Shirakami Sanchi – Aomori, Akita

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Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, this expansive wilderness is one of the last remaining untouched beech forest in Japan. Shirakami Sanchi, stretching from Aomori to Akita Prefecture, boasts myriad hiking trails leading to breathtaking, panoramic views, along with waterfalls. Escape the heat from the city during the spring and summer seasons when the area turns green.

Access: 55-min by bus from JR Hirosaki Station
URL: http://www.en-aomori.com/scenery-014.html

Oga Peninsula – Akita

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The rugged peninsula, projecting west into the Sea of Japan, is home to the Namahage ogres (demon-like characters) in traditional Japanese folklore. Some of the breathtaking vistas include extensive cliff coastlines, the “Godzilla Rock” and a shrine with a flight of 999 steps, said to be built by the ogres themselves.

Access: The trip from JR Oga Station around the peninsula takes about two hours (excluding sightseeing time).
URL: https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/regional/akita/ogahantou.html

Tono – Iwate

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Tono – Iwate

Tono is the place to go and see how people live in beautiful harmony with nature, as Japan’s traditional landscape is perfectly preserved here. With old Japanese farmhouses and unchanged rural landscapes, you can discover ancient traditions and folklore in this countryside village beloved by all Japanese.

Tano-village

Places of Interest

Tono tourism association office
Hours: 8am – 7pm
Adress: 5-8 Shinkoku-cho, Tono-shi, Iwate
Access: Right outside JR Tono Station (Kamaishi Line)
URL: http://www.tonojikan.jp/Several_languages/english/english.html

Sasagawa Nagare – Niigata

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Breathtaking coastline with a beautiful contrast between the clear blue sea and white sand. The strange name “Sasagawa Nagare” roughly translates to “Sasagawa Flow” and is meant to express the waves brushing the coastline and flowing back between the complex rock formations like a mountain stream. You can gaze upon the rocks towering above the coastline from a leisure cruise.

Access: Area around Kuwagawa Station (Uetsu Main Line)
URL: http://www.sasagawanagare.co.jp/ (Japanese only)

Zao – Yamagata, Miyagi

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Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, this expansive wilderness is one of the last remaining untouched beech forest in Japan. Shirakami Sanchi, stretching from Aomori to Akita Prefecture, _boasts myriad hiking trails leading to breathtaking, panoramic views, along with waterfalls. Escape the heat from the city during the spring and summer seasons when the area turns green.

Access: 55-min by bus from JR Hirosaki Station.

Nebuta Matsuri

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Nebuta Matsuri Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture
Aug. 2 – 7
Highlight: fireworks festival on the final day

Aomori city comes alive every summer to celebrate the Nebuta festival. Historically the festival functioned as a means of keeping harvesters awake as they worked in the fields gathering rice and other produce. As dusk approaches the parade begins and many floats feature illuminated lanterns with various designs and shapes.

Hanagasa Matsuri

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Hanagasa Matsuri Yamagata City, Yamagata prefecture
Aug. 5 – 7
Highlight: different types of dances using straw flower hats

The iconic nature of the parade is the use of traditional agricultural workers hats decorated with red paper flowers that represent the beautiful safflower. The parade features all ages, with many young children dressed in traditional yukata. At the end of the festival, everyone is invited to celebrate and join in the last float, dancing the traditional hanagasa dance.

Waraji Matsuri

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Waraji Matsuri Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture
Aug. 3 – 6
Named after the traditional straw sandals for traveling, the 300-year-old festival features a huge waraji that measures 12 meters in length and weighs 2 tons. The gigantic waraji is carried in a parade by people who pray for strong walking and safe traveling before housed in a shrine.

Tanabata Matsuri

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Tanabata Matsuri Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture
Aug. 6 – 8
Highlight: beautiful streamers in the shopping arcades
and fireworks on Aug. 5

The main arcades all through Sendai city are adorned with beautifully hung, crafted spheres made of washi-paper and bamboo, with long streamers hanging down like celestial jelly fish. One can spend hours happily strolling through!

