk on the embers is the head priest, followed by the town officials and then anybody else who has signed up. The priest was now preparing himself with prayer and by bathing with blessed water.

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The last step was to scatter salt and offerings on all four sides of the charcoals. The priest then showed the preparations to the shrine's icon (for approval I guess) and he crossed over.

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Then soon it was our turn to go as well. I handed the priest my official paper I'd been given when I signed up - he read off my name, indicated I should look and walk straight ahead then slapped me on the back so hard I had no choice but to start walking. It only takes a few seconds, and for some reason I focused on the paper in my hands - but it was like everything else just fell away, for a moment there was just me doing that. Then it was over, I was there with no damage, just a quite pleasant sensation of pins and needles tingling on the soles of my feet.

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One of the nicest things about this festival was the fact it was so small and friendly. The pictures above were taken by a total stranger who I entrusted with my camera (and he did a nice job). After we finished our walk, we got to ink up our feet and make footprints to keep as a memento. The Japanese people were amazed by the size of our feet and we became instant celebrities with lots of photographers wanting to take pictures of us with our certificates.

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We even got interviewed by a local TV station (in Japanese); though I think our responses might have been a little too incomprehensible to be usable. Lastly we got talking to a local man who'd been taking video all morning, it turned out he'd been travelling around a lot of Europe and had even visited Slovakia. He very kindly offered to send us a copy of the video on DVD for free, and true to his word it turned up in the post yesterday - I'm going to send him one of the Slovakia guide books I have here as a return gift.

All that remained was to clean our feet, say goodbye and enjoy the rest of a fine early spring morning complete with the first fresh plumb blossom blooming.

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Posted by DKJM74 16:55 Comments (0)

The Nuclear Situation: Recent Expert Opinions

No personal comments today. This time I'd just like to pass on something I got in my inbox this morning from the JET program prefectural advisors (PAs). They have been doing a good job of trying to provide up with up to date sources of information in English and keep us abreast of the situation as it unfolds. Today they addressed concerns over the situation with the nuclear powerplants here.

Several of my friends have also expressed, understandable, concerns about this. Thank you for the thoughts, prayers and kind messages you have variously sent me, it is appreciated! However, I get a strong feeling that much of the information in the mainstream media is (as ever) somewhat exaggerated to grab and hold public attention.

To somewhat balance that, here are some quite straight forward comments on the situation made by a panel of experts who recently met at the British Embassy in Tokyo. I though some of you might appreciate this more down to earth assessment of the situation.

So here are the comments as relayed by one attendee.

I have just returned
from a conference call held at the British Embassy in Tokyo. The call
was concerning the nuclear issue in Japan. The chief spokesman was Sir.
John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, and he
was joined by a number of qualified nuclear experts based in the UK.
Their assessment of the current situation in Japan is as follows:

In case of a 'reasonable worst case scenario' (defined as total
meltdown of one reactor with subsequent radioactive explosion) an
exclusion zone of 30 miles (50km) would be the maximum required to avoid
affecting peoples' health. Even in a worse situation (loss of two or
more reactors) it is unlikely that the damage would be significantly
more than that caused by the loss of a single reactor.

The current 20km exclusion zone is appropriate for the levels of
radiation/risk currently experienced, and if the pouring of sea water
can be maintained to cool the reactors, the likelihood of a major
incident should be avoided. A further large quake with tsunami could
lead to the suspension of the current cooling operations, leading to the
above scenario.

  • The bottom line is that these experts

do not see there being a possibility of a health problem for residents
in Tokyo. The radiation levels would need to be hundreds of times higher
than current to cause the possibility for health issues, and that, in
their opinion, is not going to happen (they were talking minimum levels
affecting pregnant women and children - for normal adults the levels
would need to be much higher still).

  • The experts do not consider the wind direction to be material. They say Tokyo is too far away to be materially affected.

If the pouring of water can be maintained the situation should be much
improved after ten days, as the reactors' cores cool down.

Information being provided by Japanese authorities is being
independently monitored by a number of organizations and is deemed to be
accurate, as far as measures of radioactivity levels are concerned.

