神戸 Summertime Samba

Yet again apologies for my prolonged absence, I’ve been very busy lately and needed a break from my blog due to a bit of writing fatigue. I return this week and will hopefully get through a lot of posts I’ve been meaning to write for ages. The problem with visiting lots of temples is processing which temples were where and what their history is. Soon I will have ‘broken the knot’ so to speak, and will hopefully churn out a load of temple posts!

I want to talk about where I went today on this post. Today I went to Kobe Festival 神戸まつり (Kobe Matsuri), an annual event held in Kobe (near Osaka and Kyoto) on the 17th of May. I have visited Kobe before (see here) but this time it was rather different. All the streets in the centre of town were pedestrian and there was music and food everywhere. I had a fantastic time.

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Kobe festival originated in 1933 as Kobe Port festival, becoming Kobe festival in 1971. It celebrates the products of Kobe and surrounding towns, as well as welcoming other prefectures to share their produce with the people of Kobe. The Japanese, as a people, are pretty much obsessed with food, a trait I greatly admire. I got to try loads of different foods!

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I started with some simple kara-age から揚げ, Japanese-style fried chicken. At 600円 (£3.20) for a bag, it was a little pricey but very tasty and warm. Could have done with a bit more spice. Family Mart chicken is cheaper and just as good if not better, but I really love Family Mart chicken. ★★★✩✩

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My friend got some Paella, which was pretty good. Full of crab, but she had trouble eating it as the crab meat is hard to reach. Sadly it ended up abandoned as it was just not as tasty as everything else. ★★✩✩✩

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Frozen shaved strawberries and some kind of white chocolate sweet sauce. Really tasty especially as it was a really hot day. Large portion for 600円, very much worth it. ★★★★✩

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The star of the day food-wise, was definitely the Kobe beef cup I shared with my friend. I have never had beef so melt-in-your-mouth amazing. It was only 1000円 (£5.30) for a cup, which is amazing considering Kobe beef will usually set you back three times that amount at least. Kobe beef is famous throughout Japan and the world for its delicious texture and juicyness. Cattle were introduced to Japan in the 2nd century, though they were used as working animals rather than food. These Japanese working cattle were bred with European cattle in the 18th century, when beef consumption was on the rise. This gave rise to the Taijima breed of cattle, the Kobe beef cattle. Kobe beef must meet certain quality levels and fat content minimums in order to qualify as Kobe beef. It’s delicious. You may not think that fatty beef is delicious but you should seriously try it. Just wow. ★★★★★

Not pictured are a melon soda float (★★★✩✩) and a beef kebab (★★★★✩). Truly food heaven. We also got given some free plum wine and some lime flavoured liquor, which was really disgusting ★✩✩✩✩. Don’t trust free drinks.

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In addition to food stalls there were several places offering leaflets on other prefectures’ attractions and strangely several shoe shops. The streets were really busy so trying on a shoe didn’t seem the best idea. There were also several great mascots that must have been so boiling hot in those suits. I fulfilled my until then unrealised life goal of getting a picture with a man dressed in a radish costume.

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The festival also involved a lot of bands, baton throwers and samba dancers. I swear half the women of Kobe must be samba dancers, there were so many of them. Perhaps they are conscripted. The reason samba is so popular in Kobe is that Kobe is twinned with Rio de Janeiro. Or maybe they are twinned because samba is so popular, who knows. There were all sorts, from small children reluctant to dance around in the heat, to young women really enjoying it, to young women boiling hot and probably not enjoying it, to older ladies strutting their stuff. It was pretty spectacular.

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I really enjoyed the parades though it is inching towards full-on, hot Japanese summer, so I was rather warm. Not as warm as the dancers though. There were also several smaller dance troupes and a very good jazz band. Queues for crossing the road were very long. I really enjoyed the festival despite the massive crowds and would definitely go to it, or one like it, again.

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Hopefully I’ll get another post up soon! I have work tomorrow evening which may stop me publishing tomorrow, but we shall see. Stay tuned!

日本 Gods in Tiny Houses

Walking around Kyoto, you come across a temple almost every 5 minutes. You would think that this would house all the kami (gods and spirits) and provide ample space for worshippers, but it seems the kami are facing some kind of housing crisis. Glance down an alleyway or turn a corner and you might just stumble upon a tiny shrine.

These shrines, usually known as hokora (祠) are dedicated to various lesser kami that aren’t attached to a nearby shrine. Though the hokora are Shinto in origin, they often bear the Buddhist swastika, marking them as a religious site. Also in Kyoto many of the hokora are dedicated to Kannon, a bodhisattva – Kannon is one of the links between Japanese buddhism and shinto that shows just how mixed the two religions are, the god is both a kami and a bodhisattva. Therefore its probably better to just call them ‘Japanese’ rather than attempting to assign them a specific religion; some even concern local gods or lore rather than gods part of the whole country’s religious discourse.

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The hokora below has an inscription that reads “Commemorating 2600 years of the imperial era. Continued luck in the fortunes of war. Safety and wellbeing for one’s family“. Intrigued, especially by the reference to war, I looked up when 2600 years of the imperial era was – it was 1940, explaining the military inscription. February 11th 1940 was celebrated as 2600 years since Japan’s first Emperor, Emperor Jimmu, ascended the throne according to the Nihon Shoki.

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The very specific date of Feburary 11th for Japan’s founding is based on the old lunasolar calendar – according to the Nihon Shoki the Emperor ascended the throne at new year. This falls around the end of January, but the Meiji government, upon making it a national holiday, designated Feburary 11th to make sure people distinguished it from lunar new year.

The Meiji government made Foundation Day a national holiday in order to further legitimise the Emperor as the one sole ruler of Japan by celebrating the ‘unbroken’ bloodline. I say ‘unbroken’ because historians think that the first Emperor was actually usurped by the second or third Emperor rather than the Nihon Shoki’s assertion that the second Emperor was his son. Not to mention that the Nihon Shoki claims that the first Emperor lived to 126, making it even more historically dubious (it also says he was descended from a god…).

After World War II, Foundation Day was banned due to its connection to the cult of the Emperor and State Shinto. It was re-established in 1966, but without the same nationalistic ceremony or links to the Emperor it had before. It is now a day to reflect on what it means to be a Japanese citizen rather than an overt display of nationalistic pride.

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Hokora come in all shapes and sizes, some have lanterns, some have flowers, some have inscriptions explaining the temple they belong to, whereas others give no clue as to what god or temple they are linked with. The last two are hokora I saw in Kobe; the first in an alleyway to the side of a busy shopping street, and the second at the side of the harbour.

P1030221 - Copy P1030289Though small, these hokora are fun to spot and are always different. They often have fresh flowers, so it must be someone’s job to refresh them regularly. These tiny shrines are one more thread adding to the rich tapestry that is Japanese religion.