Kanto Matsuri

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Kanto Matsuri Akita City, Akita Prefecture
Aug. 3 – 6
Highlight: see participants balance 50kg lantern poles

A chorus of bamboo flutes signals the start of the festival and immediately various groups of men hoist the 12-meter bamboo poles hanging paper lanterns into the air. The Kanto festival can best be described as a performance of local groups showcasing their amazing dexterity and remarkable balancing prowess.

Forget ramen – the noodles here are one-of-a-kind!

Wanko Soba

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These soba noodles are for the competitive eater! Stack up your dishes and see who will become the noodle master. These small servings can quickly add up and a popular goal is to reach one hundred bowls of soba.

JaJa Men

This dish uses flat noodles made from soy and wheat and is considered one of the “Three Great Noodles of Morioka.” One defining feature is its miso paste, which is different in every restaurant. Enjoy it with a variety of vegetables and finish by mixing your remaining miso paste with a special egg soup.

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Negi Soba

If you’re not confident in your chopstick skills, this dish is for you! This peculiar soba is scooped with a long, curved green onion and is a specialty of Ouchi-Juku in Fukushima prefecture. To add some flavor, you can actually eat your utensil with your soba!

Inaniwa Udon

This extraordinary noodle is the only one of its kind. Inaniwa udon is thinner than regular udon, glossier than ramen and is typically handmade. This udon is quite chewy, giving it a pleasant texture. It’s no surprise that it’s considered one of Japan’s “Three Greatest Udon.”

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Reimen

Another one of the “Three Great Noodles of Morioka,” reimen is served chilled with a piece of fruit. Don’t get cold feet! The combination works surprisingly well and the soup is designed to taste best when cold.

Shiroishi Umen

There is a tale from the Edo period about a son looking for a dietary food for his sick father. He met a monk who told him about a way to make noodles without oil. His father recovered quickly and the dish was named after the area, Shiroishi. These noodles have a smooth taste from being kneaded with salt water.

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Sansa Matsuri

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Sansa Matsuri Morioka, Iwate Prefecture
Aug. 1 – 4
The charm of the festival lies in a parade where taiko drummers and dancers proceed through the city. The origin can be traced back to a legend about a wicked demon. In summer evenings, locals would dress up in fancy costumes and dance and play drums to scare the demon away.

Pilgrimage to the 33 Kannon Buddha Temples


Aizu Culture through the eyes of a pilgrim


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Aizuwakamatsu, or Aizu for short, is a historic castle town known as the “land of the last samurai” in the Aizu district of Fukushima Prefecture in Tohoku. The people of Aizu were people of good faith and had a custom of paying respect to all 33 Kannon Buddha temples in the form of a pilgrimage. More than a tough, ascetic ritual, though, this pilgrimage was for entertainment.
In the Edo period, people would journey to the temples for sightseeing; even now, many people make the pilgrimage with friends. The image of Kannon makes its appearance everywhere, from wonderful temples in the city to the stone Buddhas in the mountains. Follow us on our journey as we visit some of them.

Visit the 33 Kannon Buddha Temples around Aizuwakamatu

Kannon, known as Kuan Yin or Goddess of Mercy to the Chinese, was known to have 33 manifestations. Most of the temples are modest, wooden structures, each dedicated to the various manifestation of Kannon. For example the Eryu-ji temple is dedicated to Juichimen Senju Kannon, the eleven-faced, one-thousand armed Kannon. The massive statue, standing at 8.5 meters high, was carved out of one single tree by Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, in 808. It is designated as a National Treasure of Japan.

