Friday, February 28, 2014

Ski Jumping World Cup Ladies in Zao

On 19th January, hubby and I went to see Ski Jumping World Cup Ladies in Zao. The ski jumping facility is located on Mount Zao in Yamagata City of Yamagata prefecture. Mount Zao is a complex volcano on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures, and is famous for many skiing and snowboarding resorts. One striking feature of Zao’s ski resorts is the snow monsters called Juhyo that appear in mid-winter. The snow monsters are actually fir trees that have been coated with extremely wet snow and ice carried by a cold Siberian jet stream that also freezes them almost solid in some of the most peculiar and grotesque shapes. The effect of a forest full of such trees gives visitors a ghostly impression. Visitors can enjoy the beauty of nature in the Zao Mountain Range during the summer season also. Hubby and I had visited the mountain range in July 2011 and had seen the famous and mysterious Okama Crater Lake, about which I have written a post earlier (click here).

Zao ski resort area is located about 210 kilometers southeast of our home and it took us about 3.5 hours of car ride to reach the area. We parked our car at a car parking area and walked up to the ski jumping facility. The mountainous road was very slippery and it took us almost half an hour to walk 600 meters up to the ski jumping facility. Adjacent to the ski jumping facility, we saw chair-lift to go up the mountain range for skiing. Although I wished to go up the mountain using chair-lift, I saw that no one was coming down the mountain in chair-lift as people were going up to enjoy skiing. As I have absolutely no idea how to ski, I gave up using the chair-lift because I felt a bit embarrassed to come down the mountain using the lift all by myself.
Chair-lift to go up the mountain for skiing

I am standing in front of the chair-lift

Soon we reached the ski jumping complex. I was very surprised to see the facility as I did not expect it to be so huge. Standing right in front of the ski jumping hill, we clicked a few photos of the facility. There were many visitors who had come to cheer their favorite ski jumpers, and there was almost no space to stand in front of the hill. So we walked up to one side, and waited for the ski jumping tournament to start. However, it started snowing heavily and the wind got stronger. The temperature was about -8 degrees Celsius but it felt much colder due to the strong winds. In fact, it was a bit funny to see hubby wear a cap as I have rarely seen him in cap and gloves. It was too cold for him too. The tournament was delayed by about two hours and the staff had to continuously remove excess snow from the ski jumping facility.
I am standing in front of the entrance of ski jumping complex

Ski jumping hill as seen from the front

Another view of the hill

Top portion of the ski jumping hill

Middle portion of the hill

Ski jumping hill as viewed from the side

People waiting for the tournament to start

The entire mountain range was covered in snow but we did not see any snow monsters

Hubby wearing a cap

Heavy snow and strong winds delayed the tournament

Staff clearing excess snow from the top portion of the hill

Staff clearing excess snow from the bottom portion of the hill

Red colored line was put again at the bottom portion of the hill

The first round of Ski Jumping World Cup Ladies Tournament started after a delay of two hours. It was nice to see world-class ski jumpers participate in the tournament. We wished to see Sara Takanashi perform and cheered her on. There were 41 participants from various countries around the world, and Sara Takanashi won the first round with a jump of 98 meters for 127.5 points. Sara Takanashi is a 17 year old Japanese teenager who made her Olympics debut at Sochi, and was placed fourth this time. We took various photos of the ski jumpers jumping down the hill, and also compiled a video of one of the jumpers. It was wonderful to watch the ski jumpers performing at their best.

