Wednesday, March 31, 2021

March 2021 Tottori Newsletter


Kugami Gravestone Dance


Kugami Gravestone Dance

A Dance of Solace in the Graveyard


For one night a year, the hilltop graveyard in the coastal community of Kugami serves as the stage for an extraordinarily unique tradition and otherworldly spectacle: a communal dance around gravestones performed to the recitation of tragic tales and rhythm of taiko drums.  


Designated as an intangible folk cultural property, exact dates and details regarding the genesis of this unusual practice remain shrouded in mystery; the locals of Kugami know from their own childhood recollections of this anticipated annual celebration that they have danced in the graveyard since at least the Taisho era (1912 to 1926).

To this day, they still leave their homes as night lays claim to July 14th of the lunar calendar and, paper lantern in hand, traverse steep paths cleft through bamboo thickets to reach the crest of a coastal sand dune. There, around the obelisk shaped gravestone of each household that lost a family member within the lunar year, they dance to welcome their spirit home for the Obon festival – no matter the weather. 

The Dance

In the past, the heads of each household observing the first Obon for the departed would dress in full kimono complete with the family’s crest and formally welcome each participating dancer to the venue — their family grave. Dancers, in turn, would wear yukata. Now, the custom no longer includes specifications on attire or formalities for host or dancer.

Once dancers have arrived at the venue, the dance itself begins. Each dance lasts 15 minutes per gravestone and is simple enough to learn by following along: move your hands in a motion that resembles scooping something up while taking supple steps clockwise around the gravestone in a circular dance similar to the typical Donen Odori, and dancers can join or exit the circle at any time. The number of dances in a year depends on how many households have lost a family member during the year; this year saw a total of six dances.

To provide rhythm, a solitary taiko drum drums out a slow and steady beat. Meanwhile, a singer-narrator recites one of the 20 different customary kudoki — a term for predominantly lyrical sections of traditional samisen songs — which include works such as the tragic tales Yaoya Oshichi (Greengrocer Oshichi) and Bancho Sarayashiki (The Dish Mansion at the Bancho).


Though the idea of dancing to tragic poetry performed late at night around the gravestone of the recently departed may come across as somewhat depressing and dreary, the atmosphere in the graveyard certainly isn’t; dancers and spectators alike engage in jovial conversation between dances while drummers generously share cans of beer carted with taiko in their plastic wheelbarrows. Then, in one lantern-lit procession down midnight paths, the celebration heads to the next venue.

Wheelbarrows of Taiko Drums and Beer  


Fancy a late night dance in the graveyard? Feel free to join the next Kugami Gavestone Dance; after all, this is a gathering that enforces no dress code, expects no reservations, and intends to welcome everyone — both the living and formerly so — to the family grave.


Details: (Japanese Only)

Thursday, March 11, 2021


Hinamatsuri: An Imposter


Heian style dolls (Nagashibina Doll Museum)

Hinamatsuri, recently familiar as Girl's Day, is celebrated on March 3rd of each year. During this festival, households with young daughters set up a display of ornamental dolls dressed in shimmering Heian court attire and positioned according to rank on red-carpeted tiered platforms with a variety of items commonly seen in the palatial residences of the Heian period (794-1185). These displays exude an ambiance of historical authenticity that often tricks people into thinking Hinamatsuri has survived an entire millennium unscathed when it’s actually a usurper that stole the identity of a much older ritual and achieved a clean getaway by changing its name in 1687.  


Beneath The Spreading Japanese Plum Tree

 From the Eleusinian Mysteries to Halloween, the restless hands of time mold, break, and then either reform or discard all of man’s religious practices, and Hinamatsuri is no exception. Far beneath the plum flowers, the mutable significance of March 3rd has roots that plunge deep down past even the Nara period (710-794) of Japanese history, and, at their very tip, evince an uprooting and replanting. This isn’t surprising; in fact, from the Chinese calendar to the Chinese writing system, much of Japan’s cultural development during the 6th and 7th century occurred as a result of the nobility importing and adopting the contemporary culture of China. Amongst these, the already ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements struck a novel yet classical taste in the aristocratic Japanese, and they quickly planted it in their gardens.

With this philosophy came the idea that calendar dates that featured a repetition of odd numbers — such as the third day of the third month of the year — represented an auspicious occasion, and these dates were collectively termed the Gosekku (Five Seasonal Festivals) in Japan. Thus, over 1,000 years before being renamed Hinamatsuri, March 3rd was first given the name Joshi (上巳) which has the approximate English meaning of “First Day of the Snake of the Third Month” and Chinese Zodiac pedigree. Coincidentally, it also happens to be around the time of the year that Japanese plum trees flower which explains the day’s alias as Momo no Sekku (Plum Festival).