The temple itself was built in 1190. The statue is guarded by 28 Busyu divine generals and the gods of Wind and Thunder. The temple is believed to help visitors to overcome their negative attitude in life.
Another unique temple on the trail is Sazaedo Temple on Iimoriyama Hill, built in 1796 with an extraordinary, 16.5 meters high, three-storey hexagonal structure with a sloping double-helix ramp. Visitors ascend the ramp in a clockwise direction and descend anti-clockwise, thus not retracing any steps in their spiral track. It is an ingenious design.
Sazaedo
Sazaedo

In a forest on a remote mountain in Aizumisato, built in 830 at an altitude of 380 meters high, stands a simple but important rustic wooden temple called Sakudari Kannon Temple that is wedged against a rock face. It is said that Kukai founded this temple and carved its 80 centimeters high principle image, Kubinashi Kannon, which is placed upon an altar in a grotto concealed from public view. Not only is the structure of the temple truly amazing, the view is simply breathtaking.

Sakudari Kannon Temple
Sakudari Kannon Temple
Aizumisato
Aizumisato
Sakudari Kannon Temple
Sakudari Kannon Temple

Road to the Edo Period

The main street of Ouchi-Juku
The main street of Ouchi-Juku
There is a place where you can still enjoy the same experiences as a traveler from long ago: Ouchi-Juku, which lies south of Aizuwakamatsu on an old road called “Aizu Nishikaido.” The village is reminiscent of the old post towns on the ancient trade route in the Edo period; merchants and feudal lords would pass this way to rest and refresh. It is a living museum of old traditional houses with thatched roofs and bustling shops selling food, drinks and souvenirs. Here, you can experience and enjoy how the people of Aizu spent their everyday lives and lived their faith.

Another Japan Heritage

Aizu is a region steeped in samurai culture and natural beauty. One of the many scenic spots here is Lake Inawashiro, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountain ranges. It is a popular place for recreation for the local people, and also serves as the lifeline of the area by providing water for agriculture and hydro-electricity. The building of the canal during the Meiji era lead to the agricultural development of a previously barren land, and is considered a Japanese heritage site.
Lake Inawashiro
Lake Inawashiro
Tsuruga Castle
Tsuruga Castle
Eryuji Temple
Eryuji Temple
Sazaedo
Hours: 8:15am – sundown (April through December), 9am – 4pm (January
through March) Admission: 200 yen (middle and primary school students), 300
yen (university and high school students), 400 yen (adults)
Access: 4-min by
Akabe bus from Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, get off at Imoriyama shita.
Sakudari Kannon Temple
Access: 12-min by car from Amaya Station (Aizu Railway Line)
Ouchi-Juku
Access: 15-min by car from Yunokami Onsen Station (Aizu Railway Line)
Lake Inawashiro
Access: Area around Inawashiro Station (Ban-etsu-West Line)
The interior of a local restaurant in Ouchi-juku
The interior of a local restaurant in Ouchi-juku

Japan Heritage
http://www.bunka.go.jp/seisaku/bunkazai/nihon_isan/pdf/nihon_isan_pamphlet_english.pdf

There are two other Japanese Heritage sites in Tohoku.

In this edition, we briefly mentioned “The waterway that cleared the way to the future” (Fukushima Prefecture), and the “Culture honed by Date Masamune” (Miyagi prefecture) inspired by Sengoku warlords, these will be featured in our next publication of WAttention Tohoku 2017 Autumn & Winter Edition.
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Nature and worship “A journey of rebirth”


In The Realm of the Gods at Dewa Sanzan

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In many cultures, mountains often have religious significance and are regarded as abodes of the gods. Tohoku has three holy mountains, known collectively as Dewa Sanzan, that is regarded as one of the most sacred sites in the country. Its landscape is defined by the stunning natural beauty of mystical mountains, volcanic lakes, hot springs and farmlands. This is where the soul of Japan lies in its traditional and religious culture, and where ancient mountain worship is still very much practiced. Against this background, we embarked on an epic journey to trace the footsteps of pilgrims who are followers of Shugendo.

