Saturday, January 26, 2019

Wakakusa Yamayaki 2015


Every year around the last weekend of January.

The tradition of the Mt. Wakakusa Field Burning Ceremony dates back to the 18th century. The most popular theory is that the ceremony started because of a land dispute between Kofukuji Temple and Todaiji, two large Buddhist complexes in the area which have been vying for prestige and political influence since Nara was the capital of Japan. Another theory suggests that the fire is meant to ward off spirits and drive them back beyond the mountain, in something that was meant to be a modified version of Obon flames (which give a friendly send off to visiting spirits of ancestors, such as the Gozan Okuribi event in Kyoto).

The modern ceremony attracts a number of tourists to Nara, which prepares a number of stage events at the foot of the mountain and other sites (especially Heijokyo, since 2015).

After sunset, to start the main ceremony priests and monks from 3 major landholding orders around the mountain (Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga Shrine) start a symbolic fire which is carried up the mountain to ignite the field brush. The fire is then managed by the fire department (with backpack water sprayers and simple tools). The mountain continues to burn for several hours from about 7pm-10pm.
There is a fireworks show that is timed to coincide with the start of the field burning.

Since 2015, the Heijokyo Palace sight (west of the city, near Yamato Saidaiji) has been hosting crowds with the Otateyama festival which parades large fiberglass light figures in the shape of the Four Heavenly Kings (Shitennou).

Photo journal from 1/25/2015:

The mountain burning in full swing with a human perimeter of firefighters.

A Peruvian pan pipe group performing for the incoming crowds.
I think this same group still appears at various public gatherings around the Osaka area.

Bursts of fireworks outline the ridge of Mt. Wakakusa.

A fence around the perimeter of the field.

The silhouette of a firefighter on the edge of the fire.

Smoke rolling over the slope of the mountain.

A halo of illuminated smoke rising over the mountain.

A performer on stage with showing off some modern fashion.

A fashion performance show.

The crowds at the base of Mt. Wakakusa gathered around the stage.

A group of masked heroes; Tokushima Souryujin...?
Here the local mascot, Sento-kun makes a stage appearance with them.

Fashion show; with a man who looks like a Star Wars villain.

Staff tending a sacred fire in an area marked by shimenawa (sacred ropes).

The end of the event with a few people still lingering around the last flame.



Senri Tondo 2014

Senri Tondo 2014

Looking back at some older photos of Senri Tondo after this year's event.

The line for entry starting at the bottom of the steps.

By the time I got up to the the site the fire was still in a fairly early and strong phase.

Firefighter getting unbearably close to the heat.

A large decorative ema depicting the animal of the new year.

People waiting to roast their mochi.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Kendo & Dyslexia

Dyslexia and Kendo

When I was managing a university kendo club in America I can remember one member who struggled to learn kendo because of his dyslexia. He was often confused with spoken directions and had a lot of trouble imitating physical movements or intuitively understanding how to observe and react to a partner.

I should emphasize that I am not sure how much of his experience is typical to that of people with dyslexia and how much of it is only a case specific anecdote.

Instruction / positions.

The person in question had a good deal of trouble imitating body postures so the best way of correcting this seemed to taking a starting position and then physically prodding him into place when he became confused. The main points of confusion were with spacial concepts like left/right, forward/back, front/left, or near/far. In kamae his feet were often in a normal standing position (heels close together, toes pointing apart in a "V" shape. When instructing his to move his right foot forward he would often look at the person in front of him and mirror their position; but this meant that he would move his left foot forward while trying to match it to his partner (this is also a spatial mistake that you see a lot with small children). I try to help him get into position by standing next to him but he would often have a similar problem in which he would move his nearest foot to match his partner's nearest foot (like a three legged race). To get over this he needed an instructor to tap/push to desired foot forward or to have a third person lined up in front of him so he could coordinate himself (like soldiers marching in line).

Hand position was another difficult point. In kendo assuming a natural position if important and most people can intuitively settle into a correct position with minimal guidance; holding the shinai with the right hand higher higher/forward on the handle matched by the right foot being place further in front of the body.
The man with dyslexia would often have his hands in the reverse order (left hand on top). This would happen often and there were a variety of possible problems that could come from misunderstandings when I tried to convey the intuitive concept of the grip/foot position; if I said that his right hand should be forward to match his feet he could get flustered and reverse his feet rather than his hands. If I said that his hands were in the wrong position he might slide them both down the tsuka and look for confirmation. He would sometimes even leave his left hand on top and when told "your hands are reversed" he would turn one of his palms over so that his thumb was pointing back toward his own body. Obviously, holding a shinai like that made it really difficult to swing  shinai or raise it over his head.
Correcting hands is a it more difficult than correcting feet as your can't work on this point while lined up face to back (as that would conceal a view of the instructor's hands), so there would often be the same problems of spatial confusion when trying to imitate someone face to face or side to side.
Physically trying to move his hands might cause him to get into a tense posture (probably anxious, feeling that he was being chastised for posture points) and grip the handle tighter with the wrong hands or he might release his grip entirely and drop the shinai, expecting the instructor to take hold of the shinai or expecting the instructor to move both of his hands completely.


