Posts Tagged With: tradition

Hip, Hip, Hula

On the third Sunday of every month — which was yesterday — part of the waterfront main drag of downtown Kailua-Kona is closed off to auto traffic in favor of the “Kona Sunday Street Stroll”, which is pretty much exactly what you are picturing. About 100 local vendors set up tents, and it’s worth an easy hour or so to stroll among them. Some of these are for food, including that Hawaiian perennial, shave ice, and — our personal favorite — a local lady who makes popsicles out of fresh-pressed local fruits. Trust me, you want a lilikoi (passion fruit)-banana popsicle. I also tried a rather bizarre mixture: a pineapple-papaya-chili pepper popsicle. The chili peppers were in little chunks, scattered dangerously throughout. I came to think of it as a Menopause Popsicle: you’re happily working your way through the sweet refreshing fruity ice, when POW! Hot flash!

The non-food vendors: jewelry, tee shirts, photographers (you have no idea how many metal-printed photos of lava and sea turtles are out there), and herbal panaceas. The latter are usually advertised as having been extracted from some species of flora that no one has ever heard of, but which can nonetheless provide relief from pretty much everything.

Certainly the highlight of our walk — besides the popsicles and shave ice — was the hula demo on the grounds of the Hulihe’e Palace, the former Kona waterfront vacation home of Hawaiian royalty, built in the early 1800’s. Here was the scene yesterday at about 4:30 PM:

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Hula — especially Hawaiian hula – is a complicated and subtle art form. Many mainland hula demonstrations include an admixture of Tahitian hula, which is the one with the very rapid tempo drumming. the tall headdresses, and the women with the inhumanly fast hips. Traditional Hawaiian hula is different: the pre-Western kind, called hula kahiko, is a story-telling medium centered on the arms, hands, and face. It’s performed to a song and accompanied only by a percussive double gourd. Here’s what I mean by it being gestural:

I like to think that the pose on the left means, “Please silence your cell phones.” Other examples from yesterday:

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At this point, someone out there who is reading this post is thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s with the 19th century prom dresses? Where are the grass skirts?” Here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, the original Hawaiian female hula dancers never wore grass skirts. They wore very elaborate, multi-square-yard skirts made of kapa cloth, which is a fiber made from a certain pressed tree bark. And they did not wear coconut-shell bras. (No sane woman anywhere ever has; they’re some late 19th century guy’s fantasy, which I’ll get to in a moment.) They did not wear any tops at all.

The whole topless women thing did not sit well with late 18th century missionaries, or at least with their wives. It became necessary to cover the immodest heathen, and so they did. To keep the missionaries placated the hula halaus (schools) adopted the grandmotherly garb that you see above, and much of both modern day (‘auana) and traditional (kahiko) hula are performed that way. Men’s hula, on the other hand — much more stylistically aggressive and less subtle than the women’s dance — was and still is performed in loincloths and maile leaf adornments.

So where did the whole grass-skirt-and-coconut-bra shtick come from? The answer, believe it or not, is vaudeville. Vaudeville got its start in the 1880’s about a century after Cook’s arrival and eventual death in the islands. Knowledge of Hawaii’s existence had seeped into popular knowledge by then, and theater producers were always on the lookout for exotic material for their productions. “Girls from a tropical island” was bound to occur to somebody sooner or later. But the topless thing clearly wasn’t gonna fly, and the authentic kapa skirts weren’t going to work either: they were expensive, labor-intensive to maintain, and, well, insufficiently sexy for their intended purpose. Enter the grass skirt: cheap, easy to fix or replace, and just a bit suggestive. Ditto the coconut bras. The skirts also had a certain historical precedent in that they did somewhat resemble Tahitian hula skirts, which are indeed made from grasses and leaves but are ankle-length and thick.

This dress scheme was wildly successful, and soon every vaudeville act with a Hawaiian number was dressing their dancers in grass skirts, to the point that it eventually became everyone’s default mental image for Hawaiian hula. It was, in its way, one of the first viral memes. And of course, it filtered all the way back to its point of origin: if you plunk for the $49.95 Colorful Hawaiian Luau at whatever hotel you’re staying at, odds are good that you’ll see a hula dancer in a not-particularly-Hawaiian grass skirt.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Lights! Camera! Christmas!