Photos of several world-class ski jumpers performing at their best

A compiled video of a ski jumper jumping down the hill

Sara Takanashi jumping down the hill

Enlarged view of Sara Takanashi

The crowd in front of the ski jumping hill enjoying the jumps of various participants

The second round of jumps was canceled due to heavy snow and strong winds, leaving the first round scores to count as final results. So we left the ski jumping complex soon after the first round.
I am standing along with the crowd in front of the ski jumping hill

Scores of the first round are indicated on the electronic board

Afterwards, we walked back to the car parking area and felt such a great relief when we put on the heater inside the car. It was the first time for me to stand outside at -8 degrees Celsius for almost 4 hours but it was worthwhile as we thoroughly enjoyed the ski jumping tournament. It was a fun-filled cold day for us.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Setsubun bean-throwing festival

In the previous post I explained that I have yet to write a couple of posts about a few sightseeing places hubby and I visited in 2013. But I decided to write today about Setsubun festival that I attended last week. I will get back to the pending posts from 2013 later on. Hubby had been on a business trip to USA at the end of January. He went there for almost 10 days and I did not feel like staying in the extremely cold snowy Akita all by myself. So I went to stay at our home in Ichinomiya City in Aichi prefecture during those days. My in-laws stay nearby and my father-in-law registered my name as ‘Fukume’ for a festival named Setsubun held at Masumida Jinja Shrine in Ichinomiya City on 3rd February.

Setsubun is a festival usually held on 3rd or 4th February, one day before the start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. It is a traditional ceremony to dispel evil and demons and bring good luck that year. The term Setsubun originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as Setsu. Later it was applied more specifically to the last day of the Setsu called Daikan (severe cold), which corresponded to the eve of Risshun (the first day of spring), the New Year's Day of the ancient solar calendar and the traditional beginning of spring. Since Risshun and the traditional New Year celebration fell at about the same time, Setsubun was associated with rites of purification and exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing oneself for the coming year and the spring planting season.

For many centuries, people of Japan have been performing rituals with the purpose of chasing away evil spirits at the start of spring. Setsubun is such a traditional ceremony to dispel evil, and is usually associated with the special ritual of Mamemaki or bean-throwing, which is said to date from the Muromachi period. This rite is linked to the observance of Tsuina, a Chinese ceremony for driving off devils dating from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE). This Tsuina rite was adopted in Japan by the mid-ninth century by incorporating it into the cycle of annual events observed by the imperial court, and from the Muromachi period it came to be enacted at Setsubun.

In modern days, Setsubun is celebrated in many ways but Mamemaki ceremony of scattering soybeans is the most common custom throughout Japan. On the day of Setsubun, many households carry out this custom of Mamemaki. A wooden measuring cup called Masu is filled with parched soybeans called Fukumame fortune beans. The head of the family then throws the beans all about the rooms in the house, shouting ‘Oni Wa Soto, Fuku Wa Uchi’ meaning ‘out with the demons and in with fortune’. They also open the windows and doors, and throw the beans outside. It is customarily believed that family members can be healthy and happy if after the ritual of throwing Fukumame beans, they pick up and eat the same number of beans as their age. There are a few other variations of celebrating Setsubun throughout the country. In some areas, people fix a branch of a holly, on which is stuck a head of grilled/dried sardine, to the door to drive out evil spirits. While in some areas, it is customary to eat fortune sushi rolls called Ehomaki facing the lucky direction without talking.

Also, in modern times, there are Setsubun celebrations at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all over the country, and people visit there to pick up beans and to receive good fortune. Such celebrations are held on a much bigger scale than the household celebrations. Priests and invited guests throw parched Fukumame soybeans, often packaged into cute tiny paper envelopes, at the waiting crowd. Sometimes small envelopes with money, sweets, candies and other prizes are also thrown at the crowd. In some prominent shrines and temples, celebrities, movie stars, baseball players, Kabuki players, Sumo wrestlers, and other popular personalities are invited who participate in Mamemaki bean-throwing ritual. They stand on a stage and shower beans and other goodies at the waiting crowd. Sometimes the event turns wild with everyone pushing and shoving to get the gifts tossed from above. I feel that inviting popular personalities for such celebrations is a means of soliciting visitors to the temples and shrines.