This is a very different situation from Chernobyl, where the reactor
went into meltdown and the encasement, which exploded, was left to burn
for weeks without any control. Even with Chernobyl, an exclusion zone of
30 miles would have been adequate to protect human health. The problem
was that most people became sick from eating contaminated food, crops,
milk and water in the region for years afterward, as no attempt was made
to measure radioactivity levels in the food supply at that time or warn
people of the dangers. The secrecy over the Chernobyl explosion is in
contrast to the very public coverage of the Fukushima crisis.

The Head of the British School asked if the school should remain
closed. The answer was there is no need to close the school due to fears
of radiation. There may well be other reasons - structural damage or
possible new quakes - but the radiation fear is not supported by
scientific measures, even for children.

  • Regarding Iodine

supplementation, the experts said this was only necessary for those who
had inhaled quantities of radiation (those in the exclusion zone or
workers on the site) or through consumption of contaminated food/water
supplies. Long term consumption of iodine is, in any case, not healthy.

The discussion was surprisingly frank and to the point. The conclusion of
the experts is that the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, as
well as the subsequent aftershocks, was much more of an issue than the
fear of radiation sickness from the nuclear plants.

Posted by DKJM74 21:16 Comments (3)

Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Straight off I want to say that I was personally well away from the area(s) affected by the quakes and tsunami.

It is impossible however to continue to write a blog about my life in Japan without acknowledging the terrible events of the past few days.

I don't want to try and write an account of the events, which by now have been exhaustively covered on the news. What I would like to do though is to give a slightly different perspective, some things that you won't have seen on the disaster focused news - life going on.

I was at work on Friday when the quake struck and tsunami swept the coast several hundred miles away from where I live. Suddenly there was a buzz in the teacher’s room unlike any before, obviously everybody was talking Japanese but I could pick out enough to get an idea of what they were talking about - though I doubted I'd heard correctly. Soon the TV was on and the teachers were gathering around. We were watching, live, the images that must have soon been relayed around the world... but somehow it felt unreal. Maybe it was the language barrier or the fact that it was just so out of the blue, but I found myself literally asking my colleagues 'Is this real?'.

We all know that Japan is an earthquake prone zone, and once or twice I've been woken up by my apartment gently rolling - nobody takes any notice of quakes of that magnitude, so I had no idea if what I was seeing now was common or something in a different league - but everything just felt wrong. The more I watched, the more I registered the shock and surprise in my colleagues reactions, the more serious I realised it was. I learnt two new words that day 'osoroshii' (dreadful, terrible, frightful) and 'maji de' (an exclamation meaning 'Really - it can't be!'). Finally it dawned on me that it wasn't the language barrier, it was just the sheer incomprehensibility of what we were seeing.

I wanted to call Haru even though I knew she'd be safe, but my phone was at home. I left school as soon as I could and called or wrote to all of my family and friends to assure them I was ok, then went straight to Kyoto to be with Haru (where I live the trains were running normally).

We spent an exhausting evening watching the incoming news of missing people, more quakes and nuclear meltdowns. I do have a couple of favourable observations to make about the news coverage though.

Firstly, the actual tsunami coverage was done with a notable degree of compassion. Several times there was helicopter footage of cars trying to outrace a wall of water obviously faster than them, yet every time the camera moved away before the car was engulfed. Once I said out loud, 'God, there was nowhere for them to go!' and the only answer I got was a nod. What happened next was inevitable, and there was no need to show it.

Secondly, the death toll was never exaggerated or speculated to make horrific headlines. At all times only statistics which were believed to be verifiable were reported. I think we all expected the toll to be in the tens of thousands of lives, but until Sunday afternoon the numbers on screen here were only around 1000 as that was all that could be confirmed in the chaos. Once rescue workers got down into the devastated areas the figures leapt and the last I saw was around 15'000.

To be fair though not all the reportage was so good, as the flow of disaster news began to slow down it began to be replaced with in your face interviews with people in no state to talk to film. Putting a camera in the face of person who has just lost their lifelong home or their family (or both) should be against the law.

Friday night, faced with what was happening and what we could see on the TV, we had a tough choice to make; should we go ahead with our plans for a long weekend away or not? In the end we decided to still go away, and I'm glad we did.

On Saturday we drove over to Aichi Ken, sharing a long stretch of the road with a stream of emergency vehicles; relief was pouring in from all over Japan and heading north. I learnt several more new words during that drive; 'kyuukyuu-sha' (ambulance), 'kyuumei-shi' (paramedic), 'shoubou-sha' (fire engine) and 'shoubou-shi' (fireman).