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The Three Mountain Blessings

Shugendo is an ethnic religion influenced by Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism and spiritual faith. Its main purpose is to strengthen the connection between people and nature, reaching enlightenment in this way. Practitioners preach the teaching that “nature is a manifestation of the gods and we should live alongside it with respect.” Mountains and forests have paramount importance in Shugendo. The Dewa Sanzan mountains of Mt Haguro (419m), Mt Gassan (1984m) and Mt Yudono (1504m) are the centres of pilgrimage in the region. The followers, known as Shugenjas or Yamabushi (mountain monks), have been following the rites of worship for the last 1,400 years. Followers embark on long pilgrimages and practice austere feats of physical endurance of natural elements as an ascetic rite of passage to gain spiritual power. We had the privilege of experiencing the immersive ceremony of Shugendo first hand by visiting the three sacred mountains that represents the present, death and rebirth at Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono respectively.

Praying in the Official Shinto Style at Mt. Haguro
We arrived at Mt. Haguro as dusk was setting in and, after a short visit to Ideha Museum nearby to get an insight of Shugendo and Dewa Sanzan, we entered the sacred site through the torii, a wooden gateway that is found in all sacred sites in Japan. A long flight of stone steps, known as the Ishi-Dan, led down to an enchanting forest with towering cedar trees along the ancient pilgrim route. The 1.7km trail built in 1648 has 2,446 steps leading to the Sanjin Gosaiden shrine at the summit. There are 33 carvings etched on the steps and it is believed that if you can find all 33, your wishes will come true. As we were pressed for time, we could only follow the sacred path as far as the 600-year-old Goju-no-to, the five-storied pagoda, a recorded national treasure. In the gloom of the forest, the ornate pagoda exuded an air of mysticism that lent to the belief that a deity of the forest lives in it.
The Ishi-Dan, Mt. Haguro
The Ishi-Dan, Mt. Haguro

When we arrived at Sanjin Gosaiden, the main shrine at the summit, we were met by a Yamabushi dressed in his traditional religious garb. He sounded a horagai, a religious conch trumpet, as a welcome and to ward off bad spirits. We were led to the inner sanctum of the shrine. There, a monk dressed in a splendid ceremonial robe with motifs of cranes performed a special ceremony accompanied by a beating taiko drum, followed by space clearing of malevolent energy around us by wafting a pole with white paper strips attached to the end and ringing bells to cleanse the air. He then chanted some mantras in a trance-like voice, which reverberated around the room, sending powerful vibrations into the ambience. We felt blessed and awed as we bowed twice, clapped our hands twice and bowed once again, completing the ritual where we were “spiritually born.”

Sanjin Gosaiden, Mt. Haguro
Sanjin Gosaiden, Mt. Haguro
Shukubo, Mt. Haguro
Shukubo, Mt. Haguro
We stayed the night at a shukubo, a traditional temple lodge owned by a Yamabushi and his wife, who welcomed us graciously by kneeling Japanese style where they sat on the floor with their legs folded behind them. The delightful lodge was immaculately clean and the minimalist décor was the personified tranquility that we badly needed after a long journey. I would highly recommend staying in a shukubo to attain a Zen state of mind. Early next morning, our landlord performed a Shinto ritual prayer to bless us and wished us a safe journey to Mt Gassan and Mt. Yudono.

Stepping to Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono

We headed to Mt. Gassan in howling wind and rain to visit a shrine. The pilgrimage trail was officially closed for the season, but we braved the elements by treading precariously on the path of a slippery, wooden walkway laid across a marshland of dwarf bamboo and grassland.
After twenty minutes’ walk, we reached a small shrine presided by a giant stone rabbit, the guardian of the mountain.

Mt. Yudono
Mt. Yudono
This mountain symbolized the path to death and it was apt that the short journey we took in the inclement weather seemed to convey that message. In the summer, pilgrims could hike to the summit, where the main shrine lies; from there, they could also hike to Mt. Yudono, the last mountain on the holy trail.
Our visit to Mt. Yudono was an epic experience where we were sworn to secrecy by the priest about the ceremony of “rebirth” that we underwent to symbolize being spiritually reborn to start a new journey in life. It is a taboo to divulge the secret of the ritual, but suffice to say that the experience is something I will always remember.