In mid-January, my father-in-law had registered my name and arranged for me to be one of the ‘Fukume’ women for Setsubun celebrations held on 3rd February at Masumida Jinja Shrine in Ichinomiya City. During Mamemaki bean-throwing ceremony, Toshi-Otoko (men born in the year with the same zodiac animal sign), Toshi-Iwai (men of auspicious ages 61, 70, 77, 80, 88, 90 years old and above), and Fukume (fortune spreading women) stand on a temporary stage built in front of Haiden Prayer Hall of the shrine, and throw Fukumame fortune beans at the waiting crowd. This year, nine Toshi-Otoko men, six Toshi-Iwai men, and eight Fukume women were selected for the Setsubun celebrations at this shrine. As I wrote earlier, I was one of the Fukume women. In addition, Kato Noriko who is an actress, singer, and a television personality was invited as a special guest for Mamemaki ceremony.

On the morning of 3rd February, my father-in-law, his wife and I started from our home in Ichinomiya at about 8.45 am. Masumida Jinja Shrine is located about 4.5 kilometers east-southeast of our home, and it took us about 15 minutes of car ride to reach the shrine. At the shrine, I went to a dressing room where Fukume women were getting dressed in traditional formal wear for Setsubun celebrations. My father-in-law’s wife accompanied me as I was not aware of how to wear the traditional clothes. Fortunately, a female shrine staff called Miko helped me in wearing the traditional wear. The traditional wear was provided by the shrine itself, and consisted of a white Kosode Kimono and a pink Kamishimo worn over the Kimono. Kamishimo consisted of a pink-colored sleeveless jacket called Kataginu having crisp, exaggerated angled peaks at the shoulders, and a matching pink-colored trouser-like split skirt called Hakama which is wide and pleated. I also wore white colored Tabi socks that I had borrowed from my father-in-law’s wife. I was really very happy to wear Japanese traditional formal wear and took a few photos of me in such wonderful attire.
In the dressing room with a Miko and other Fukume women

I am wearing traditional wear

With father-in-law’s wife

Afterwards all the Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume dressed in traditional wear were told to walk up to the side entrance of Honden Main Hall of the shrine. Up to this point my father-in-law’s wife was with me. She wished me luck to do my best, and then went with my father-in-law and their friends somewhere. We, the Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume, stood in a queue and waited for our turn to wash our hands at a hand washing basin located adjacent to Honden Hall. A shrine staff and a Miko helped us with the procedure. Washing our hands with water is supposed to purify us before entering the main hall. Near the hand washing basin, I saw Kato Noriko, special guest for Mamemaki ceremony, standing and posing for photos.
Father-in-law’s wife joked about something while we walked towards the side entrance of Honden Main Hall of the shrine

Walking towards Honden Main Hall along with other Fukume (in front of me)

Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume standing in a queue waiting to wash hands and purify ourselves

I am standing near the hand washing basin waiting for my turn to wash hands

I am walking back towards the queue after washing my hands

Special guest Kato Noriko posing for photos

Next, at about 10 am, a shrine staff led us inside the Honden Main Hall of the shrine where we all Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume dressed in traditional wear sat on the left side of the stage of the hall just in front of the raised altar where the deity is enshrined. Several priests sat facing us on the right side of the stage of the hall. The principal deity of this shrine is named Amenoho Akari no Mikoto, who was a descendant of Amaterasu, and the ancestor of Owari clan, the prehistoric rulers of the area. Many rituals and prayers were carried out by the head priest and other priests. We also performed a ritual named Tamagushi, which is a form of offering made from a Sakaki tree branch decorated with Shide strips made generally of Washi paper. Earlier while waiting for the ceremony to begin, we were given a quick lesson about how to hold and offer Tamagushi to the deity. I had absolutely no idea about such things but was relieved to note that almost all other Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume were equally unaware of the procedure. But during the actual prayer ceremony, several of us still made a few minor errors while placing the Tamagushi offering in front of the deity. I am sure that the god forgave us as it was probably the first time for many of us. Anyway, the entire ceremony and prayer rituals took almost an hour and we had to sit in the formal Seiza style. While the Japanese people are quite used to sitting in such a formal way, my leg got numb after about 40 minutes of sitting that way. A shrine staff noticed my uncomfortable situation and told me that it was ok to sit in a more relaxed way, as the main prayer was already over. It was really a relief for me.
Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume sitting on the left side of the stage inside Honden Main Hall

