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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.

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