Dewa Sanzan is a pilgrimage, but mere mortals with spiritual interest will find the journey enlightening and soul stirring. Reflecting on my own awesome experience of the religious encounter, I now appreciate why mountains belong to the realms of the gods.

Hagurosan

Access: 40-min by bus from JR Tsuruoka Station, get off at Zuishinmon.
55-min by bus to the summit.
URL:http://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/47/

Gassan

Hours: Closed late September until June
Access: 1h30-min by Shonan-
Kotsu bus from JR Tsuruoka Station to Gassan Hachigome.
URL:ttp://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/48/

Yudonosan

Hours: Closed late September until June Admission: 500 yen
Access: 1h30-min by Shonan-Kotsu bus from JR Tsuruoka Station to
Yudonosan.
URL:http://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/49/

5 Japanese Summer Survival items

The Japanese summer is very hot and humid, but don’t lose hope! Here are five items to ensure your victory over the heat.

 

1) Japanese sunscreen

Japanese are very keen on keeping their skin light, so their sunscreen is made to answer their needs. When you buy sunscreen in Japan you may notice that it has a more gel-like consistency than the sunscreen you’re used to. This is because they are made to be as light and effective as possible so you can apply layers again and again during the day without it being noticeable. On top of that, many of the regular sunscreens can also be used on the sensitive skin on your face. So lather on that sunscreen and protect your skin!

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Many sunscreens might have descriptions like “water gel” and “water”, but that doesn’t mean they are water-resistant. The water aspect only refers to the consistency of the product.

 

2) Air conditioning

Almost every home is equipped with one and you will soon notice this magical device is a lifesaver. Providing heat in the winter and a cool breeze in the summer, the air conditioners in Japan can’t get enough love and praise. You can decide the strength and direction of the breeze so you can relax in comfort. If you don’t have an air conditioner at home then you can make it a sport to hope from store to store until you make it home to your air conditioner-less environment and you can always buy an electric fan that will do the job just fine.

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3) Strange ice cream

Japan has its fair share of strange ice cream and it’s both surprising and refreshing at the same time. The land of the rising sun has many unusual flavors such as wasabi, napolitan pasta, fish and many more. Other very Japanese ways to cool down while indulging in sweets are with kakigori (shaved ice) or a slice of watermelon.

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4) Deodorizing sheets

All the heat and humidity will make you sweat, so luckily you have these deodorizing sheets. These amazing sheets look and feel like wet wipes but take care of your sweat, prevent you from sweating more and leave a nice scent. How amazing is that! You can buy these in different scents and brands at the convenience store or drugstore. Be sure to try these when you come to Japan.

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5) Mosquito repellent

Every summer Japan gets visited by an insane amount of mosquitoes. If you plan a day out hiking or anywhere where it’s green, be sure to carry some repellent. You can buy these in a pharmacy, drug store or convenience store. Besides the type to spray on your body, there are other products to keep mosquitoes away from your living space. Try a “mosquito pad” or a “mosquito coil”. To make things extra cute, you can put your mosquito coil inside the traditional “ceramic mosquito coil pig”. When lit, the smoke will escape from its nose.

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Ninja ID: KansaiKitsune


WATTENTION NINJA WRITER PROFILE

Ilse Montald
From popular culture to traditional culture, I’ve immersed myself in both. I love writing about tradition, history and sharing fun discoveries. If I’m not outside watching a festival parade I’m leisurely reading manga in kimono.

MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Summer and Ghost Stories

All over the world people tell ghost stories. Some are famous worldwide and others are only famous within the country. But why do Japanese people love telling ghost stories during summer? Some have speculated that it is because ghost stories “send shivers down your spine” and make you cool down. However, the real reason is very different.

Ghost season peaks during the summer because Japanese celebrate the “Obon Festival” in the month of August or July (depending on the region). During Obon the Japanese believe that their ancestral spirits return to visit their descendants. The spirits are not here to cause mischief but to celebrate with their family. With so many ghosts visiting from the afterlife there can be no better time to tell some good ghost stories.

