Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More New Year's Customs and Curiosities

The photos were taken at Niigata City's most prominent shrine, Hakusan, on January 1st of this year. The Japanese regard the New Year as an opportunity to begin anew, to rededicate themselves to pursuits professional, educational, or commercial, and to invoke the gods' blessing on these, as well as on their friends and family. The passing of the old year and commencement of the new calls for a fresh slate on which to record the coming year's achievements. The Japanese bid farewell to the past year at end-of-the-year parties known as bo-nen kai, or the "forget-the-year gatherings." On New Year's Day, Japanese visit their shrine of choice to pray for health and good fortune, as well as to consign to the flames such objects as ema, shimekazari, wajime, daruma, and other mementoes of the preceding year. Now the ema is a small wooden plaque, approximately rectangular in shape and 3x5" in dimension. Ema can be purchased from most larger shrines, and bear on their upper surface the supplicant's handwritten prayer. The ema is then hung on a lattice frame or attached to a board near the entrance to the shrine's main hall. The shimekazari is the decorative form of the shimenawa and is hung above house doors at New Year's and, more commonly, the small family shrine, the shinzen or butsudan, kept in Japanese homes for the purpose of honoring one's ancestors. The wajime is a decorative straw wreath hung on the front doors of houses and some businesses, as well as the occasional automobile grille. The daruma is a pear-shaped red doll with one eye-socket blank, the other almost completely filled by its black pupil. Daruma are purchased by individuals or organizations at the start of an arduous campaign, whether political, athletic, or business-related. Should the endeavor prove successful, the doll's other eye is painted in out of gratitude. All of the above are placed on the pyre and replacements purchased. Not only is the fire a welcome source of warmth on a cold New Year's Day, but it is ideal for roasting surume-ika, or dried, salted cuttlefish, on the end of a ten-foot bamboo pole. Just why this delicacy is consumed at New Year's is a mystery to me, but certain it is that the local yakuza who operate the food stalls at this and other festivals profit handsomely from the sale of each 1000 yen ($8) "squid-on-a-stick." Another seasonal treat is roasted chestnuts, or kuri. According to no less an authority than Lafcadio Hearn, kachi-guri (as they are also known) are popular because the kachi of the name is homophonic with another kachi, that meaning "victory." What with monetary and other donations, as well as receipts from the sale of charms and related accessories, shrines such as Hakusan post a healthy profit at the end of the busy New Year's celebration.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Exam Madness

As regular as the movements of the fixed stars in their orbits is the annual recurrence of the two- month period known in Japan as Exam Hell. No one particularly enjoys this cruellest season, other than the bursars of the private educational institutions that profit handsomely from this madness, and the cram schools that strive mightily to squeeze a few additional fistfuls of yen from anxious parents. But it remains, even in the dawn of this enlightened 21st century, a rite of passage, a trial to be endured. Though I have resided in Japan for the better part of a decade, I have only recently been granted a glimpse of the holy of holies, the inner sanctum, the vital organs, as it were, of the Japanese business of entrance-exam-based education. Let us now anatomize a few of the systems that permit this structure to perpetuate its anachronistic existence.
In Niigata City, the two month period of Entrance Exam Madness commences in mid-January. By November or December of their final year, junior high school seniors should have chosen the high school, public or private, that they hope to attend. For unlike their previous experience of school enrollment, which was mandatory and determined by moderately flexible attendance zones, enrollment at high school is optional, as well as highly competitive. That is, one could attend a prestigious public elementary or middle school simply on the basis of his address. But with the stakes now much, much higher, it behooves ambitious students (as well as their parents) in their final year of junior high to perform a sort of dervish dance of cram school cramming, interspersed with occasional visits (and monetary donations) to shrines promising entrance exam success, further seasoned, when affordable, with expensive (but, Guaranteed to produce results!) visits by the home tutor, or 家庭教師.
For a fortunate few, the suisen, or recommendation, system permits middle schoolers of pronounced athletic, academic, or artistic ability to pass "Go", as it were, with, for the truly exceptional, the added opportunity to collect $200 as well. For those mere mortals who know their own minds, at least, there is the sengan process, whereby the student places all of his eggs in a single high school basket, and proceeds to watch it. Alternatively, students who would prefer to attend a public high school (admission to the best of which is highly selective and competitive), but who are perhaps less than sanguine about their chances, are well-advised to sit the heigan, or general- admission, exam at a private high school. Having passed the general- admission exam, the student can concentrate his attention on the public- school counterpart, at the same time experiencing a drop in pressure (and motivation?) from knowing that a stand-by is available should he bomb the upcoming test. The entrance exam for public high schools is held the day after the junior high school graduation ceremony. Students sit the exam at the high school they hope to attend, and results are announced within a day or two. Those students who fail but have a private- school option experience only disappointment. Students who have no such option experience some considerable anxiety as well, for their choices are limited to those schools, public as well as private, that have openings remaining. Such students must take the "second-chance" exam, held a few days after the public-school results are anounced.
That such a complex and drawn-out system invites manipulation by private schools should come as no surprise, though the reader may well be shocked by the degree to which this occurs, as illustrated by the following.
Meikun is the prefecture's most popular, as well as prestigious, private high school. Indeed, so many are the applicants each year that the school nearly fills its available slots through the aforementioned sengan system. Nonetheless, a few positions invariably remain unfilled, and those students who are not admitted to the more elite public high schools vie for the few available openings offered through Meikun's "second-chance" exam.
To the directors of Dai-Ichi High School, whose name (Number 1) is belied by its second-class status, this presents an irresistible opportunity, for some of the students hoping for late admission to Meikun would have taken (and passed) Dai-Ichi's general admission exam, just in case their other options should come to naught. By noon of the day of Meikun's "second-chance" exam, and therfore well before the results of the test are known, Dai-Ichi requires non-refundable payment of its admission fees, totalling some $1,500. Those students who are admitted to Meikun through the back door, as it were, and who had already been accepted by Dai-Ichi, can therefore say "sayonara" to their (parents') 200,000 yen.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Japanese New Year

