Going to Noto?

At first sight a bewilderingly detailed Japanese railway timetable.
New Connection
These days, so much information is available at our finger tips—literally via the World Wide Web.  If we want to go somewhere, all we need to know is accessible through a computer.  Just type in the desired location and almost instantly we are able to navigate information about planes, cars for hire, trains, and buses not to mention a giddying amount of data regarding places to stay and see.  Even guidebooks now give us so much to ponder, we are spoilt for choice.

Two early types of Shinkansen pictured in 
the late 1970s.
Back in 1964 when the first Shinkansen line opened for business between Tokyo and Osaka the situation was quite different.  Using a timetable we could at least pick the train on which we wanted to ride but then we needed to go to a travel agent or a train station booking office to actually buy a ticket.  Mind you, the ticketing system was very sophisticated even back then.  An operator would use the controls of a very complex booking machine with such assurance, resulting in a small collection of tickets, which would be explained in a typically Japanese attentive and conscientious manner.  That at least is no different today.

More recent, speedy and advanced versions of 
the Shinkansen.
The Shinkansen high-speed train network has now spread out over most of Japan and serves many major centres.  Sometimes known as the Bullet Train, there have of course been some developments in the service and speed.  Back in 1964 a trip form Tokyo to Osaka, a matter of roughly 520 km took four hours at a top speed of around 200 km/h.  51 years later, this trip now takes just 2 hours 22 minutes on the fastest train at top speeds of almost 300 km/h.  Nevertheless, today a flight between the two cities is cheaper and quicker but from city centre to city centre the Shinkansen still has the edge, if nothing else because of the comfort and facilities that are offered.  This high-speed network now amounts to almost  3,000 km.  A great percentage of the Shinkansen lines are elevated—level crossings were not an option with trains travelling so fast.  Sometimes the elevated tracks are so high you could be forgiven for believing you were seated in a plane!

A relaxing time on the Shinkansen.
And now we can take a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kanazawa, the city just a little way south-west of the Noto Peninsula.  The new line came into operation on 14th March 2015 and the trip only takes about 2 hrs 30 min.  Google says that the journey by car could take six hours!

So the new Hokuriku Shinkansen is definitely a good option.  The Kagayaki service is the fastest but all seats are reserved (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2018_nagano.html).

Getting from Kanazawa to Wajima, the main city of the peninsula, is best done by train or coach.  The highway coach takes about two hours.

If you fly into Kansai International Airport near Osaka and then spend some time in Kyoto, you can then catch a Super Express to Kanazawa and finally access the peninsula from there.  All being well this is the way I will get to Wajima in June.

Not all rail transport in Japan is high-speed. 
This image from the late 1970s at least shows 
how much people’s dress has changed in Tokyo.
If you are interested in immersing yourself in Japan, why not go to Kyoto and Kanazawa first to see and soak up traditional aspects of the life and culture of these ancient isles.  Then, go on up the Japan Sea coast to the Noto Peninsula which offers much that is unique and rural.  And after that, if you head off to Tokyo you can experience the multitude of stimuli that this megacity has to offer.  A friend of mine once said he wanted to see Tokyo because of the city depicted in Blade Runner, the movie directed by Ridley Scott and staring Harrison Ford.  It’s true.  Tokyo is such a mixture and full of surprises—science fiction becomes reality, heritage become contemporary.

Then you could take the Shinkansen from Tokyo back to Osaka over the original route of the Shinkansen to round off your experience of Japan—a journey through time, an engaging culture and countryside and a trip that will bring you into contact with a people always ready to please.

All images by Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright
Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.


Of Good and Evil

Courtesy of Sojiji Temple
Inukko-Maki—Throw a Small Dog?!
What a ridiculous idea.  Literally translated, however, that is more or less what the Inukko-maki festival name means.  I suppose to be kind maki could be translated as “to broadcast” in the sense of “broadcasting seeds”.  Or even “distribute”.  Nevertheless both are only marginally better than “to throw”.

Children’s masks of a demon, an Otafuku—lady who brings happiness—and a toy dog are all part of Mame-Maki.  Kaori Yamaki Photo © Copyright
Festivals in Japan are often visual spectacles as well as being charming, compelling and sometimes dramatic.  Hardly a day goes by without a festival taking place somewhere at sometime throughout the year.  Some are religious and are full of ritual and ceremony.  Others are based on customs, folklore or much more simply associated with superstitions.  A number of annually celebrated festivals have a universal character and are honoured all over the country, more or less at the same time.  Some are highly involved and yet may not have much regional colour or idiosyncrasies.  New Year celebrations roughly fall into this category, although it is still possible to find some variations.  In some cases a festival becomes personalised simply because of the way the essence of a celebration is scaled down or enacted at a family level.  Mame-maki is one of those.

