Four Defenders of Japanese Festivals

At Japanese festivals, four banners with the pictures of the four divine beings are sometimes displayed.

You might have also seen them at a ceremony at the imperial palace.

They are the defenders of Shin’iki (神域 しんいき) or the sanctuary of the shrine.

These four defenders are: Blue Dragon (青龍 せいりゅう Seiryu; the defender of the east), White Tiger (白虎 びゃっこ Byakko; the defender of the west), Vermilion Bird (朱雀 すざく Suzaku; the defender of the south), and Black Tortoise (玄武 げんぶ Genbu; the defender of the north; usually entwined together with a snake).

Together these four flags are called “Four Godly Flags/ Banners” (四神旗 しじんき Shijinki).

But in the Edo period (1603-1868), they were also called “Four Godly Swords” (四神剣 しじんけん Shijinken) in the Tokyo area as they put swords at the tips of the flags.

There is a hilarious rakugo story that involves a set of “Four Godly Swords”, which is based on a true story that happened at a restaurant called Momokawa (百川 ももかわ).

Unfortunately, it is one of those stories that would get lost in translation, but I will attempt explaining it another time!

See you next time!

Japanese Street Wisdom Podcast Episode 4 [Un Kon Don 運根鈍]

Hello everybody! Hope you are safe and well!

Welcome to the 4th episode of the Japanese Street Wisdom Podcast.

In this episode, I will introduce a Japanese saying “Un Kon Don” (運根鈍), the Japanese secret of success!

I had never really thought hard about this saying before, but I found it interesting that it is actually heavily influenced by Japanese fatalism and our effort to defy it!

Please do let me know what you thought about this episode and/ or your suggestions (for improvement, future content, etc.)!

As in the thumbnail above, this podcast is now available both on Spotify and Apple Podcasts!!!

You can also listen to it on my YouTube Channel if you prefer.

Thank you always for your continued support!

“Mummy” Medicine of Edo!

If you are a speaker of British English, you might be slightly confused if I’m talking about an adult female human with a child/ children or a preserved human body that could’ve been a mummy… or a daddy.

If you are a speaker of American English, you are right I meant a mummy by “mummy”.

The Egyptian kind of mummy, who could’ve been an Egyptian mummy before her passing (OK, I’ll stop annoying you!).

I recently learned a shocking fact about a Japanese medicine during the Edo period (1603-1868), and I couldn’t resist sharing this particular one!

Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒 1630-1714) was a very well-known Neo-Confucianist philosopher (じゅがくしゃ 儒学者) and botanist who studied the medicinal herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Ekiken is especially known for his books called Yojokun (ようじょうくん 養生訓), which was a collection of his health advice, and Yamato Honzo (やまとほんぞう 大和本草) that introduced medicinal plants from China and Japan.

Yamato Honzo (やまとほんぞう 大和本草)

Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒 1630-1714)

In Yamato Honzo, mummies… or mummified human bodies probably from Egypt… are introduced as a medicine!!!

Mind you, Ekiken himself opposed to the use of mummies as a medicine for ethical reasons, but researches suggest that they were widely used as all-purpose cure though they cost a fortune.

We don’t know exactly where they were imported from (and how they were sourced), but it was likely to have been via China or Netherlands as Japan only traded with these two countries then. It could’ve also been from Korea (via Tsushima), Ainu (via Matsumae/ Hokkaido), or Ryukyu/ Okinawa. **

According to Yamato Honzo, mummies were good for toothache, headache, chest pain, high fever, antidote for poisonous insects, and others.

* Some people also call him “Ekken”.

** If you know the answer to this question, please comment below!!!

Reference

貝原益軒著「大和本草」記載のミイラの薬効について 江頭啓介・原敬二郎

Photo Credit

Yamato Honzo: Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Origin of Waribashi (Disposable Chopsticks)

If you have been to a Japanese restaurant, I’m sure you have seen those waribashi (割り箸, わりばし) or disposable wooden chopsticks that you pull apart before digging in your yummy Japanese dishes.

Personally, I have a love-and-hate relationship with them- I love them because they are sanitary; I hate them because they are an absolute waste of trees.

Anyway… I came across the origin of those chopsticks the other day, so I’m sharing it with you 😃

It is said that waribashi was first created by an eel restaurant in Edo (1603-1868), which is the old name for Tokyo.

They were originally made of bamboo and called “Hikisakibashi” (引裂箸 ひきさきばし), which roughly means “chopsticks to split apart”.

However, the wooden disposable chopsticks that we use today were actually invented in Nara Prefecture (奈良県 ならけん).

It is said that a monk called Sugihara Souan (杉原宗庵, すぎはらそうあん) invented them from Japanese cedar from the Yoshino region (so called “Yoshino Cedar”; 吉野杉, よしのすぎ) in 1827.

