Sunday, 29 January 2012

Tengu Trail

Every year, the weekend before Setsubun, there is a Tengu Festival in Shimokitazawa. When I first heard about this, I was delighted: fresh from my Tengu studies earlier this month, I was looking forward to seeing Tengu in real life.

I wasn't disappointed. The festival starts on Friday evening, when bars and restaurants around Shimokitazawa's Ichibangai get ready for a visit from Karasu Tengu. Not everywhere gets so blessed, but I was with Tengu fans and we had done our homework. Iida, possibly my new favourite Izakaya(it actually does desserts) looked like any other nice bar - until suddenly the doorway filled with a monster

We'd got there just in time for Karasu Tengu!

The town crier (left) wore special Tengu gloves, and he gave a pair to me

And that wasn't all. The following day, Karasu Tengu

was joined by Daitengu

and Daitengu effigies of all shapes and sizes

The streets were packed with Tengu lovers from all over Tokyo, some of whom carried this special parasol (a new lesson - Tengu don't like bright Japanese winter weather...they prefer to be in the mountains, under trees)

 Drums were beaten in honour of Tengu

Fake beards were donned, for reasons beyond my limited imagination

Everybody had a good time performing 'mame-maki' (throwing, catching, and eating roasted soy beans at spirits to keep the bad ones away, and welcome the good ones)

I caught a bag of beans and kept them as a souvenir

...but my favourite Tengu was perhaps this poor soul sitting at the side of the street. Perhaps he'd been here since last year

If all festivals were as fun as this, no-one would ever do any work!

So when's the next festival, again?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

First Snow

Winter is beautiful in Japan. In Kyoto last week, the sky was blue, and the sun was almost white

Even on overcast days, the bright grey light makes everything green or red look super-charged

But sadly, I think I'll have to go all the way to Kawabata's Snow Country (a long way and at least 15,000 yen for the train fare) if I want to see real snow...because Tokyo's first snow of the year this week was decidedly unimpressive. The view out of my window might as well have been a snap from a grey London motorway:

Like London, where snow is also never much more than sludgy sleet, it was just COLD, and wet. So when I decided to stay indoors and read about Japanese snow instead, things began to look up.

Yuki is the Japanese word for snow. Here is the Kanji

Yuki-onna is one of my favourite Yokai - a silent, beautiful, ruthless, sometimes violent, occasionally kind snow goddess.

She even has her own slightly dubious-looking trump card

One of the most famous Yuki Onna stories is from Lafcadio Hearn's brilliant collection Kwaidan, but there is more to her even than that. In old stories, she has killed men, borne human AND snow-monster children, haunted graveyards and melted away like an ice sculpture. And lots more.

Yuki also means 'revenge'. Combine them, and if you happen to be a comics genius like Kazuo Koike, you get the extremely addictive revenge manga Lady Snowblood

Here in Tokyo, all that's left of the real snow is a couple of sludgy patches around city drains. I think I'll stay indoors and leave nature writing to the professionals - this week at least, the words of Sei Shonagon and Basho are better than the real thing!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Lunar Tokyo

I'm so often wrong about things in Tokyo that I might as well be on the Moon! Take New Year for example. I thought I'd 'done' it already: I went to a special 'old year exorcism' ceremony...

...ate traditional Toshi-Koshi 'Crossing of the Year' soba noodles for long life and good luck

and visited a whole lot of shrines and temples, including this

Shoin Jinja, Setagaya, Toko
...and this

Daishoin Temple, Miyajima
I thought I was done. But I was mistaken. New Year festivities are a long way from being over. Now, everyone is getting ready for the new year welcome fesival, Setsubun on 3rd February - you eat soup, wear masks and throw soy beans for good luck. But, before that, lots of people also celebrate Chinese Lunar new year. As the moon waxes over the two-week festival, people worship it like a goddess, made it into cakes (!) and use it as an excuse to spend more money in the shops than they do at all the other festivals combined (well that's what they told me on the telly yesterday, anyway). 

I love thinking about the moon. One of the first stories I read in proper Japanese was the famous Chinese moon story, Hou Yi and Chang-e

Hou Yi - an archer, a god - shoots down nine suns and saves the Earth from becoming an inferno. The sun god, furious, banishes Hou Yi and his wife Chang Er from heaven and turns them into mortals. Their only hope of regaining their immortality is if they each eat a Peach of eternal life - but they are only given one. Chang-Er, who hates earthly life more than Hou Yi, eats it and flies away to the moon, 'seeing' Hou Yi every night by shining down on him each night for the rest of his (mortal) life.

Well, almost every night. A few days later, from a flamenco bar in Golden Gai, Shinjuku

the moon started to disappear.

Then, just before the sky went totally black, the moon turned dark red, like the gruesome hopes of Lorca's lonely trickster moon in Blood Wedding

New year, new moon, old stories. Wonderful!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Miyajima Microtheatre

Theatres have a habit of popping up in strange places, but it was still a surprise to see a tiny proscenium in a forest half way up Miyajima's Mount Misen:

A forgotten puppet theatre? A fairy shrine?

Sadly, it was too cold to wait for the audience to gather, so I guess I will never know. 

Monday, 9 January 2012

A Kamishibai High!

It seemed a long time since I trialled my First Kamishibai - Jack and the Beanstalk, in Japanese - on a crowd of unsuspecting four and five year olds in a Tokyo nursery. So, preparing to tell it again, this time to an assembled group of language school students...