On Sunday, as planned, we went to a festival in the small town of Inu-yama. We were out all day, enjoying the beautiful plumb blossom blooming on the trees in the grounds of the local temple. Everybody around us was smiling and laughing, there was a parade, festival food, children in costumes and life... so much life.

In the evening we went back to the hotel and turned on the TV again, more disaster, more death and destruction. Somehow it didn't tally with life outside... yes, something awful was happening and yes, it was very real and terrible... but it was not everything that was happening.

The TV is like a window, a small window on a wide world and like any window it offers a limited view of something much bigger and grander. Turning away from that view, going out, looking at the wider picture in no way diminishes or ignores what happened, but equally a disaster (no matter how great) cannot diminish the all encompassing totality of life either. We have a moral responsibility to acknowledge, think of and help those stricken at a time like this, but it does not help anybody to only see death and to forget life. Turning off the TV and going out was by far the best thing we could have done at that time.

Today, back at the school, it was the graduation ceremony for the third year students. After the opening address we were called on to observe a short silence for the victims of the tragedy. I've never really thought about this tradition of silence before, but today I did think about it... and it makes sense. Somehow a silence is the best way to acknowledge something like this.

What is a silence? An anomaly, something that disrupts the normal flow, a blister in the sounds that comes before and after it, but beyond its limits everywhere else there is still sound. As a silence is to sound, so is a disaster to life - an anomaly, a disruption, a raw and painful point in time - but all around it there is still life.

When you are watching the news, don't forget this. Don't think of Japan as a wasteland of destruction because that's what a little box is showing you right now, as I write this outside the window I can see my students running in the grounds, practicing baseball on the diamond and doing just the same as they always do.

Thank you for all your concern and kind message, but rest assured life is also an unstoppable force that will continue regardless.

Posted by DKJM74 01:01 Comments (6)

Choco and Rokko: Valentine's Day

Work, wedding planning and sickness has kept me from blogging much recently, but here's a nice, quick update from our Valentine's day date.

This year I got double the chocolates because Haru's mother decided to buy some for her 'son' as well, which was very nice of her.

So the pink box is from her and the cool kitty collection is from Haru.

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The fish was also from Haru's mother as a joke on me as Japanese people eat a lot of fish, but I don't really like it that much. They put it in the fridge and made out like it was actually real. When I finally decided I should eat it, as it's a gift from my (soon to be) mother-in-law, I soon found out it was actually a fake and full of chocolate covered nuts - which was nice though I did feel like I was eating fish poo.

I got Haru chocolates as well (of course), but I also planned a nice Valentine's day out for us.

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This is Mt.Rokko, just outside Kobe. It looks like a really nice place for a relaxing stroll around on a warm Summer afternoon... but it was very bloody freezing when we went. There was a reason for me taking Haru there though, and that was to see an exhibition of ice sculptures.

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This was the first time I'd ever seen ice sculptures. We had originally planned to travel up to Hokkaido for the huge snow sculpture festival there, but it just wasn't possible this year - so when I saw this advertised I though it's make a nice smaller substitute.

There were all kinds of sculptures from the esoteric fairies to traditional sumo wrestlers via aliens and dinosaurs.
(Fuller gallery below)

We got to see the one sculpture being carved with a chainsaw too which was impressive. We did a double trip around. Checking all the sculptures out when we arrived, taking a nice warm lunch break in the cafe, then doing a second round to see the sculptures all lit up once it got darker (the lights effects really made a difference as you can see with the dinosaurs below).

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Once it got dark it was really cold, but the night view over Kobe was pretty spectacular. Then it was time to get back on the funicular line and head down the mountain again... though confusingly the Japanese call these funicular lines 'cable cars' and what we call cable cars they call 'rope ways'. A point that became quite important recently as at our wedding we plan to ride a cable car to get to the wedding venue (an old farm house in the Deryshire dales), we'd talked about this a few time together and how we could do it logistically with Haru in a wedding dress - then when I finally showed Haru a picture of the cable car in question she said 'That's not a cable car, it's a rope way' and I realised we'd been talking at cross purposes a bit :-)

Anyway, here's a gallery of the ice sculptures.

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Posted by DKJM74 04:06 Comments (0)

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