OK, so why do people put up all those lights on their houses at Christmas? I ask this because my wife and I spent a pleasant half hour last night driving through one of the more over-the-top local displays, which I’ll show you in a moment. I’ll start you off with something very traditional from that display, your basic go-to Peace On Earth setup:

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I’ve been told that the tradition of Christmas lights is actually some kind of Gentile copycat thing rooted in Judaism’s Hanukkah menorah with its eight candles. (Just like the whole Hanukkah gift-giving thing is basically a result of Jewish kids getting jealous of their Christian counterparts.) It’s a really interesting theory with no basis in fact, although in researching this I did stumble across my favorite headline of the day: “Jewish Hanukkah Menorah Now a Favorite Irish Christmas Tradition.” Since Ireland has all of 2500 Jews (about the same as Morocco, as it happens), I have no idea how this came about. But I digress.

Christmas lights are a surprisingly recent tradition, the whole candles-on-the-tree thing having started only in the 17th century. Many people — hopefully those with good fire-suppression systems in their homes — still follow it. My ex-wife is one of them. I can remember many happy Christmases when the kids were growing up, when she would light the candles and everyone would bask in their Christmassy glow while I glowered from the corner with a fire extinguisher in my lap.

The whole thing really took off in 1880, when Thomas Edison introduced the first outdoor electric Christmas display; you can pretty much take it from there. The first electrically-lit White House Christmas tree was turned on by President Grover Cleveland in 1895. In 1925 a consortium of 15 lightbulb companies created the NOMA corporation, which became the dominant Christmas light purveyor for decades before folding in 1968. It was during the 40’s and 50’s when decorative bulbs became available that things really took off and gave rise to today’s elaborate displays of holiday electrical oneupmanship.

One of our best local displays is at a nearby state park on the Chesapeake Bay (I live in the seaside town of Annapolis) , and as you might imagine has a fair number of nautically-themed setups:

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So you’ve got your sea monsters, anchors, sailboats, etc. But this being Maryland, you’ll drive among a bunch of electric crabs, oysters, and herons as well. Not to mention flying saucers with friendly-looking three-eyed aliens, who I suppose attended the birth of Jesus. (“We bring gold, frankincense, and the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Demodulator.”) Speaking of whom, even a newly-incarnated divinity needs to eat (at least, I assume so), so our local display includes this one, sponsored by a local pizza chain:

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(Yes, the pizza at upper right is animated and flips up and down out of the Elf Baker’s hands.)

I’ll close with the World’s Scariest Electric Teddy Bear (about 15 feet tall), and my personal take on Heironymus Bosch’s driveway at Christmas. You can see the complete set (14 shots) at https://www.flickr.com/photos/isaacman/sets/72157674697937173 . Happy holidays!

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Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Instant Zen, and Rolling Your Own Sushi

We began the day with no little trepidation, occasioned by the proximity of the mysteriously-named Typhoon #18. We knew that we would be climbing a hillside in the town of Arashiyama to visit with Obayashi-san, the resident monk at Senkoji temple, and Mariko had hinted darkly at the ardors of ascending 200 steps to do so. The prospect of negotiating 200 stone steps in the rain did not appeal.

But the weather held, more or less, and the trek (such as it was) began with a more leisurely and scenic amble along the river at the foot of the mountain.

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Feeling serene yet?

The 200 steps turned out to be not such a big deal, sufficiently well spaced out along the few hundred foot ascent to avoid the feeling of an endless trudge. There was even a small shrine or two along the way to remind us of our goal (which was of course enlightenment, or at least the top of the damn hill).

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When we reached the temple our immediate gratification was a large temple bell, which we were allowed to ring.

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It produced a deep, sonorous, and very Asian GONNNNNGGGGGG, just like you’d hope. I was enjoying this, and had already rung the thing about six times when the attendant courteously informed me that you’re only supposed to ring it thrice. So now I’ve probably gone and summoned some polycephalic demon from whatever passes for Hell in Buddhism. (Which would explain the weather that befell us about nine hours later.)

The temple is occupied by the aforementioned monk Obayashi, who lives there with his family (Japanese monks are not celibate). Our gathering place was a typically spartan tatami room, albeit one with a spectacular panoramic view of the valley and town. The decor included samurai armor.

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Monk Obayashi was friendly and talkative, and with Mariko translating gave us an exposition and answered questions about Zen Buddhism and in particular the role of meditation in it. He opened the session with a lengthy chant, punctuated by a drumbeat that he tapped out while chanting. But we were to get into the act too: before beginning he handed out a phonetic cheat sheet so that we could chant along. It starts like this:

KAN JI ZAI BO SA GYO JIN HAN NYA HA RA MI

…and goes on like that for 26 more lines. I believe it is a blessing for our safe travels, but I am not actually certain of this.

He then gave us a quick lesson in how to meditate — how to breathe, empty your thoughts, etc. — and instructed us to begin doing so when he rang a bell. We would meditate, he informed us, for only five minutes or so.

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Now at this point in the narrative I should observe to those readers who do not know me personally that the readers who do know me personally have already collapsed in convulsive hysterical laughter at the prospect of me attempting Zen meditation. The only way I am going to empty my mind of thoughts is by physically removing my brain from my cranium, and my personal record for sitting motionless in quiet contemplation of nothingness is approximately 9 seconds. So let us leave the topic by conceding that I am not cut out to be a Buddhist monk, a revelation that surprises exactly none of my family or friends.

Having failed to achieve nirvana but at least enjoyed the monk’s well-meaning attempt at getting us there, we headed back down the mountain towards our next stop, which was lunch at the Heki residence in the nearby town of Kameoka. But not just any lunch: we received a sushi-making lesson and ate the product of our labors. The process started with our hosts producing big bowls of freshly-made hot rice, which we had to cool by stirring and waving fans.

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We were then instructed how to form it into little plum-sized balls and shown how to embed the various ingredients and toppings into them.

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It was a hoot, and as you can see we also got to dress like altar boys for some unexplained reason. This particular style of sushi — little balls instead of the familiar log-like rolls — is called temari, and was no doubt chosen for us because it is particularly simple to make. It was great fun, and if we can find the ingredients at home (difficult, but almost certainly not impossible) it will make a great novelty dinner party.

Later in the afternoon we visited yet another residence for a demonstration of traditional Japanese music. This was quite a treat, a husband and wife couple who are both local experts (and teachers) in three traditional instruments. Those are the koto…

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…the three-stringed shamisen…

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…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…

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The gentleman playing the shakuhachi has not just arrived from a wild party, nor is he painfully shy. In a private setting it is not in fact required to wear a wicker basket on one’s head whilst playing the instrument; he was demonstrating how he plays in public when soliciting donations for his Buddhist temple. The wooden box on his front is the equivalent of a busker’s hat, for collecting alms for the temple; he will walk the streets and play, and the hat — which he can see through — represents the boundary between the secular and spiritual worlds. It separates him from mundane reality while he is playing for the gods. It’s also a big hit at parties.

The music was haunting and beautifully played. Afterwards, we all got the opportunity to play the instruments, with pretty much zero success as you’d expect. With one exception: here is Alice — and I swear this is true — successfully picking out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, which may well be some kind of first.

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“….”E-I-E-I-OOOOOO…”

Dinner this evening was in Kyoto’s Gion distract, a.k.a. the geisha district. In Kyoto, geishas are known as geikos — no insurance company jokes, please — and their apprentices are called maikos. You see quite a few of them out and about in the Gion, complete with white makeup — or rather, you do when you are not in the middle of a typhoon. We saw a few in the street en route to dinner, when the rain was just beginning — my bell-ringing transgression of earlier in the day having finally caught up with me — but an hour or two later this was the scene when we left the restaurant:

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Full-bore torrential downpour. With luck the storm will pass tonight so that we will have decent weather tomorrow, which is our last day here. Alice will be going on a garden walk (weather permitting), but I have few plans beyond some last minute gift shopping so there may not be much to report in a final post. We’ll be home in roughly 48 hours. This has been another great trip.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

We Receive Our UNESCO Merit Badge

You know, there probably ought to be an island somewhere where all the people who have vanishing, obsolete, or traditional but obscure skill sets can all live together in peace and harmony. You know: geishas, blacksmiths, slide rule designers, coopers (when’s the last time you had a barrel made?), roof thatchers, that sort of thing. If such a place existed, you can bet that a disproportionate segment of the population would be Japanese. We saw a bunch of them today.

Today’s destinations were all in the UNESCO World Heritage locales of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go and a few of the neighboring towns. They are characterized by a number of attributes: stunning valley settings, gassho farmhouse architecture (which I’ll explain in a moment), and the preservation of what to our philistine Western sensibilities are obscure but colorful arts and crafts. Let’s start with the settings and the architecture.

“Gokayama” means “five mountains”. (Remember that -yama is a suffix meaning “mountain”, as in Fujiyama.) This part of the country is mountainous, which means two things: striking vistas and a lot of snow in winter. Our first stop was the village of Ainokura, a settlement of 1000 people or so nestled in a Shangri-la-like valley (I wish there were some way of typing that without two hyphens) ringed by cloud-misted green peaks. The building roofs are all thatched — very thick thatching, perhaps two feet through, mounted on a steep A-frame with about a 60-degree cant to prevent snow accumulation. And that, gentle reader, is more or less the definition of gassho architecture. The word itself means “praying hands”, which more or less describes the shape of the roof. There are a couple of things to pray for, e.g., that the village won’t get six feet of snow again this winter, because, tradition or no tradition the locals are sick of shoveling the stuff. The residents might also pray that no moronic tourist lights up a cigarette, since a wood frame house with a thatched roof is a conflagration waiting to happen. All of the houses in Ainokura are like this, giving it the feel of a 16th century Colonial Williamsburg. (And the brochures and signs do indeed ask you not to smoke.) We enjoyed a woodcut-worthy photogenic overlook of the town, and ambled around the streets for a while.

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Our next stop was the village of Taira, where they, um, pound rice. Not quite sure how else to describe it, really. The desired end product is mochi, or Japanese rice cake. “Cake” hardly seems like the right word, though: mochi is a essentially a little ball of rice gluten, which you can flavor by rolling it in a little sugar and soy powder or dipping it in soy. It’s gummy, sort of like an edible ball of doughy Silly Putty, though gooier and much easier to chew. It’s considered a special treat because making it in the proper fashion is labor-intensive: one person repeatedly pounds a bucket full of rice with a wooden sledgehammer while a second reaches into the goo between hammer strokes to add a bit of water and do a very quick knead. Time it wrong and the second person is looking at five broken fingers. (I asked Mariko how often this occurs among practitioners; she translated the question and was informed that it never happens.  However that is only because I don’t attempt to make mochi; otherwise the local hospital would have to hire a new full-time doctor just to apply splints.)

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Like everything else in Japan, mochi is steeped in tradition. You can’t just whale away with your Sears Craftsman hammer into a bowl of Uncle Ben’s Rice. You need just the right kind of rice, soaked for the right amount of time, pounded with the right wooden sledgehammer, and so forth. It’s all very traditional and precise, though the end product is very enjoyable. (At least for me; Alice was not so crazy about it.)

This ethos of doing things just so, using the ancient ways, is certainly a core part of Japanese tradition. We saw it again a few minutes later just down the road, where we made “Gokayama Mashi” paper. Or so they told us; would be more accurate to say that we participated in the final two steps (out of about 20) of making the much-prized, high-fiber paper. A traditional plant must be harvested, and the wrong kind of fibers removed, then boiled, and have other stuff added to it, then this, then that, then something else, and if I remember the informational video correctly then about two months later you have a sheet of very nice paper indeed, which you damn well better use for something important.

Our role in the process was to repeatedly dip a small screen about the size of a dinner tray into a trough of white liquid fibrous pulp, rather like rice pudding. You dip the screen into the pulp in a scooping motion to avoid trapping air bubbles, then lift it out and hold it horizontally to let the water drain. Repeat two more times. Decorate with colorful cutout bits of paper: cats, moons, fish. Hand the screen to a guy who carefully peels out the wet paper-to-be and sticks it flat against a hot drying surface, which is just a vertical panel of heated sheet metal. Twenty minutes later you have a sheet of paper with your decorations embedded in it.

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We moved on to a traditional lunch (do you sense a pattern emerging?), “tradition” in this case being an unusual vegetarian lunch of what of what are called “mountain vegetables”, which included items like fiddlehead fern. It was interesting, not at all bad, and a source of nostalgia for Mariko, who remembers her grandmother going into the mountains to gather vegetables for such a meal. Now it’s uncommon; it is hard to find the ingredients in a supermarket, and they are quite expensive.

Lunch concluded with a musical interlude. Two of the ladies who staffed the restaurant did a simple traditional dance while playing the binzasara, a bizarre percussion instrument that is basically a row of clappers strung tightly together.   You hold the two ends and snap your wrist, which causes a wave to propagate down the row of clappers, like tightly-spaced dominoes falling. It makes a clattery buzzing sound, indeed rather like what you’d get if you recorded a bunch of falling dominoes and then played back the audio at high speed. We all tried it; it’s a little tricky but you get the hang of it quickly. The instrument is a big deal around here: as you drive into this village of Taira, you pass under an archway shaped like one.

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I am happy to report that we were able to answer this particular Japanese musical tradition with an American musical tradition. Joe, one of our travel group, is a “sonic afficionado”, if there is such a term, who delights in whistling, making sound effects, and generally utilizing whatever is at hand (e.g., a blades of grass) to make noise. He travels with a pocket harmonica at all times — a practice that I recommend on philosophical grounds — and so responded to the binzasara performance by standing up and playing a long, impressive blues piece on his harmonica. It was quite a performance and he brought down the house. (I had told him earlier that I was planning on sending him a USB stick with all my photos; he said that in return he would send me one of his harmonica instructional videos. Seems like a very fair trade.)

We had two more stops to make after lunch, but i will be brief since it is getting late and this post is already somewhat longer than average. The first was the 500-year old home of the Iwase family, who have occupied it for 18 generations. The house dates back to the samurai era and has variously been used to store gunpowder, silk, and other commodities. I’m not sure if it is technically in the gassho style since the roof is not as steeply tilted as the other buildings. But the thatching was thick and robustly bound to heavy circular beams on the upper floors. Now the is just a family home, but the Iwases use it to (you guessed it) keep some of the old traditions alive, notably the kokiriko dance.

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Kokiriko is the oldest traditional Japanese dance, accompanied by a binzasara and percussion sticks. Though performed by women now, it was originally a dance performed only by the nobles and was used to celebrate the hunt. The costumes are said to be silk versions of a hunting outfit; I infer that the role of the hat (see photo above!) was to facilitate the hunt by making the animals convulse with derisive laughter. (“Look at that stupid hat!  You can’t even see anyth…OUCH ARROWS! OUCHouchouchouch…”) The Iwases served us tea after the dance, and we explored the house for a while.

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Our final stop of the day was Shirakawa-go itself, essentially a larger and more touristy version of the village of Ainokura that we saw first thing this morning. Like Ainokura, it sits serenely yet strikingly in a valley dotted with rice paddies and ringed with mountains. We admired the view, walked down into the town, then headed back to Kanazawa for a decidedly non-traditional Japanese dinner: Chinese food

shirakawa-012 shirakawa-008 shirakawa-009 shirakawa-010.Thus concludes our stay in Kanazawa. Tomorrow we head off to Kyoto for five nights, the final leg of our trip.

 

 

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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