Skip to main content

The flowery, flying hare of Inaba

Africa time. I'm on Africa time. Chronically, permanently and indubitably. Chrysanthemum season is almost over, and here I am, finally, with this year's offering.

Quick recap of flower, festival and rationale for fascination. Wait. I need a synonym for "reason" that starts with an "f" to satisfy my fatal weakness for alliteration. Findication? No. Got it. Foundation. That works. We start again.

Quick recap of flower, festival and foundation of fascination.

It was first cultivated in China in the fifteenth century BC, and was regarded as one of the so-called four noble plants: orchid, bamboo, plum blossom, chrysanthemum. The flower eventually found its way to Japan, where it was called kiku () and revered so highly that it became a symbol of the imperial family. 

There are numerous chrysanthemum exhibitions all over Japan in autumn, often at shrines. The bigger ones display not only individual blooms, but also dolls called kiku–ningyō (菊人形), which are made of hundreds of chrysanthemums. 

The biggest festivals are at Shinjuku Gyoen and Tokyo's bigger shrines and temples, but this year I chose to go a tiny local festival in one of my favourite neighbourhoods, Sugamo.

It's held at a temple called Shinshō-ji, one of the locations of the six Jizō of Edo, and it’s best described as humble but charming. I would've said understated, but that hare!

That's the hare of Inaba. He's the chappie who …

Look, this is going to get very complicated very fast, but I'll do my best.
So there was this hare that enlisted the help of crocodiles to travel from an island to the mainland – he persuaded them to form a bridge so that he could step on their backs – but then he pissed them off and they ripped off his skin. A couple of gods happened to stroll by on their way to woo a lovely maiden, and instead of assisting him, they told him to bathe in salt water. Which is not a good idea if you've got no skin, but fortunately the youngest god, Ōkuninushi, took pity on the hare and told him to bathe in fresh water from the mouth of a river, and to roll in the pollen of cattails.

The hare recovered and helped the young lad to win the hand of the maiden.

Whereupon Ōkuninushi become the ruler of Izumo and the god of nation-building, farming, business, medicine and happy marriages. He's enshrined at Izumo Taisha, one of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan.

All due to that hare.

Here's the crocodile!

That’s my story, but if you prefer a more formal version, here's an excerpt from an ancient script called the Kojiki:
Hereupon, when they arrived at Cape Keta, [they found] a naked hare lying down. Then the eighty Deities spoke to the hare, saying: "What thou shouldest do is to bathe in the sea-water here, and lie on the slope of a high mountain exposed to the blowing of the wind." So the hare followed the instructions of the eighty Deities, and lay down. Then, as the sea-water dried, the skin of its body all split with the blowing of the wind, so that it lay weeping with pain. But the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, who came last of all, saw the hare, and said: "Why liest thou weeping?" 
Incidentally, although many English sources refer to the animal as a rabbit, it's not, if I may be pedantic for a while, and when am I not? It's Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus). Same order, Lagomorpha, but different genera (link). As far as I can determine, there's only one indigenous rabbit species in Japan, the so-called Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi), which is only found on two small islands between Kyūshū and Okinawa.
However, most English sources talk about rabbits in Japan, and it's undeniable that Japan has a bit of a thing about rabbits: if they're not saving the country and holy matrimony, they're fulfilling their role as one of the Zodiac signs, pounding rice in the moon and pretending to be birds.

I'm not joking. The counter for birds and rabbits in Japanese is wa ( ), and that's the kanji for feathers or wings.

The reason for this is ..

Oh, Japan, you sneaky minx. You truly are a master of hypocrisy when you're in the mood.

During the Tokugawa era, the eating of four-legged animals was forbidden (link), but dang, rabbits are delicious, plentiful and easy to catch. What's a carnivore to do? You reclassify rabbits as birds.

Problem solved.

This is supposed to be a story about flowers. How did it turn into flying rabbits? Where were we?

Most chrysanthemum festivals continue until 23 November. You'll find a list of venues in this previous post. My personal recommendation? Shinjuku Gyoen for the widest variety as well as gorgeous autumn colours in the rest of the park.

Small display just outside the temple's entrance

The temple's entrance

Flowers on the steps leading to the temple

Above and below, the Jizō statue

The Jizō statue is 300 years old.

This deocaration is so tiny that I initially thought I was looking at origami flowers. No. It's the real thing.

An advertisement for the festival in Jizō-dōri

Jizō sweets

This display is in Rikugien, which is just a short walk from Sugamo.

Another display in Rikugien.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…