Posts Tagged With: Mie Prefecture

Ritual transfer of deity at Ise Grand Shrine

Ise grand shrine
Many Japanese were visiting the Ise Grand Shrine in central Japan on Wednesday, ahead of an important ritual that is closed to the public.

The event dates back 1300 years and involves the rebuilding of the shrine. All of the sacred wooden buildings at the site in Mie Prefecture are dismantled and built anew every 20 years.The event reaches a climax on Wednesday evening with the ritual transfer of the shrine’s deity to its new sanctuary. Worshippers prayed at the old sanctuary for the last time.

Shrine officials are preparing a special passage-way for the deity, lit with paper lanterns.

A group of 150 priests will make the transfer to the new building.

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Weekendtrip: On the trail of ninja in Iga’s shadowy past

A stage shows of ninjutsu fighting skills at Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum.

A stage shows of ninjutsu fighting skills at Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum.

The bright-pink ninja-emblazoned train isn’t exactly the epitome of stealth as it cuts through the forested hills and rice paddies of Mie Prefecture. Neither are visitors’ pint-size offspring who race excitedly up the paths of Ueno Park in the city of Iga shrieking their excitement at the prospect of getting up close and personal with fun and fear in the shape of Japan’s famed spies and assassins of history and legend.

What awaits us all at the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum may not be quite the real deal, but the town is determined to hang on to its storied — if rather shadowy — past.

Long before the word “ninja” was hijacked for a bunch of masked mutant turtles, these masters of secrecy and disguise were an actual part of Japanese feudal society. Yet the art of ninjutsu (the Way of Stealth) is not indigenous to Japan. The ancient discipline is rooted in spiritual principles from the Indian subcontinent, and tempered by a healthy dose of mysticism and Buddhist asceticism brought to these shores by Chinese warrior monks.

The form of ninjutsu we inhabitants of the modern world would recognize, both a belief system and a range of combat techniques, evolved to its current form sometime in the Heian Period (794-1185) that also witnessed the flowering of aristocratic niceties so well conveyed in its best-known tome, “The Tale of Genji.”

Ninja rose to prominence in the 12th century as the nation’s samurai class steadily gained power. A ninja’s willingness to use poisons, sneak attacks and other guerrilla tactics that generally ran counter to the samurai’s chivalrous, honor-driven code of bushidō (the Way of the Warrior) made them extremely popular as hired “special forces” operatives of their day.

They became particularly active during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period of continuous tumult and conflict spanning some 150 years from the middle of the 15th century, when feudal daimyo lords would tap ninja to spy on their enemies and carry out nighttime raids.

Ninja back then were also known users of gunpowder, which they had managed to manufacture without the usual necessary ingredients from abroad. Their knowledge of this military game-changer was a closely guarded secret and most ninja homes were replete with nooks and crannies wherein both the black powder itself and any information regarding its creation and use could be safely stored and protected.

In fact, the front half of the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum is a perfect example of a “ninja house” — a dwelling that looks typical from the outside but hides a host of secrets within.

Though the house comprises a mere three tatami-floored rooms looking out over carefully raked dry gardens with pleasing selections of greenery, as our guide Yuki showcases hidden passages and disappears behind doors in the blink of an eye, I soon discover it’s not your typical dwelling.

For instance, as we train our gaze on a seemingly impenetrable wall, Yuki illuminates a costumed ninja figure hiding in a crawl space between floor levels. Then, in the corner of a bare alcove, she flips a latch to reveal a passageway that leads out from beneath the family altar and emerges in a well.

Meanwhile, at the back of the house, lifting the bases of sliding shoji-screen doors exposes sandpits for hiding scrolls and other valuables. Nearby, when an ordinary-looking floorboard is levered up, a cache of swords and shuriken(throwing stars) sparkle below. In a clever touch, even the English explanatory scrolls here are concealed; after each demonstration, Yuki tugs on a string and the panel on which they’re displayed disappears into a wall.

The guided part of the tour is brief, but a stone staircase leads underneath the house to a continuation of the exhibit. It’s here that most of my preconceptions about ninja are shattered. For one, it seems that black was not the preferred color for their shinobe shōzoku (typical outfits), since it apparently struck too clear an outline in shadowy places. Rather, the ninjas of Iga dressed in navy-blue garb that was dyed for them by local farmers.

However, ninja would often adopt disguises — typically as one of seven general identities, ranging from farmers or itinerant priests to acrobats. Though it was easiest to hide weapons in the folds of a priest’s robe or a farmer’s attire, it seems they often strapped their shuriken to their shins, where they were both easy to grab and could deflect blows to a vulnerable part of the body.