They used the scrap wood from making sake barrels, and even today they only use wood from forest thinning in the Yoshino region, therefore making them more ecological than the imported ones from overseas.

I personally think it’s best to use reusable metal chopsticks like Korean people do for the environment, but if you are into waribashi, I recommend you get ones from Yoshino!

References

わが国における食事用の二本箸の起源と割箸について 向井由紀子, 橋本慶子, 長谷川千鶴

You can access this document, but it takes ages to load somehow: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/cookeryscience1968/10/1/10_41/_pdf

箸の本 本田総一郎

[Book Review No.1] Sakhalin: The Island of Unspoken Struggles

I’ve never posted a book review here until now, but I couldn’t resist as “Sakhalin: The Island of Unspoken Struggles” by Kristine Ohkubo has become one of the most influential books in my life for the reasons I’m about to write!

First of all, here’s the review that I posted on the author’s Goodreads page:

“Sakhalin” is an unparalleled account of the people who became the victims of the power struggles over this resource-rich island in the Far East. The history of Sakhalin is little known even to Japanese, including myself, although a part of the island was once colonised by Japan and the Japanese settlers themselves eventually became the victims at the end of World War II. Thoroughly researched, Kristine Ohkubo’s intelligible writing reveals the island’s complex history that involved the world powers such as the Mongols, China, Russia, and Japan. However, the real beauty of this book is that Ohkubo has given voice to the Karafuto Koreans, Ainu, Uilta, and Nivkh. Even though this book’s subtitle is “the Island of Unspoken Struggles”, their struggles have now been spoken.

As you can see, two of the main reasons why this book really spoke to my heart were:

  1. It explains a complex subject that has not been discussed openly and widely in her clear, accessible writing.
  2. It gives voice to the forgotten minorities: the Karafuto Koreans, Ainu, Uilta, and Nivkh.

But another big reason for my attraction to this book is that…

the foreword for this book was written by my very own rakugo master, Kanariya Eiraku (Tatsuya Sudo is his real name)!

Here is how this came true (insider information ahead) 😁

The author, who happens to be a rakugo fan, went to my master’s rakugo performance in LA.

She told him about the book in the process of writing and found out that Eiraku’s father was from Sakhalin!

Therefore, this collaboration came true.

What was the chance of that to happen!

I learned about his connection to Sakhalin and his Ainu uncle through this book, which I had not known even as his student.

For these reasons, I can very confidently recommend this book to you!

Find out more about the book on the author’s website! She has great online presence, so you can find her SNS on most major platforms 😃

You can purchase her books on Book Depository and other retailers.

Eishi’s Rakugo Commentary No.4 [A New Year Visit to the Shrine 初天神]

Traditional Japanese Kites

Hatsutenjin (初天神) or “A New Year Visit to the Shrine”* or even more precisely “A New Year Visit to Tenjin Shrine” is one of the most widely performed rakugo stories in Japan.

As the title suggests, it is a story about a New Year visit to a shrine where Tenjin (天神) is enshrined, and it is considered an auspicious story and often performed in January.

Tenjin is the god of learning, but he was an actual historical figure called Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真 845-903 AD) before enshrined.

Michizane was a scholar, politician, and poet of the Heian period (平安時代 794-1185). He was enshrined as a god because of his immense contribution to the academia.

Tenjin Shrine or Tenmangu is where Michizane is enshrined, and shrines all over Japan enshrine him as their patron god. Among them, Dazaifu Tenmangu, Osaka Tenmangu, Kitano Tenmangu, and Kameido Tenjin Shrine are particularly famous.

Sugawara no Michizane (菅原 道真 845-903 AD)

Hastutenjin was originally a Kamigata Rakugo** created by Shofukutei Shochiku (松富久亭松竹 DOB/ DOD unknown), the founding father of the Shofukutei (笑福亭) clan. It was exported to Tokyo by Sanyutei Enba III (三代目三遊亭圓馬 1882-1945).

Having said that…

this story is almost nothing to do with Tenjin Shrine itself, but it’s a simple lighthearted story about a relationship between a father and his son.

You can watch the story at the bottom of this post, but here is what dango looks like.

Dango

Hope you will enjoy the story!!!

* You might have noticed that my YouTube thumbnail says “The First Visit to Tenjin Shrine”, but it is mistranslated. The official translation by my master Kanariya Eiraku is “A New Year Visit to the Shrine”, but I also presented a more literal translation “A New Year Visit to Tenjin Shrine” for educational purposes.

** Rakugo from the Kansai region especially from Osaka and Kyoto

Photos Credit

Japanese Kites: Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reference

落語手帖 矢野誠一