A hand-painted image of a demon 
on a Japanese kite.
(Maker unknown)
Setsubun, marking the beginning of spring, is celebrated at the beginning of February.  It is one of those festivals which are celebrated at a very public level with news coverage as well as in people’s homes up and down the country—in this case much to the delight of small children.

When my son and daughter were small and we lived on the outskirts of Tokyo, we followed the prescribed rituals to a T along with other families with children in the neighbourhood.  Mame in this case are roasted soya beans and maki in this particular instance really does mean to throw with some vengeance.

The idea is to banish any ogres or demons disseminating evil that may be hiding in your home while also welcoming good luck and happiness into your midst.  As you hurl roasted soya beans into the dark corners where evil may be concealed you shout “Oni wa soto—Get out you evil demons” followed by “Fuku wa uchi—Welcome happiness”.  It is not only the dark corners of rooms that are the target of this attack.  Doorways and windows or any other possible lairs of evil too take a peppering accompanied by shrieks of delight tinged with a slight feeling of fear from young children as they go about the task of cleansing the home in a manner which would not normally be condoned.  Someone takes a turn at being a demon by putting on a cardboard mask, thus adding to the fun.  Also, to ensure good luck in the year ahead you are supposed to eat the same number of beans as your age.

It takes more than one or two people to make three to four thousand Inukko.  Yoshiko Daiku Photo © Copyright
What has this to do with throwing small dogs?  In essence the aim is the same—banishing evil and hoping for happiness—but achieving it in a different way.

Yoshiko Daiku Photo © Copyright
The dog is one of twelve animal zodiac signs in Chinese astrology and a symbol offering protection from evil.  In Japan it is often seen as a protector of young children.  Perhaps this is inevitable.  After all humankind as a whole was quick to recognise this from very early times.

Well, admittedly I am rather playing with words.  The small dogs are actually miniaturised representations of a dog or even other animals in the zodiac.  They are made by mixing rice flour with hot water into a modelling consistency.  The “throwing” is simply a means of distribution—the distribution of a little good luck and protection, rather in the way in which chasing out evil and welcoming in happiness is hoped for in the Mame-maki festival.

At the Sojiji temple and others on the Noto Peninsular the Inukko-maki festival is an established date in the annual calendar.  It takes place on different days in March and is well attended.  Unlike my own household’s energetic activities at Setsubun, Inukko-maki is not replicated at home, although some families will set ceramic model dogs outside windows on the north side of a house to keep evil spirits at bay. 

It is not only model dogs which are made.  The other zodiac animals such as snakes and birds are also seen as being just as lucky.  Yoshiko Daiku Photo © Copyright
At Sojiji temple some three to four thousand little figures are made and tossed out into the throng of people who have come to try and bag some protection and happiness.  Some people will eat them while others will place the guardian figures in their porches where they dry out and become very hard.  Many people place one of the little figures in a small bag and carry it around as a talisman to ward off evil.  At Soto sect temples this festival takes place after a service to mark the passing of the Buddha.  The size of the little figures and the chosen animal from the zodiac are different from temple to temple.  The festival itself is a special feature of these temples in Noto.

At Sojiji Temple as at others in Noto, the throwing of Inukko to the hopeful is a happy event.  Yoshiko Daiku Photo © Copyright

Yoshiko Daiku Photo © Copyright
A larger model of Inukko perhaps destine to be displayed in a porch.  Yoshiko Daiku Photo © Copyright
What do all these customs and superstitions mean?  To be brutal they mean nothing.  And yet they mean everything if the result is a feeling of satisfaction and comfort.  And so, people continue throwing beans and small dogs.

Gateway to Sojiji Temple Akio Sakaguchi Photo © Copyright

My thanks to Yoshiko Daiku and Akio Sakaguchi for their photographs and reports.  I must also acknowledge the cooperation of Sojiji Temple.

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.


Saké to Drink, Saké to Enjoy—Part 2

So, the saké is brewed and ready for drinking.  No, not just drinking.  For enjoyment too.  During my twenty-four year stay in Japan, there was never a time when drinking saké was not a pleasurable event.  This had much to do with the circumstance in which I found myself.  I was lucky enough to drink with house-building carpenters when they had finished erecting the framework of a new house.  Saké and salt were first sprinkled on all four corners of the framework at ground level to give thanks for what had been achieved in safety, and then the eating and drinking began.  What a happy atmosphere there was.

All kinds of fun and silliness are allowed at hana-mi—a time to enjoy the cherry blossom
and each other's company.
I drank with fellow university students, friends and colleagues and every time without fail it became an experience that I shall never ever forget.  It was not just the company and saké that made the experience so good.  There was no unpleasantness, just pure pleasure and enjoyment.  I cannot deny that on a few occasions inebriation was a regrettable outcome but on the whole, there was no embarrassment.  Oh, the hana-mi parties!