A fun ‘kodak moment’ in the museum is standing in a pair of mizugumo — huge circular wooden “feet” that ninjas would don to walk across swampy moats or brackish bodies of water.

When a bell rings, it signals that showtime at the museum is about to start.

Like many productions staged for tourists, there’s some cheesy music and “humorous” antics — but the ninjutsu skills demonstrated by the performers are impressive nonetheless.

One of the female warriors takes down her opponent with a tricky rope maneuver while her male colleague demonstrates deadly accuracy with his shuriken, burying first one, then two, and finally three of the metal disks at a time in a thick wooden plank. After the show, costume-clad youngsters line up to try their hand at the throwing stars.

Ninja were known to avoid strongly flavored foods for fear of discovery by keen-nosed enemies. Just outside the museum are some  rustic-looking restaurants. The menu is a standard selection of noodles — both soba and udon — especially the udon with shreds of Iga beef, which locals claim is just as delicious as the famed cuts from nearby Kobe is delicious. A simple dish of  beef on a ¥900 bowl of noodles is rather succulent just beware not to gobble it up before you’ve even touched the doughy noodles beneath.

After lunch, you should climb up the cobbled path near the Ninja Museum for a close-up view of Iga Ueno Castle, a gleaming white beacon visible for miles across the surrounding plain. Like so many of Japan’s feudal castles, this is a replica of the original wooden structure destroyed in a typhoon in 1612. Unlike its brethren, though, this edifice — standing since 1935 — survived the bombings of World War II.

Just skip the inside of the castle because, to my mind, they’re usually fairly dull — and besides, the original, vertigo-inspiring 30-meter walls that surround it and are the highest of any fortification in Japan, which are much more interesting. There are no real safeguards in place other than a thigh-level stone wall, so simply sneak a peak at the dizzying drop. These walls are famous — Akira Kurosawa featured them in his 1980 movie “Kagemusha” (“Shadow Warrior”). Try to imagine a troop of ninja scaling the edifice with sure feet and a few hooks. It’s an easy mental picture to paint.

Back on the far side of the park, pop into the Basho Memorial Museum. Japan’s most famous haiku master, Matsuo Basho (1644-94), was born just a short walk from Ueno Park and many of his travel journals are on permanent display here. The exhibit is small and untranslated so it is only for real haiku enthousiasts.

Back in the train station  notice the handful of ninja scattered among the platform’s rafters. Look out for their Crayola-colored costumes, Like the real shadow warriors of Iga before them, they’re just masters of that great ninja art of hiding in plain sight, but once you spot them, fun to photograph as a nice memento.

Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum (open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults ¥700) and Iga Ueno castle are both in Ueno Park, a short walk from Ueno-shi Station in Iga, Mie Prefecture. From Nagoya, take a Kintetsu Limited Express, switching at Iga-Kambe to the Iga Line (¥3,150 and two hours each way).

Where to stay
If you are planning of staying the night in Iga, here are some hotels you can stay at. Alternatively you can stay in Nagoya and go from there to Iga to see the museum. Click here, for hotels in the area.

Access from Tokyo
It is a five hour drive by car from Tokyo, so I recommend you spend the night in either Nagoya or Iga itself and make at least a weekend trip out of it. Here is a map with more detailed information:

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Must see: Where Shinto and Buddhism cross

This is how Tsunekiyo Tanaka, president of Jinja Honcho (Association of Shinto Shrines) began a lecture — with a little humor. Established after World War II, Jinja Honcho was created to supervise Shinto shrines throughout in Japan, and Tanaka was speaking at a recent special public event hosted by “The Grand Exhibition of Sacred Treasures from Shinto Shrines” at the Tokyo National Museum.

The exhibition celebrates the 62nd “grand relocation” of the Ise Grand Shrine and is being held with special assistance from Jinja Honcho and with the cooperation of numerous individual shrines throughout Japan.

Although Shinto, the way of kami (gods), is believed to be an indigenous faith of Japan, few Japanese are devoted Shintoists. Instead, many visit Buddhist temples as well as pray for luck and happiness at Shinto shrines. It is believed that before Buddhism was introduced in Japan, however, Shinto was born from an existing primitive form of religion that worshipped nature.

The ancient people of Japan honored sacred spirits that they recognized in nature, manifesting in mountains, rocks, rivers and trees. As communities grew, they began erecting shrines where they could worship these deities, and the shrines became centers of regional life and culture.