Movement, posture and timing were another difficult point as it involves spatial coordination and a simultaneous awareness of self, partner and the relative position which is where flustered confusion would present itself. Having gotten into chudan-no-kamae position to start practice, the foot positioning would soon be lost as he began to move his feet. His anxiety about doing things correctly also meant that he was often distracted as he was looking for confirmation that he was doing things correctly; looking side to side, drooping his shinai or hunching his back over.
In many cases movement smooths out as people practice suburi, learning to synchronize their feet and hands as they find their rhythm. In the case of this dyslexic man would move his arms and feet out of sync to a typical ratio of 5 suburi for 6 steps; this led to working on a number of different exercises to try and convey an intuitive sense of rhythm and coordination.

Anxiety about corrections was a problem when moving relative to a partner.
When receiving kirikaeshi he would be confused by the left, right, left, right... pattern of kirikaeshi; being focused remembering a reciting the verbal instructions rather than intuitively watching the opponents shinai. The partner/instructor would go through with kirikaeshi and only stop the short of hitting the dyslexic guy's head because he was putting his shinai on the wrong side of his head in order to block the incoming shinai... consistently. Again, he was worried about trying to take in the procedural information in the form of elusive "left/right" concepts rather than grasping the intuitive nature of the situation at hand and the main idea of what was trying to be accomplished.


While "Chakusho," or the correct wearing of the uniform is normally something that is strictly emphasized in kendo culture, it was an ongoing problem for the dyslexic man. Despite coming to practices (off and on) for about 5 years, he still had trouble putting on dogi and hakama because; his dyslexia making it hard for him to work with knots. His dogi was always loose at the chest and he had a really difficult time tying the long obi of the hakama correctly; there were often long lose ends of the obi hanging down, the hakama sagging down his hips, or being tied too low with the fabric impeding his foot movement. This often led to him looking like a wayward child as people helpe him re-tie his hakama in the middle of practice. Despite the long time that he was involved in kendo there were few times where he was able to put on bogu and try some basic keiko things; in those cases other people helped him tie the himo on the bogu that he was borrowing.
I let him borrow an old keikogi/hakama set for a long time (spanning 5 years) and I encouraged him to practice putting it on at home but this was a consistent problem.

Sensei reception

The university club had a very serious Japanese sensei for a time. He was quite stern with the dyslexic man and considered kicking him out of the club. The instructor was a medical researcher for this American university and was a medical doctor back in Japan.
While being rebuked for doing something incorrectly the dyslexic man, frustrated and upset, was explaining that he had dyslexia. The sensei didn't seem to know what he meant by the excuse.
At the time I thought that the sensei (a doctor) didn't know what "dyslexia" was.  In Japanese "dyslexia" is 読字障害 ("DokujiShougai," written with the kanji for "letter reading disorder"), 失読症 ("ShitsuDokushou," literally "faulty reading illness") or simply katakana ディスレクシア ("Di-su-re-ku-shi-a").

His meaning was more like, "what does that have to do with kendo?" Having been in Japan for some time now, I feel like dyslexia is much less common. Perhaps it is less diagnosed, less accomodated for less discussed (as seems to be the case for mental disorders).
The same sensei also took issue with other students who came into the club demonstrating a lack of seriousness or dedication; behavior such as chatting during practice, failing to buy their own equipment, frequently missing practices. All of these were behaviors of the dyslexic man; so he wasn't just a victim of a disability, you could also argue that he was simply flaky (頼りない). A strict kendo sensei might make the point that "if one will not improve then why do kendo?" or "if he can't make a full effort to improve, why should he waste my time?"

Another person (like myself), especially in places where kendo is not popular and there is a shortage of people attending practice may feel a duty accommodate people in even passing pursuits of kendo.
There were many times when I (the manager, and later, the teacher at this kendo club) was the only person at practice. So when he came to practice I could dedicate time to giving him private lessons. But in larger practice sessions he was perpetually stuck with the beginner group. He would disappear for several months at a time, but for small kendo clubs there was not formal process of someone being "cut from the team." His attendance rates were more typical of a casual social club, but during practice he seemed earnest and polite.

Maybe it was cruel to be kind to this person.