The enjoyment had much to do with the conviviality of the surroundings.  Japanese bars are so welcoming, the staff so attentive and the food and saké so good.

As many readers will know, if a group of people are drinking at a pub or bar in the UK, one member of the party may buy a round of drinks—one drink for each person.  And then each person will do the same.  Recently, however, some people will share the cost of a bottle of wine.  Nowadays people will often just buy their own drinks.

In Japan friends will generally share the cost of drinks and snacks evenly.  In some cases a recognised “sponsor” will foot the bill.  But are there any other pieces of essential etiquette associated with drinking?  As a foreigner you will often be forgiven for any “mistakes” in behaviour but to increase your credibility and to show respect for your host, a little knowledge can go a long way.

A Bezen-ware guinomi and tokkuri—matching drinking cup and flask.
Many gatherings begin with beer with which to say kampai or cheers.  Then some people will drink saké and others may stick with beer or move on to another beverage.

But first you must decide at what temperature you would like to drink your saké.  Traditionally it would be at room temperature—ohiya.  Perhaps as a result of chilling white wine, you might decide to indulge in reishu—chilled saké.  Or then you could have it warmed—atsukan.  Different target temperatures will modify the flavour as will the bracketing of those temperatures.

A saké bottle label for Otoko-yama.
Usually someone will be eager to fill you glass or cup, which you should hold while it is being filled rather than leave it standing on the table.  Then you should do the same in return.  The more friendly the gathering a break from this protocol is allowed, so pouring your own drink is acceptable.  If you are holding your glass or cup, it may be taken as a sign that you would like someone to fill it for you.

Small saké cups are called choko and sometimes hold little more than two or three sips but if the saké is of good quality, quantity is not so much of a consideration.  You should be savouring the flavour and aroma of the saké instead.  Such a small cup is of little use to the more serious drinker out with friends.  They are more likely to use a larger guinomi, or even a small glass.

A selection of choko—only big enough for two or three sips.
Saké is often provided at a table in a flask called a tokkuri.  If a number of men are drinking together, flasks are sometimes laid on their side as a sign that they are empty.  That’s acceptable in some bars and at large gatherings, simply because whoever is serving will know which flasks to clear away.  Such a practice is not, however, acceptable at a high-class restaurant or in formal company.  It doesn’t look so good either.

From l. to r.—Made by Yasuhiro Satake, a lacquerware choko imitating a tea bowl.  A more traditional style, a simple modern version and one with the zodiac sign for the year of the horse.
While choko and guinomi are the norm, and small tumblers are sometimes used too, there is still another vessel for drinking saké.  It’s a masu.  It is actually a measuring box, which was used in the past in different sizes for measuring out commodities such as beans and rice, rather than weighing them.

From l. to r.—A bentwood and lacquered guinomi from Gallery Chikiriya; an old simply decorated one; a modern one and a turned and lacquered version made by Yasuhiro Satake.
Made of cedar, the wood helps to provide an unusual drinking experience to which a small heap of salt on one corner of the masu provides an interesting variation to excite the taste buds.

A selection of masu more for decoration than drinking perhaps but they all fit together in the box.
A masu also figures in yet another way of enjoying saké.  A small glass is stood in a masu and filled with saké until it overflows into the waiting masu.  First you drink from the glass and then either drink the overflow directly from the masu or pour it into the glass to finish it off.  Alternatively, the masu is placed on a small saucer but the result is the same—pour till is overflows.  In whichever case it is not such a refined way of drinking.  Having the saké to overflow is really nothing more than a display of generosity as opposed to meanness.

Yuko Yokoyama Photo © Copyright
There are also highly respectful and elegant ways of pouring and drinking saké but, to do them justice, I would really have to devote a separate post to them.  It is important to say, however, that the drinking and even pouring of saké varies from occasion to occasion and with whom you are drinking.

A saké bottle label for Yoshinogawa.
Although the drinking of saké can be such a pleasurable experience, many sayings about this alcoholic beverage are cautionary, especially about any excessive indulgence.  But that is not so unusual.

One says “Drinking too much saké and sleeping in the morning is the road to poverty”.  Another simply warns that “Drinking too much is bound to lead to trouble”.  The beneficial side to drinking saké is also acknowledged, however.  “Saké is an elixir to lift the spirits”.  And, “Saké is a gift from Heaven”.  But one of the most popular sayings is, “In moderation saké is better than any medicine”.   In whichever case, the Japanese would not be who they are without saké.

Unless stated all photos Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you feel will be interested.  Many thanks
Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.