The arrival of Buddhism, however, brought with it stylistic carved figural icons, an art form that influenced Shinto imagery, and as Shinto-Buddhist syncretism progressed, many Shinto shrines and their deities were combined with Buddhist temples and figures. Even Japanese who still follow Shinto find it difficult to grasp what it really means, although many Japanese customs, such as an emphasis on purification and aesthetics in harmony with nature, appear to be derived from Shinto.

Tanaka, a Shinto priest of Iwashimizu Hachimangu, Kyoto, explained it as simply as he can: “In comparison to Western religions, such as Christianity, for which people believe in an absolute God, followers of Shinto sense kehai(presence of spirits) in the nature.

“Shinto never had holy scriptures like the bible to follow, nor does it have a doctrine. It’s more of a way of living, or the wisdom of how to live in harmony with the nature, while being grateful and respectful of all the spirits of life,” he continued. “Shinto has permeated everyday life in such a way that most people are not particularly conscious of its influence.”

Omusubi (rice balls), for example, originally symbolized the tying of the “souls” of ine (rice plants), which themselves are believed to be inherited from kami.

“You take firm hold of the rice, the souls, and mold them with both hands, which have been purified with a little salt and water,” Tanaka said. Mothers’ hands are ideal to make omusubi, as the mother represents life, love and care. Now, though, people often buy omusubi at convenience stores.”

As Tanaka explained in his talk, it is rare to have the relocation of two major shrines, Ise and Izumo, in the same year — and so he hopes these events will help “revive the relationship between people and kami by evoking the awareness of its tradition and rich cultural background”

Ise Grand shrine in Mie Prefecture, the most venerated of shrines in Japan, is dedicated to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, who, according to myth, is the original ancestor of the imperial family. The first relocation ceremony of Ise was in 690 AD, and since then the ritual is repeated every 20 years. It involves the temporary relocation of the shrine’s kami during the renovation of the grounds’ buildings. The procedure not only ensures the preservation the original design of the shrine, but it also gives craftsmen the opportunity to showcase and pass down their skills to the next generation.

“It is believed that the kami are also rejuvenated through the renewal of buildings and furnishings,” said Hiroshi Ikeda, special research chair of the Tokyo National Museum. “And that implies the idea of everlasting youth, known as tokowaka.”

Numerous sacred treasures — including 160 designated National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties — from various shrines have been brought together for this commemoration of Ise’s grand relocation. Unprecedented in scale and scope, the exhibition showcases Shinto artworks that vary from symbolic objects such as a bronze mirror and Japanese magatama beads, to more practical items including arms and armor, beautifully embroidered garments, furniture, a writing box and an accessory box complete with a toiletries set of combs decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay and maki-elacquer.

“The sacred treasure items are often oversized or undersized, emphasizing that they were not for human use,” Ikeda explained. “They emulated the styles once popular in the residences of imperial and aristocratic families, and so such objects came to represent court society life and aesthetics, from which Japanese style, known as wayo developed.”

Ikeda went on to explain that shinzo, (Shinto kami statues), were also made in the style of Japan’s aristocrats. Kami, which were originally understood to be invisible and intangible deities, first began to be represented in figural form in the 8th century, because of the influence of popular Buddhist statues.

“The earliest surviving examples of Shinto statues date from the 9th century,” Ikeda said. “And as there were no iconographic rules for Shinto kami statues, as there are for Buddhist ones, they were represented more freely, modeling court style.

Other sections of the exhibition focus on discoveries at ceremonial sites that indicate the beginnings of a ritual celebration of kami, and on objects — including costumes, instruments and masks — used at ceremonial performances at festivals. Such rituals involved asking kami and ancestral spirits for divine protection, and praying or giving thanks for peace and a bountiful harvest.

At festivals, specially prepared foods were presented as offerings, to be enjoyed alongside a variety of ceremonial performances, including music, dance and Noh plays. All of this harks back to the original purpose of food and performing arts in Shinto — the idea that those involved in the preparation of food and musical or Noh activities would devote themselves to the skills of their art form to please kami, with the belief that kami also reside in the highest achievement of art.

In the words of Tanaka: “In Japan, anything in your life can be the ‘way’ of something, or a discipline, which is something I believe was influenced by Shinto. Take for example, the way of the sword, calligraphy, singing, or even cooking noodles — these can be accomplished with the sincere aim of excelling to the highest achievement, the results of which can be only offered to kami.”

“Grand Exhibition of Sacred Treasures from Shinto Shrines” at the Tokyo National Museum runs till June 2; open 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m., Sat, Sun till 6 p.m.) ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.tnm.jp The exhibition next venue will be the Kyushu National Museum from Jan. 15-March 9, 2014.

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