Friday, January 18, 2019

Toka Ebisu at Osaka Tenmangu


Osaka Tenmangu shrine from January 9th-11th every year.

Another one of the big shrines that has a Toka Ebisu event, Osaka Tenmangu is has Tenjin as the main deity but there is also a smaller sub-shrine for Ebisu which attracts worshipers in the area around central Osaka.

Photo journal from 10/11/2019:

Ebisu and a fuku-musume pose for photos with a customer who just bought a lucky charm.
This charm is a small rake, for people who want to "rake in" the money in the new year.

The main gate to the the shrine with special decorations for Toka Ebisu;
Note the  bamboo stalks with typical Ebisu decorations of sea bream fish, coins and charms.

People tie their fortunes to the branches of bamboo stalks.
Shrine staff will later collect the stalks and papers for a fire.

An ox, the companion animal for Tenjin. Tenjin is the god of learning and scholarship. On the ema (votive plate) you can see someone stating their wish to get into a specific university (Chubu U.).

A shrine maiden performing a blessing on a charm that a customer just bought at the shrine.

Fukumusume, lucky girls, who work at the shrine during this time to help perform blessings and sell charms.

A red-only filter.

A travelling monkey show from Kobe that shows up at this shrine sometimes.

A Rakugo theater just outside of the temple gates. Comical story telling is performed here.
They have New Years decorations of a large kadomatsu.

Decorations depicting Ebisu, the god of fisherman, commerce, prosperity and happiness.

If you want to be a fuku-musume you can apply online, if you are a girl in her 20s.

Fuku-musume with a red-only filter.

A large tai (sea bream) decoation along with many kazaridaru (decorative sake barrels).

Luck sake being offered at the Ebisu shrine, a 5 yen offering gets you a token sip from a small dish.

A sea bream (left) and a tuna (right) covered in coin offerings.



ATC Dezome Shiki 2019

ATC 出初式 2019

Dezome Shiki is an annual event held in cities around Japan in the beginning of the new year in which fire departments demonstrate their readiness to fight fires.
The largest event of this kind in the Kansai area is held at the Asia-Pacific Trade Center.
The demonstration shows off pump boats, helicopter rescues, mascots, local celebrities, disaster training lessons and fire engines in a large parade.

The fire department hero mascot "Saver Mirai" (Saver Future).
He was designed by the Tomika toy company.
In his official back story he is a futuristic firefighter from the year 2310 who fell through a rift in time to arrive in our current era. He appears in many fire prevention events.

Formally dressed fire department officers carrying the banners for their local fire departments.

A line of small, Japanese style, fire engines lining up for the pareade. Each ward of the city (and some neighboring towns) send a representative fire engine.

Staff in various types of uniforms parading at the event.

One rescue worker overseeing the event from one of the balconies at ATC.

Firefighters wearing fire retarding suits.

Different groups of firefighters wearing distinct uniforms.

A water rescue team preparing divers and a "victim" for the helicopter drill.

A pump boat showing off full capacity.

A variety of firefighter uniforms.

Formal dress uniforms to more practical response backpack kits.

Fire fighters lining up in front of the harbor.

You can see how Japanese fire helmets have an insulating flap that covers the ears and neck, similar to a samurai helmet.

A colored smoke signal to summon help from the helicopter.

A helicopter from the Naniwa Fire Department (a densely populated area that neighbors the ward in which the event is being held). Here the helicopter is lowering a diver into the water.

A diver being lowered into the water by winch with the Sunflower ferry in the background.

Support divers from a boat and the helicopter diver prepare the victim for rescue.

Being pulled up to the helicopter.

The completion of the water rescue.

A roof rescue demonstration.

Osaka theme on the stage decorations.

A helicopter demonstrating an aerial water dump.

The pump engines mix in color dye.

Colorful mist.

The boat crew in high spirits.

Colorful jets of water.

High fives for admiring kids.

The Ikuno ward (Korea Town area) fire department representatives.

Kids posing with young firefighters.

Tasukeru, the Rescue Panda.
He is the representative the Abeno Life Safety Learning Center.

His tail has the emergency number for Japan; 119

He also has "extinguisher" marked on his back.

Lobo and his mother, the mascots for the Cerezo Soccer team, which plays out of Yanmar Staium in Nagai Park.
THere is a professional soccer player wearing a sash and taking photos.

Another Osaka sports team represented by mascots and a pro-player taking photos with fans.

"Super Rescue" equipment on display. Including the "jaws of life."

Saver Mirai.
Note the phoenix design on his helmet and belt buckle.

A CPR lesson with a lot of small kids in attendance.

Above is a tweet showing a similar fire fighters demonstration in Yokohama, held the same weekend.