I was very much interested in the rituals and prayer ceremony

Special guest Kato Noriko along with several other prominent guests got to sit on chairs

I am walking with other Fukume members towards the altar on the stage to offer Tamagushi offerings to the deity

After the prayer ceremony and rituals inside Honden Main Hall got over, we Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume were led to Haiden Prayer Hall located in front of Honden Main Hall. A temporary wooden platform stage was erected on the ground in front of Haiden Prayer Hall for the Mamemaki ceremony. While waiting inside Haiden Hall, we could hear the sound and feel the energy of the gathered crowd eagerly looking forward for the Mamemaki ceremony to begin.
I am walking along with other Fukume members towards Haiden Prayer Hall

Waiting inside Haiden Prayer Hall for the Mamemaki ceremony to begin

We Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume were divided into three groups, and I was in the first group. The first group climbed up the stage and waited for the Mamemaki ceremony to begin. Several priests, important or prominent members of Ichinomiya City, and the special guest Kato Noriko were already standing on the stage. A shrine staff whistled loudly with a whistle, which was the signal for the start of Mamemaki ceremony. It was really fun to pick up Fukumame fortune beans packaged into cute tiny paper envelopes from a big wooden Masu like box and throw them at the waiting crowd. Whenever the wooden box I was holding got empty, a shrine staff immediately replaced it with a new box full of Fukumame paper envelopes. As the event progress, I saw that the crowd in front of me got really wild and started pushing and shoving to get the Fukumame beans. In a way, I felt good to see that even Japanese people push and shove! Anyway, picking up Fukumame beans and throwing them at the crowd was really exciting. It was fun to do it again and again. Standing on the stage, I got an opportunity to talk with the Mayor of Ichinomiya City Mr. Tani Kazuo. There was a whistle after ten minutes, which indicated the end of Fukumame beans throwing for the first group. Those ten minutes were probably the best unforgettable moments of my life in Japan until now. The first group got down the stage and the second group climbed up to continue the Mamemaki ceremony. The entire ceremony continued for 30 minutes.
Standing on the stage, waiting for the Mamemaki ceremony to begin

Picking up Fukumame beans from the wooden box

And throwing the beans at the waiting crowd

Pick up the beans from the box again

And throw the beans at the crowd

Pick up the beans yet again

And throw the beans at the crowd

Pick up the beans again

And throw the beans at the crowd

Pick up the beans once again

And throw the beans at the crowd

Talking with the Mayor of Ichinomiya City

Throwing beans along with the Mayor

It was nice talking with the Mayor

I am very happy to be participating in the event

End of Fukumame beans throwing for our group

Afterwards, I returned to the dressing room and changed into my usual clothes. At about 12.30 pm, there was a formal lunch inside the shrine premises. At first all the invited guests (including my father-in-law and his wife), a few priests, and prominent members of Ichinomiya City were seated at their tables. Then, we the Toshi-Otoko, Toshi-Iwai, and Fukume entered the room amidst applause and cheers from all the seated people. The head priest and a few prominent persons gave speeches, and then we had a nice lunch. We also got a few shrine-related items and five paper envelopes containing Fukumame beans as gifts. It was really nice.
My father-in-law and his wife waiting for the lunch to begin

I am entering the dining room along with other Fukume members

Shrine-related items and Fukumame beans given to us as gifts

I really enjoyed Setsubun bean-throwing festival held at Masumida Jinja Shrine in Ichinomiya City. I stayed in Ichinomiya for 10 days. One of the days I had dinner with my father-in-law, his wife, and his older brother at a Japanese style restaurant. It was fun to talk with them. Yet another day, I had dinner with my father-in-law, sister-in-law and her daughters at a Sushi restaurant. It was nice to talk with my sister-in-law after a long time.
My father-in-law and his older brother talking during dinner at a Japanese restaurant

I am with my father-in-law’s wife at the Japanese restaurant

With my father-in-law and nieces at a Sushi restaurant

With my sister-in-law at the Sushi restaurant