The topmost photo shows a typical New Year's decoration hanging before the street door of a private residence. The straw rope is a shimekazari, the decorative form of the emblematic shimenawa. The latter is the thick rope which hangs from the torii, or gate, at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. The shimenawa is by some believed to represent the rope, strung by the gods across the entrance to the sun-goddess Amaterasu's cave, employed to prevent her return thereto, after she had been enticed to leave her lair. Alternatively, still others aver that the shimenawa represents the rope with which the gods, having abandoned diplomacy, hauled Amaterasu from her cave by main force. In any case, the straw tufts depending from both the shimekazari and shimenawa are the "roots" that, in the legend, still clung to the leaves and stems forming the straw rope. The white paper pendents, or gohei, are said to recall the ancient custom of making offerings of cloth to the gods. The remaining photos show the traditional New Year's decoration known as the kadomatsu. The kadomatsu, or" gate-pine", is placed outside public buildings and some commercial establishments. The components of the "gate-pine" are not merely decorative but symbolic as well. The lengths of bamboo forming the kadomatsu are cut to show their joints, or nodes. These are called setsu in Japanese. But homophonic to this is another setsu, meaning "fidelity, constancy". Thus, the bamboo serves to satisfy the Japanese love of word play, as well as to symbolize a highly prized virtue. The "pine" of the kadomatsu is likewise representative. Pines are symbols of strength and tenacity, for when other sylvan species lose their foliage, evergreens such as the pine retain theirs. The glossy green leaves, of which the larger kadomatsu contains an abundance, are yuzuri-no-ha, or leaves of the yuzuri. These are emblematic of the continuation of the family line from father to son in perpetuity, inasmuch as the dying leaves of the yuzuri do not fall off before their replacements have reached maturity. The straw wreath sometimes affixed to the kadomatsu is the wajime. As well as adding to the decoration of the kadomatsu, wajime may be found on automobile grilles and the doors of small businesses and residential properties. Not pictured is the variety of bitter orange named daidai. This edible decoration, seving to garnish trays of the traditional New Year's cuisine known as osechi, provides yet another example of the Japanese penchant for puns. The character 代、pronounced dai and meaning generation (among other things), when repeated becomes "from generation to generation," hence the symbolic significance of the bitter orange, the daidai.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Mt. Haguro: The Summit

Halfway to our destination we pause, panting and perspiring, to explore a small hakaba, or graveyard, a few meters off the path. The sun, which ordinarily hestitates to peer into this twilight region shielded by towering firs and cryptomerias, has found an opening in the canopy and brilliantly illuminates the Buddhist statuary of the hakaba. The most recent of the wooden laths informs us that this plot is sacred to those who have supported the religious authorities with monetary endowments, and who have prayed for generations of Fathers Superior. The general sense of the inscription is, "The shrine undertakes to pray for those whose donations have defrayed the expenses of the shrine and enabled its operations. In the name of the current Head Priest and generations of priests before him..." A few more photos taken, and I steel myself for the final ascent.
The last of the 2446 steps trod, behold the imposing shrine on the summit. Haguro enjoys a long history as a sacred mountain, a place of Shinto and Buddhist worship for over 1400 years. The present haiden, or sanctuary building, was constructed in 1816. It is exceedingly rare for such a structure to have a roof of thatch, roofing usually being of copper or tile. There is quite a crowd, both young and old, to pay respect to the mountain deities and snap "I was there!" commemorative photos. But I musn't tarry, for my family awaits me at mountain's base for the bus ride back to Tsuruoka.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Photos of Mt. Haguro

The following photos were taken with a traditional SLR and then scanned. I have not been able to reformat them, wherefore the space at the margins. Nonetheless, they clearly show Haguro's Five-Story Pagoda, oldest in the Tohoku area; the massive, 1000-year-old cryptomeria, designated a National Treasure; and, the cryptomeria lined, stone-paved approach to the shrine at mountain's top.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Basho in Yamagata

Basho's pilgrimage through Yamagata took him to the three mountains of the Dewa Sanzan range:Yuudono, Gassan, and Haguro. Haguro, whose name means "Black Feather", is famed for its avenue of lofty cryptomerias. Most, at 300 hundred years of age, have only just reached maturity, at least so think their 500- year-old elders, of whom a number line the shrine's approach. But the great-granddaddy of them all, a mighty Methuselah just into his second millennium, deigns not to acknowledge these mere saplings. For has he not been declared a National Treasure, by order of the very Emperor himself? Mention of these has not exhausted Haguro of its store of treasures and oddities. The shrine atop Haguro is approached along an avenue of Japanese cedars, which form a kind of barrel vault overhead. The path itself is paved, from base to summit, with low, shallow steps of stone. Just where they were quarried, or how transported to their present location, is a mystery, to me at least, but that it was a massive undertaking there can be no doubt, for there are 2446 of them, all told!