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What’s so special about Japanese ghosts?

There is a big difference between Western ghosts and Japanese ghosts. For starters, Japanese people believe that not all ghosts are evil and some can even bring good luck. This is because the Japanese word for ghost, “yuurei (幽霊)” , can also be translated into “specter”, giving it a more neutral meaning. During the 10th century, seeing a yuurei was even considered to be a good omen.

Because of these beliefs, anyone who died could become a yuurei and wander around bringing good luck to people. This changed when Buddhism became more prevalent in Japan and now yuurei could also become malevolent beings. According to Buddhist beliefs, when a person dies he or she has to wait for a proper funeral to be guided into the afterlife. If a person dies peacefully their yuurei becomes a protector for the house, but if they die a sudden and unnatural death the yuurei becomes evil.

 

The Golden Age of ghost stories

403046During the Edo period (1603-1868), ghost stories flourished due to it being an age of creativity and relative peace. These old Japanese folktales were called “kaidan (怪談).” Nowadays people simply use the word “kowai hanashi(怖い話)” or “scary stories.”

The old kaidan almost always contain the following elements; the concept of Karma, vengeance for misdeeds and ghosts of women and servants. Vengeful spirits were much stronger than regular spirits and humans. This gave birth to the many youkai (妖怪), “demon”, stories. These stories served a didactic purpose and gave birth to the image of the “Japanese Ghost” as we know it today; black hair, white funeral clothes and floating bodies.

 

Popular ghosts

Rokurokubi (ろくろっく首). You will most likely encounter this ghost in a traditional Japanese haunted house. They can appear as regular humans, almost always as women, but can stretch their necks to abnormal lengths. At night, the head extends or leaves the body to scare animals, humans and feed on their blood. This creature can also appear as a “youkai”, Japanese creature of folklore, but because it is a vengeful spirit it is mostly seen as a yuurei. 

The Black Hair (黒髪). This is one of the most popular stories in the kaidan.  It tells the story of a samurai who abandons his wife to go on a quest for his master and takes another lover with him. When he returns home after years of absence he goes home to embrace his wife and promises to never leave her again and that he made a mistake. When he wakes up the next morning he discovers his wife had died years ago from sorrow.

Teke-Teke. This is an urban legend, but still considered a ghost. One day a girl fell from the train platform and was cut in half. Now her upper body roams the night.

Sadako (貞子). When talking about popular Japanese ghosts Sadako can’t be left out. The famous ghost from the Ring franchise is based on an old Japanese ghost story about a girl who died in a well. She was pushed down by the suitor she turned down many times.

Kayako (伽椰子). Another popular vengeful spirit from a movie franchise. Kayako first made her appearance in the movie Ju-On and has continued to stay alive in popular culture.

 

Exorcising evil spirits

208702With so many ghosts around, there must be some sort of professional to help the people in need. If you ever encounter a Japanese ghost remember that your holy water, crucifix or spellbooks are useless. Yuurei are vulnerable to a different type of object and that is…paper!  These strips of paper are inscribed with Buddhist sutras and called ofuda (御札). If this doesn’t work you can go to a Shinto shrine where they will perform a purification ritual.

 

Ghost Hunting

Ghost Hunting is also best done during the summer when Obon comes around. But if you want to be 100% sure you will encounter a ghost you can visit a haunted house or take a “trial of courage”. In both cases it won’t be real ghosts but dressed up actors. But be honest, it’s a better way to cool down with those chills down your spine than to be haunted by a vengeful yuurei.

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Ninja ID: KansaiKitsune


WATTENTION NINJA WRITER PROFILE

Ilse Montald
From popular culture to traditional culture, I’ve immersed myself in both. I love writing about tradition, history and sharing fun discoveries. If I’m not outside watching a festival parade I’m leisurely reading manga in kimono.

MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA