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Reflections on “Oriental Ghost Stories,” Lafcadio Hearn (compiled and edited by David Stuart Davies)

orientalghostWhy did I choose to read this book?

I really like the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural books, which are reprints of classic horror and gothic stories published cheaply by Wordsworth Editions. I have several of them – their collection of vampire short stories and their Edith Nesbit collection, to name a few – and I was delighted to see that they’d also released some of the works of Lafcadio Hearn. All erudite Japanese people, and a large percentage of people who’ve studied Japan, know the importance of Hearn – he emigrated to Japan in 1890 and was responsible for much of the West’s understanding of Japanese culture through his writings on Japanese customs and folklore. I’ve long been familiar with Hearn but have never owned a collection of his writings, and being a lover of all things Japanese, folky and ghostly, I knew I had to get this book. And with Samhain coming it, now felt like a perfect time to reflect on it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book compiles stories from Hearn’s books – Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan and Some Chinese Ghosts – into one volume, with a very nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. The stories are essentially folktales – old, spooky “urban legends” that Hearn came across during his time in Japan, as well as a few other writings about China and Europe. All the stories feature elements of the supernatural, from ghosts to demons to inexplicable magic.

What did I particularly like about it?

To begin with, I LOVE the idea of presenting Japanese ghost stories first and foremost as simply that – horror stories. All too often, East Asian writings (and writing from other non-European cultures) get pigeonholed into “East Asia” or “Oriental” as a genre in itself, as if their literature cannot be appreciated alongside or compared with similar literature from the West. This adds to the myth that Japan and other countries are “inscrutable.” Publishing Japanese ghost stories alongside those by European writers as part of the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series, in a cheap, almost pulpy, paperback format, is an excellent way of introducing Japanese stories to the masses who may not have any initial interest in Japan, which helps to shatter that “inscrutable” image.

Then there are the stories themselves. Hearn is a wonderful storyteller, who manages to keep a balance of making these stories appealing to the Western reader and retaining their eerie and mystical atmosphere without completely losing their sense of “Japaneseness.” Naturally, I liked some stories better than others; some of the highlights for me included:

  • “The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoiichi” – The opening story of the book, which has as its protagonist one of Japan’s most fascinating stock characters; a blind lute-player.
  • “Yuki-Onna” – The legends of the mysterious and potentially deadly “snow woman” are well-known to lovers of Japanese folklore, and this version is full of elegance and mystery.
  • Jiu-roku-zakura” – A short but moving tale of a man devoted to his cherry tree. It reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
  • The Dream of Akinosuke” – Something of a mystery story. The real meaning is revealed at the end, but clever readers might be able to guess what’s going on before then…
  • “A Story of Divination” – A neat and somewhat spooky tale exploring the idea of predestination.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Oriental Ghost Stories has a very eclectic feeling, with strange little essays and extracts included among the stories which add variety. Some people might be put off by this “jumbled” feeling, but I rather liked it. The rather archaic language (especially the old ways of romanising Japanese words) might be a bit jarring to some, but again, I thought this added to the book’s charm.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I actually learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know about Japanese religion from these stories (I suppose that’s not so surprising – folktales can sometimes offer the greatest insight into spiritual beliefs). Due to the nature of the stories, most of the religious elements described are Buddhist (as Buddhism is associated with funeral rites in Japan), which I liked because I am less familiar with Buddhism (especially on the popular level) than Shinto in Japan. I also learned a few things about Shinto that I didn’t know – for example, I had no idea that incense is considered “unclean” in Shinto and isn’t generally burned at Shinto shrines until reading this book! This made me re-consider my current practise of occasionally offering incense to Inari Okami.

Additionally, I was fascinated to read about the concept of “nazorareru.” Hearn claims that this word “…cannot be be adequately rendered by any English word” but describes it as “…to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result,” for example, laying a pebble before the image of Buddha instead of building a Buddhist temple in order to evoke the same feeling of piety. I immediately realised that what Hearn is describing is the very same “sympathetic magic” that forms the basis of the theories in The Golden Bough! I realised that the concept of sympathetic magic exists in Japan (as it does in all human cultures), but I had no idea that the Japanese had their own term for it. I was really excited to discover this.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – whether you want to read it to learn more about Japanese folklore, or simply want a good scare, I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

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Grieving for objects in Japan

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Funeral at Kofuku-ji for AIBOs (Courtesy Independent)

Various news sources have been reporting on the funerals being held for AIBO robot dogs in Japan. Since Sony stopped repairing and making spare parts for AIBOs, the dogs have been slowly “dying out.” In response to this, Buddhist priests have been holding funeral services for them. [Read more]

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Nature Gods verses Human Gods

"Fujinraijin-tawaraya" by 俵屋宗達 (Tawaraya Sotatsu, ? - ?) - Brother Sun , Sister Moon. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fuujin and Raijin, the fearsome and inhuman Shinto gods of wind and thunder. “Fujinraijin-tawaraya” by 俵屋宗達 (Tawaraya Sotatsu, ? – ?) – Brother Sun , Sister Moon. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In all the Pagan religions I can think of, practically all the deities have some kind of darker, fearsome aspect to them. And there is a very good reason for this – they represent the forces of nature. [Read more]

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A talk on Japanese Tree-Burials

treeburial

Family paying respects at a Tree Burial “grave.” From Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death, by Sébastien Penmellen Boret (You can purchase this here: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415517065/)

This evening I attended a talk at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on Japanese Tree-Burials. This is new form of burial in Japan, and one that differs quite considerably from the traditional death rituals there. In a typical Buddhist death rites in Japan, the ashes of the dead are stored in a large family grave made from stone and stand among thousands of other such graves in a designated cemetery . But in the new rite of Tree-Burial, which was created by a Zen Buddhist monk, forests serve as cemeteries with each burial spot marked by a tree for each person’s ashes. The talk was given by Dr Sébastien Penmellen Boret, an anthropologist who has worked with communities involved in Tree-Burial, to launch his new book on the subject, Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death which can be purchased from Routledge here.

Dr Boret explained that part of the appeal of Tree-Burial is that it is eco-friendly. In purchasing a tree and space in the forest, families are supporting the maintenance of Japan’s woodlands and re-introducing species that have may have died out in the area. Another reason that Japanese may choose Tree-Burial over the traditional family grave is that, in having their ashes buried at the roots of a tree, it provides a sense of reincarnation and re-birth as the tree grows and continues to live. What’s very interesting is that at the Tree-Burial ground where Dr Boret was based, a communal memorial service would be held for all the departed resting there at O-bon (the Japanese festival of the dead) at which priests of Buddhism, Christianity and Shinto would all be present.

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The forest-cemetery of Oku-no-in, Mt Koya

Although Tree-Burial is of Buddhist origins (like most of Japan’s funeral culture), one cannot deny that there is a very Shinto aspect to having one’s remains buried by a tree so one’s essence is somehow preserved in the tree, let alone the respect for nature that is embodied in the practice. But I actually think that this link between Buddhism and the nature-worshipping aspects of Shinto is not a new thing at all when it comes to funeral rites. One of my favourite places in Japan is Oku-no-in at Mt Koya, a mountain complex of temples of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Oku-no-in is a very sacred temple as it is the resting place of Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and it’s set in an immense forest filled with over 200,000 graves. It should be noted that Shingon is perhaps the Buddhist sect with the most links to Shinto – this excellent article on Green Shinto explains more.

The idea of using graves to conserve forests reminded me of another form preservation in Japan – that of kofun tombs. Kofun are megalithic, keyhole-shaped burial mounds that are scattered all over the country. They are of great historical and cultural significance, but they are threatened by the same thing that threatens the forests – development of the land and urbanisation.

To help protect the kofun tombs, one proposal has been to use them as modern cemeteries for the Japanese of today – in effect, putting them to the same use that they served hundreds of years ago. Not even the most ruthless development company really wants to incur the wrath of locals by desecrating their family graves, so putting graves on kofun helps to protect them from being demolished.

I find it very affirming indeed that the culture of death can be used to preserve our most precious treasures in life. As so many Pagans believe, it reinforces the idea of the cyclical nature of life and death, and shows us that even in grief, we can construct something positive for ourselves, society and nature.

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The many parallels between Christmas and Japanese New Year

Kumamoto new year shrine

Huge crowds of people outside a shrine on New Year’s Day in Japan

Although Christmas is celebrated in Japan, it’s not such an important date in the Japanese calendar, and is more of an event for young people (it’s especially associated with dating). The real equivalent of Christmas/Yule in Japan is New Year (O-shogatsu), which these days is celebrated on the same date as the Gregorian New Year, January 1st. Just as Christmas in Britain combines elements from Christianity and the old Pagan symbols of yule, O-shogatsu has both Shinto and Buddhist elements. It’s chiefly a time to say thank you to the kami (deities) for all they have provided in the year, and to pray for their continued blessings.

I’ve always thought there’s an awful lot of similarities between the two festivals so I thought I’d explore them here, as the parallels suggest that certain motifs are particular important in all religious winter festivals across all cultures and many of them are deeply rooted in Paganism.

Kagamimochi Red/white/gold colour scheme
(Left: Kagami-mochi (an ornamental display of mochi rice cakes for New Year) By Shin-改 (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)  At O-shogatsu, the colours red and white are the most prevalent, followed by gold and green – very much like Yule. The white/red colour scheme is probably partly to do with these colours being those of Japan (think of the flag), but it may also carry the same symbolism of these colours in Yule – white symbolising snow, while red, gold and green are colours of vitality and displaying them is a kind of sympathetic magic to encourage the same vitality to return to the bare trees and fields.

kadomatsuDisplaying greenery
(Left: Kadomatsu displays. By Nesnad (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The Christmas Tree is one of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas and Yule, and again its display is probably rooted in a form of sympathetic magic to promote long life (the traditional pine is evergreen), while decorating it encourages the bare tree to be fruitful again. For O-shogatsu, the Japanese display pine as well, combined with bamboo and peach blossom, outside their homes, in a decoration known as a kadomatsu. The pine represents long life, the bamboo growth, and the blossom good health.

mochiMaking Sweets
(Left: Homemade mochi) It’s popular in many households to make and eat sweets on the run-up towards Christmas/Yule, including cookies, gingerbread men, candy canes, mince pies and of course Christmas Pudding. Making sweets for New Year is popular in Japan too, the most prominent being mochi rice cakes. One difference is that the mochi is usually put out as an offering to the spirits before it is eaten, while this is rarely done in non-Pagan households in the UK – except, interestingly, by children leaving out mince pies for Father Christmas!

amazakeSweet alcohol
(Left: Sweet amazake rice wine. By emily_harbour_in_july (Flickr)via Wkimedia Commons) 
We associate both Christmas and Yule with drinking alcohol in the UK, and  the drinks associated with Christmas tend to be sweet – sherry, mulled wine, brandy, wassail etc. New Year is a time for drinking alcohol in Japan as well, but usually in the form of the mild, sweet form of rice wine called amazake. As discussed previously, alcohol is considered sacred in many traditions, and anything flavoured with sugar or spices was also often considered a suitable offering for deities in days of old due to the comparative scarcity of these ingredients. In both festivals, I think the drinking of sweet alcohol is a way of saluting the gods.

nengajoSending cards
(Left: Nengajo postcards. By Halowand (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons) Much like the Christmas tradition of sending greetings cards, the Japanese will send postcards called nengajo to all their friends and family. Very often the Japanese will paint a design on the nengajo themselves, often incorporating the animal of the Chinese zodiac ruling that year. The tradition of sending nengajo is taken very seriously – it’s very bad form to send them late, and if you don’t send them at all people may think that you or someone in you family has died.

otoshidamaGiving gifts
(Left: Envelopes for o-toshi dama. By ©Jnn (Jnn’s file) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The giving of objects for special occasions is an important tradition in Western cultures, and Christmas is the biggest festival of all for gift giving. The Japanese give objects as gifts as well at New Year, but this is relatively downplayed – what’s far more significant, at least for children, is the giving of o-toshi dama, or money presented in a special little envelope. Money has always been the primary form of gift in Japan so this isn’t much of a surprise (in comparison, giving money as a gift in Britain can be taboo in certain cases and has to be done with care). But two other things surprised me about o-toshi dama when I first learned about it. One is the amount given – usually it’s quite considerable, and children may receive the equivalent of hundreds of pounds over New Year. The other is that I’m half-Welsh, and in Wales there is a very similar tradition of giving money on New Year’s Day, called calennig (it’s usually nowhere near as much as Japanese o-toshi dama though…)

enkaiOffice parties
(Left: Typical office party in Japan. By Josh Berglund from Richardson, United States (Kampai!) via Wikimedia Commons) The “staff Christmas party” is now an important part of Christmas in Britain. But Japan takes office parties far more seriously – they are far more numerous, expensive and wild. I can assure you from first-hand experience that Japanese work socials can go insane. One of the most important work socials of the year is the bonenkai, which is held before New Year. There’s no “secret Santa” but you can expect there to be games, good food and lots and lots of drinking.

Picture 022Bells
(Left: Monk ringing a temple bell) Bells are an enduring Christmas symbol, both in the form of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, and as the “sleigh bells” on Santa Claus’ sled. The functions of church bells are both numerous and fairly vague (the main purpose being to call people to mass but also having the function of signifying a celebration as well as the more Pagan concept of warding off evil), but in Buddhist temples in Japan, the great bells are rung with a very specific purpose in mind on New Year’s Eve. Starting at midnight, the priests will ring the great temple bell 108 times in order to rid people’s hearts of the 108 desires according to Buddhism.

osechi Luxury family meal
(Left: O-sechi ryori) The Christmas dinner is typically the largest and most expensive home meal that British households will eat during the year. This is also true of the meal eaten by the Japanese on New Year’s Day, which is known as o-sechi ryori. O-sechi ryori will contain rare delicacies such as red sea bream, black beans covered in gold leaf and lobster. Each of the ingredients has a special meaning, which usually derives from its appearance or a play on words. For example, prawns are eaten because their curved bodies and antennae are suggestive of an old man with a beard, so they symbolise long life, while the word for sea bream in Japanese, tai, sounds like the ending of the word for “rejoice,” medetai. One important difference is that increasing numbers of Japanese get their osechi-ryori delivered rather than preparing it themselves, while it would be fairly unthinkable to get take-away Christmas dinner in your average British household. But in both cases, the banquets eaten at the British Christmas and Japanese New Year serve both to help the family bond, to wish for good health and long life, and (probably) to honour the gods of old.

EmperorSpeeches from royalty
(Left: The Emperor of Japan) Just as the Queen makes a televised speech on Christmas Day in Britain, the Emperor addresses the Japanese nation on New Year’s Day. Although the speech is generally about current affairs and society, the public appearance of the monarchy on the most important religious festival in both countries reminds me of the close link between religion and royalty. The Queen holds the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” while the Imperial Family was historically considered to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess. The Golden Bough goes into a lot of detail into the relationship between royalty and Pagan religions –  I definitely recommend reading it if you’re interested in the subject!

karutaParlour games
(Left: The popular Japanese game karuta. By Ceridwen, via Wikimedia Commons)  In Britain, it’s common for the family to play games after Christmas dinner, the most popular being Charades. Japanese families play simple games on New Year’s Day too, including karuta (a rapid matching card game) and fuku-warai (similar to “pin the tail on the donkey” in which a blindfolded person has to make a face with cut-out facial features). Both British and Japanese parlour games of this sort, which have simple rules so even young children can join in, help families to bond and to pass the time indoors during the cold weather of the season.

darumaWish-granting figure
(Left: A traditional daruma doll.By Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons) In Western countries, one of the most prominent Christmas figures is Santa Claus, traditionally identified as Father Christmas in Britain. He is portrayed as a plump, bearded old man clad in red white and gold, and he grants children their wishes by giving them the presents they ask for if they’ve been good. As discussed here, Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different figures, most of which are Pagan in origin, but is often most frequently associated with the Christian St Nicholas.

Japan has a strikingly similar figure associated with New Year who is also based on a saint – a Buddhist one. Daruma is the Japanese name for the Zen Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, and he is most familiar in Japan in the form of the daruma “wishing doll.”

Like Santa Claus, the daruma doll is plump, bearded, employs a red, white and gold colour scheme, and the Japanese ask him to grant wishes or to help with achieving goals by colouring in one eye. When the wish is granted, they colour in the other eye. The daruma is then taken to a temple on New Year’s Day to be ritually cremated, and a new daruma is purchased.

It’s very interesting that there should be so many similar physical characteristics between Santa Claus and Daruma. I think this relates to the things that people generally wish for in winter – life and brightness (the red, white and gold), long life (old bearded man), and health and abundance (the plump figure). In both the West and Japan, these “spirits of winter” symbolise hope and determination.

CIMG0058Visiting the local place of worship
(Left: Daruma dolls being cremated at a temple on New Year’s Day) Even the least devout people in both Britain and Japan may find themselves going to their local church or shrine/temple on the biggest festival of the year. Much of this is done simply for the fun of the occasion – churches hold carol services which are fun to go to even for non-Christians, while Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often sell food and mementos as well as providing o-mikuji – a sort of fortune-telling raffle.  Public services for Christmas in Britain and New Year in Japan also serve to strengthen the community spirit.

At both the Christmas church service and the Shinto New Year festivities, blessings are an important part of the occasions, as is gratitude. In both cases, people express their thanks for life, love and light. And this is also true of the Pagan festival of Yule, when Pagans give thanks to nature for everything she has provided.

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Some thoughts on my first Samhain

inaripumpkin

My shrine to Inari Okami, with a seasonal offering of a munchkin pumpkin

This year will be my first time to celebrate Samhain as a Pagan. From what I can gather, Samhain seems to be a particularly significant Sabbat. In fact, it seems to me that more Pagans place a particular emphasis on Samhain, maybe even more than Beltane. So I thought I’d write down my current thoughts on this festival.

From what I can tell, out of all the eight Sabbats, Samhain is the only one that isn’t all joy and happiness – it has a dark, sombre side too. It’s very much a time for remembering the dead – both our ancestors who have long passed, and those who we have known and loved in our lives who are no longer with us. Some Pagans also recognise Samhain as the death of the Great God, until his re-birth at Yule. This gives Samhain a particularly strong feeling of solemnity and gravity that isn’t so apparent in the other seven Sabbats.

But this doesn’t mean that Samhain is only a time of mourning and sorrow. Like the other Sabbats, Samhain is a celebration – a celebration of our departed friends and family, of the changing of the seasons, and of the thinning of the veil between this world and the spirit world.

What’s more, Samhain is now more familiar to modern Brits as Halloween – a time associated with parties, costumes, eating sweets and enjoying spooky and horror-themed festivities of all kinds. And from my experience, Pagans still enjoy this more frivolous side to Halloween as well. I don’t think many Pagans have problems in celebrating both the dignified, spiritual side of Samhain together with the fun and festivities of Halloween. Certainly I don’t! Although I wasn’t able to attend my moot Medway Pagans’ Samhain festival (it coincided with my sister’s birthday meal), I do plan to hold some sort of ritual for Samhain in order to honour the spirits, my ancestors and departed friends and family. But as well as this, my husband and I have just returned from 2.8 Hours Later, an entertaining “zombie survival” experience (not bad but Zed Event’s “Shopping Mall” zombie experience was way better value for money in my opinion!), and we’re also planning on going to see the new vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows tomorrow. So I think we’ll get the mix of Samhain spirituality with Halloween horror-fun down pretty well!

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Float to commemorate the dead at the Shoro-Nagashi (Nagasaki’s O-bon festival)

This mixture of deep spirituality and light-hearted fun surrounding Samhain reminds me very much of the similar Buddhist O-bon festival in Japan. Celebrated in summer, O-bon festivals vary from place to place in Japan, but where I lived in Japan (Nagasaki), it was a pretty big event, the climax being the “Shoro Nagashi” or “Spirit Boat Parade.” At sunset, families all over Nagasaki would carry enormous boat-shaped floats covered with lanterns through the town, all the while throwing firecrackers as a way of welcoming the spirits of the dead. The whole occasion is held very much like any other Japanese festival, with plenty of stalls selling great food, games to play, and people dressed in bright yukata robes. It’s considered a fun festival, yet at the same time it is tinged with sadness, as it’s the time for families to remember their departed members.

In fact, while the idea of mixing both grief with joy when remembering the dead is rather strange in predominately Christian cultures like Britain, it’s fairly widespread elsewhere. Just think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its bright, garish colours.

I think that it’s great that the modern Pagan interpretation of Samhain can be celebrated both with solemnity and frivolity at the same time. It’s yet another wise Pagan reminder that all change, even the most difficult change, can still be celebrated in its own way, and that the darker sides to life do not need to be faced with dread.

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Reflections on “Japanese Death Poems,” Yoel Hoffman

DeathPoemsAs Samhain approaches, now seemed like a good time to read and reflect upon this collection of Japanese “death poems,” compiled by Yoel Hoffman.

There’s a tradition among Zen Buddhist monks and poets in Japan to compose one final poem during their final hours of life –  a jisei, often translated into English as “death poem.” This poem functions as a kind of self-epitaph, a farewell to the world. In this book, Hoffman has collected jisei from Zen Buddhists and haiku poets from all over Japan and presented them, many for the first time, translated into English.

The book begins with an introduction not just to the concept of death poems, but also to the culture and customs surrounding death in Japan, in addition to Zen teachings and Japanese poetry in general. It’s a nicely-written introduction that serves as a good preface to the collection of poems, which is divided into two parts – jisei by Zen monks and jisei by haiku poets.

So what are jisei like? Actually, there is quite a difference between those written by the monks and those written by the poets. Let’s start with the monks first, with this example from Hosshin, who died in the 13th century:

Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?

This abstract, enigmatic poem is typically Zen – questioning the nature of reality and existence itself. Many of the other poems by Zen monks are similarly cryptic and philosophical. Each one is like a miniature Zen teaching in itself.

To be honest, I preferred those written by the haiku poets, both for their beauty and their messages. As those familiar with haiku might expect, they are very short (three lines) yet rich in imagery and symbolism. Take this example by Baiko, who died in 1903 at the age of sixty:

Plum petals falling
I look up – the sky,
a clear crisp moon.

Although brief, this poem is full of meaning. Firstly, the “plum petals” allude to the season of early spring, and their “falling” represents both death and the transient nature of existence, a concept which is fundamental to Zen. Seeing the moon can represent enlightenment, and this is re-enforced by it being clear and crisp. From this beautiful, short message, we not only get a glimpse of the time and place where Baiko spent his last hours, but also his most innermost feelings. It sounds like he had made his peace with the world before leaving it. Don’t worry if you need some help with the symbolism with some of poems – many of them poems are given a short interpretation by Hoffman.

The above poem also demonstrates the combination of simplicity and philosophical contemplation with deep appreciation of the natural world – two very common features of the haiku form of jisei. I like to think of this almost as a fusion of Zen Buddhist philosophy with Shinto nature-worship.

Baiko’s poem also contains the quiet sense of calm, dignity and gratitude for life that permeates many of the other poems in this collection. I felt quite inspired to read such beautiful and profound poems written by elderly people at the end of their lives – not only do they give a unique account from elderly people experiencing something so personal and private yet common to us all, but I also find them comforting and positive in the face of a natural phenomenon that many of us find frightening. Some of the poems even have a bit of humour in them too:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak
(Moriya Senan, died 1838)

While I think this is a wonderful collection, with good accompanying text and translations that capture the beauty and nuance of the original poems very well, there was one thing I found to be a major disappointment. That was the complete absence of the poems written in their original Japanese characters. The haiku poets’ jisei are only accompanied by romanised Japanese, while the Zen poems don’t even have this, giving us only the English translation to read. Considering that in Japanese, the characters used brings an added dimension to the meaning of text and contributes immensely to both the aesthetics and semantics of poetry, it is a massive shame that there were no Japanese characters included at all. I even think this is true of the poems originally only written in hiragana syllabary – while one might argue that the romanised version suffices as it conveys no more additional meaning than hiragana sounds, I believe that romanised Japanese looks rather awkward, ugly and stark. In putting the poems into romanised Japanese without any Japanese characters at all, the original looses much of its beauty and fluidity. Even though the work is written in English, its rather niche subject means that many students of the Japanese language would be among the target audience, so leaving out the Japanese characters entirely seems a very odd decision. Most peculiar of all, Hoffman did decide to put the poets’ names in their original characters! I am very surprised and bewildered that he prioritised the characters for the poets’ names over the actual poems themselves.

Japanese Death Poems is beautiful, poignant and very unique – a very welcome addition to my collection of books on Japanese spirituality. I would recommend it not only to those with an interest in Japanese philosophy and poetry, but also those who want to deepen their understanding of the nature of life and death – especially those who find it difficult or distressing to come to terms with this sensitive subject.

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Brigid and Jizo

Entrance_to_St_Brigids_Well

St Brigid’s Well in Liscannor, which has a distinctly Pagan feeling. “Entrance to St Brigids Well” by Liscannorman – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In modern times, Paganism and Christianity generally tend to avoid each other. Although there are such people as “Christian Pagans,” I would say that they are in the minority. Indeed, it can be hard to see how the eclectic, spontaneous, nature-orientated polytheism of Paganism could blend with the rule-bound, human-orientated monotheism of Christianity – and that’s without considering the bitter history between the two. [Read more…]

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September Full Moon Esbat (O-tsukimi)

otsukimi

My O-tsukimi altar

Tonight I celebrated the Full Moon Esbat (although there’s some confusion between me and my Pagan friends as to whether tonight or last night was the full moon). This also coincided with O-tsukimi, the Japanese “Moon Viewing” festival. This, plus the fact that this is the final “Supermoon,” made it a rather special Esbat.

I tried to set up my altar incorporating some O-tsukimi traditions, but with a twist. In Japan, you typically offer “O-tsukimi dango” to the moon. These are small, round, white dumplings that resemble the moon, and are stacked into a pyramid. It’s also common to offer pampass grass, which looks similar to rice plants, reminding us that this is the “Harvest Moon.”

As is often the case, I had to put a bit of a Western spin on my O-tsukimi offerings. Not having time to go to a specialist Japanese shop to buy the necessary flour to make O-tsukimi dango, I substituted it for a round, white cheese, as in the West cheese is often thought to resemble the moon. I also offered an egg, which is associated with the moon in East Asia (in China you can get “Moon cakes” which have an egg yolk in the middle). Instead of pampass grass, I simply collected different types of grasses from the local park.

I placed this all on a special O-tsukimi furoshiki (Japanese folding cloth), which a friend in Japan gave to me years ago. It’s the most beautiful and delicate furoshiki I own, incorporating micro-thin layers of gold dye. It depicts a scene of white rabbits pounding mochi rice cakes – very much a lunar image in Japan, as the Japanese believe that this is what you can see in the moon (whereas in the West we think we see “the man in the moon.”) It’s very interesting that both eggs and rabbits, both symbols of fertility, would be associated with the beginning of autumn in Japan, whereas in Britain they are associated with the beginning of spring (also note that both O-tsukimi and Ostara/Easter are determined by the lunar calendar)! I think it’s a very positive symbol for autumn, as it reminds us at the season when plants and animals are disappearing, life will return again.

I made these offerings and my prayers to the Shinto moon kami, Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, as well as Diana, Hecate and two male lunar deities, Khonsu and Aphroditus. Because I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism lately, and because O-tsukimi is considered a time for quiet meditation and artistic inspiration, I attempted to meditate before the full moon.

I kneeled on the ground gazing up at the moon, and slowly chanted the names of Tsukiyomi, Diana, Khonsu, Hecate and Aphroditus. Because the moon was so bright, as I gazed upon it, my surroundings seemed to fade away into darkness, leaving only the moon in my field of vision. And then I began to see shapes in the moon, and it seemed to glow with an aura, as if it was eclipsing the sun. My meditation was broken by a passing dog, which made me jump – a message from Diana perhaps! And earlier, a cat had approached and made me jump – perhaps a messenger from Hecate, who knows?

After this I was feeling pretty jumpy, but I had a “simple feast” (a piece of the cheese and some sweet wine) which helped to ground me. When I came in, my husband mentioned that I seemed very energised, and it’s true – before the ritual, I had felt tired and a bit lethargic, but afterwards I felt so much better. It was probably the most energising Esbat I’ve celebrated so far!

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The Surprising Link between Hello Kitty and Inari

HelloKitty

“Hello kitty character portrait” by Official Sanrio website http://www.hellokitty.ne.jp/english/kt_family.html. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Hello Kitty via Wikipedia

It’s currently all over the internet – the shock revelation that Hello Kitty, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is not a cat.

The surprise discovery was made by anthropologist Christine R. Yano from University of Hawaii, who was “corrected” by Sanrio who told her that Hello Kitty was not a cat – because she’s never depicted on all fours, for one thing, and in fact she even has a pet cat (Charmmy Kitty). You can read the full story here.

What interests me greatly about this is that Shinto and Buddhist priests also insist that Inari Okami is not a fox – despite the fact that the fox is the symbol most commonly associated with Inari, and that plenty of laymen see Inari as a fox.

Why do their respective authorities insist that Hello Kitty and Inari are not cats and foxes? It seems to me that in the minds of the authorities on these two “personalities” (one being the creator, the other being the priests), the “personality” they represent somehow transcends the status of being a normal animal. In the case of Hello Kitty, she is not considered an animal because she is also a little girl with human qualities. In the case of Inari, it’s because the fox is considered to be merely the symbol of Inari – perhaps in a similar way that Charmmy Kitty is definitely a cat, and is the pet of Hello Kitty. Perhaps in both cases, a mere animal is too “lowly” for these characters. This maybe understandable for Inari, who is clearly worshipped as a divinity in Japan, but one cannot dismiss Hello Kitty’s importance in Japanese society. She is everywhere in Japan – her image is probably more ubiquitous than Inari’s foxes ever have been. And many have suggested that in this way, Hello Kitty has become something of an idol.

Fushimi1

A white fox, a symbol of Inari

It’s also worth considering that in traditional Japanese mythology, neither cats nor foxes are considered 100% positive. Foxes are seen as tricksters and sometimes downright dangerous, while cats were considered unlucky in Buddhism because they were said not to have cried when Buddha died. Both cats and foxes are attributed with shape-shifting powers, and both are thought to transform into a kind of supernatural being once they reach a certain age, often indicated by gaining more tails. Anthropologist Karen Smyers (author of The Fox and The Jewel) has also pointed out that foxes are quite cat-like in both appearance and behaviour, more closely resembling cats than canines, in fact. Even Inari’s stylised fox statues look somewhat feline, with their high pointed ears, raised paws and upright tails. It could be this somewhat eerie image of the fox and the cat that makes both Sanrio and the priesthood alike distance Hello Kitty and Inari from their totem animals.

It may also be significant that both Inari and Hello Kitty are pure white – a very auspicious colour in Japan, generally lucky when it occurs in an animal, which is frequently used to represent the sacred. Perhaps another indicator that Hello Kitty has been assigned a little more “divinity” than we might at first think?

It seems to be yet another link between Gods and Mascots, and an interesting one at that.

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Filed under Shinto / Japanese Religion