...I was nervous. There were grown-ups from all over the world in the room. What would they think about my extremely 'home made' drawings and very simple retelling? Eep.

But, buoyed by my (slightly) improved Japanese, and having practiced my newly-corrected text to death, I went for it anyway.

First, I did my best to explain why I wasn't doing a 'tell me about your country' role play like everyone else...

...and then Jack took over, and I was ok

I didn't look anything like a traditional Kamishibai artist, complete with a hand-made and decorated paper theatre

...I had interpreted the rules in my (very bossy) Kamishibai Q&A instruction manual, extremely loosely at best

...but the basics were there: words, pictures, and the occasional funny bit.

People laughed and clapped politely

and I thought it best not to ask whether it was my attempt at Japanese 'storyteller pronunciation', the actual jokes, or just my arsenal of funny faces (thank you, Clown School) that tickled them.

When I finished, I had no idea whether to be mortified or delighted. Then a couple of people from the Beginner class came up to me afterwards and told me that they had fun, were able to follow my Japanese text, AND actually learned some new Japanese words. I decided to choose 'delighted'. 

A Good Kamishibai Day. Time to start work on a new one.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

In Tengu Territory

Tengu - one of the most famous 'species' of Japanese supernatural beings - are everywhere in Japan. But, what they actually ARE is surprisingly unclear. How do you spot a Tengu?

Most of the Tengu statues I'd seen were in front of Buddhist shrines. So, to begin with, logically (to me at least) I assumed that a Tengu was some kind of benevolent guardian spirit, protecting a sacred place from harm. The one in the middle of this very useful-looking trio outside a shrine on Mt Takao, looks especially fierce...

...but the one on the left with the hawk's beak and wings looks the least human, which, I guessed, meant it was supposed to be the most powerful

But the one on the right was more difficult. It didn't look that impressive. In fact, the only difference between the Tengu and a regular old man with a big nose was its wings...which were almost completely hidden behind it

But, it was the old man Tengu on the right that really got me thinking. What protector-demon would choose to present itself as a fat retired warrior? What being has not one, not two, but three different versions of itself standing outside a Buddhist temple?

A quick search later, I was more confused and none the wiser. Tengu can be almost anything. Sometimes they are scary goblins / ghosts...

...and sometimes, god-like swordfighting teachers

...but quite often they also appear as bird-featured Yokai shapeshifters

Animal shapes have nothing to do with a Tengu's power rating, either (if anything bird-Tengu are less powerful than the more human-looking ones) so my first assumption was resoundingly wrong. Classifying these beings was going to be more of a challenge than I'd signed up for. But, ever-curious, I forged ahead anyway.

So, Tengu appear in lots of different roles: fine. But, do the different Tengu have any common characteristics - anything that might help justify the fact that they are all called by the same name?

I needed help.

Luckily, I didn't have to look far: the first answer was in Dai-e, the very next Noh play I read. The main character was a Tengu from Mt Hiei. All the other Tengu I'd come across also live on mountains, protecting a Buddhist shrine. So the first thing I learnt was

Tengu live in - perhaps are tied to - particular mountains

So far, so good. But the Dai-e Tengu seems more mountain-dwelling dress-up artist than protector. First, it appears in disguise, as a wise priest, hiding its Tengu features behind a human 'mask' (unusually for a Noh main character, the actor appears unmasked). The Tengu meets a traveller who had once saved its life, and as a thank you gesture the Tengu promises to grant the traveller a wish. The traveller wants nothing more than to see and worship the great Buddhist sage Sakyamuni. Unsurprisingly, the Tengu doesn't know the great Sage well enough to ask him over, so it decides to fake it. The next time the Tengu appears, it is as Sakyamuni, wearing a huge mask, with lots of small Tengu posing as 'disciples'.

At no point in the play does the Tengu appear in a recognisably Tengu-like representation - something like this

or, this

Lesson 2 was reasonably clear:

Tengu like dressing up as other people

Now I felt like I was at least getting somewhere. So, Tengu seem to be good at changing shape. Unfortunately for them though, their acting skills are rather less impressive than their costume choices. At the end of Dai-e, and in other plays, the Tengu's scheme is discovered by an angry deity who chases the Tengu off into the mountains. Ooops!

Then, from the folk tale Tengu no Hyotan (where a Tengu tries to play a nasty prank on a Gambler, but actually ends up making him a very rich and happy man) I also discovered that Tengu like to play jokes on people and try to outwit them. But it never quite works out that way: either the baddie gets his just desserts by accident, or the Tengu makes a fatal mistake, allowing the baddie to outwit it. Oh dear.

So, I thought it would be safe to say that I had learnt my third lesson:

Tengu are not very good Tricksters

Armed with these three lessons, I thought I'd got a pretty good idea of what Tengu were: powerful, mountain-dwelling figures of fun. Mostly. But where does the 'wise teacher / expert swordfighter' role come in? In the famous Noh play Kurama Tengu, the main character (dressed up as a priest less noble than itself) trains a young boy who later becomes Japan's most famous General, in the arts of war...


At this point, I decided to quit while I still could.

In the world of Japanese monsters, Tengu are clearly more of a continent than a species. But at least I know enough about them now to recognise one. Possibly. Provided it hasn't made an extra special effort with that day's disguise...