Party Like It’s The Day Of The Snake  

 But what’s an auspicious occasion without a celebration? In China, rituals of purification were traditionally observed on Joshi; the Japanese nobility decided it better to have a Winding Stream Party. At one of these parties, partygoers sit at the side of a meandering stream — presumably one that resembles a snake — composing poetry while lacquer cups full of sake float towards them. When a cup reaches a partygoer, he must put down his brush, pluck the cup from the water, and drink all of the sake. Next, he reveals his poem. If not finished, or if considered unsuitable to the present theme, he forfeits. Increasingly large cups bobbing in the current or otherwise, one can enjoy imagining the nature of the penalty imposed on the insufficiently poetically inspired.   

 These parties quickly gained popularity amongst the upper elements of society, and even the emperor hosted his own annual Winding Stream Party from 701, which may or may not be the earliest example of an imperially sanctioned drinking game, but is certainly one of the most elegant.


Genji Atones For Partying Too Much

 And what of the dolls? Unlike the significance of March 3rd, the ancient ancestors of today’s hina dolls seem to have been an endemic species of Japan. Long, long ago, in a time before Winding Stream Parties, hina dolls first appeared in Japan in their most primitive form of simple accessories and other personal belongings delineated by their use in a ritual and collectively termed agamono (items of atonement). The owner of agamono rubbed it on their person and then sent it afloat in a river or other waterfront as part of a ritual of purification.

 At the core of agamono is the Shinto dualism of purity and pollution, and the Japanese appear to have combined this with the utilitarian convenience of rivers as waste disposal systems. Surprisingly, the earliest written record that shows a coalescence of agamono, dolls, and Joshi is found in the landmark work of fiction, The Tale of Genji.

 Written in the 11th century by the noble woman Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji vividly describes the life of high ranking courtiers during the Heian period. In chapter 12, the main character, Hikaru Genji, is exiled to Suma (modern Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture) when one of his many secret love affairs is exposed. On March 3rd of the old lunisolar calendar, the exiled Genji conducts a ritual of purification.


Genji: The Patron Saint Of Nagashibina

 Half-brother to the emperor and raised as a high ranking courtier, Genji undoubtedly participated in many Winding Stream Parties. However, with his exile and isolation in Suma, there were no more floating cups of sake to interrupt the introspective purgatory brought on by such behavior as engaging in an illicit affair with his stepmother. Therefore, on March 3rd, Genji consoles himself for having to miss out on the fun of Joshi by heading to the waterfront. There, he makes a small doll out of straw. Next, he rubs the doll on himself to absorb his sins and harbor his own calamitous fate. This done, he sets it afloat and watches as the current carries it out to sea in the first example of a ritual that would later be called Nagashibina (literally “doll floating”).


Nagashibina raft and agamono (Nagashibina Doll Museum)

Thus, Genji’s doppelganger serves as a spiritual garbage bag for his sins and misfortune and carries them far out to sea to trouble him no further. Unfortunately for him, no sooner does his doll disappear beyond the waves than a terrifying storm blows in from the sea and engulfs the entirety of Suma. Eventually the storm passes, Genji’s transgressions are forgiven, and he returns to a hedonistic existence in the Heian court; however, in just a few short decades, the heydays of courtiers like Genji, along with all of the frivolity, roguish behavior, and court intrigue that exemplified their gay life, come to a violent conclusion. These classical men of leisure that prioritized poetry, literature, beauty, and romantic love above all else suddenly found themselves at the cutting point of the swords and spears of men cultivated for war. Chased out of their ornate palaces and out to sea on barges, many nobles, including the child emperor, carried their own misfortune to the bottom of the Shimanoseki Strait. 


Dolls Turn The Tables

 After the establishment of Japan’s feudal military government, it became customary for subordinates to gift the dolls to be used in Nagashibina rituals to their superiors. This custom immediately turned into a competition to curry favor and served as impetus for the dolls to grow increasingly elaborate and expensive until they became more valuable as toys for young girls than as a vessel for transporting sin out to sea. The weakening influence of Shinto only exacerbated this shift in usage. Thus, by the 16th century, March 3rd had become an occasion for young girls to enjoy doll play, and the doll’s significance as agamono greatly diminished.


Dolls from the Meiji period (Nagashibina Doll Museum)

Hina, the name that came to represent these dolls, has its own etymological tale, and this story begins with the onomatopoeic word for the chirping sound of a baby chick: hi-hi (pronounced as “hee hee”). In Japanese, the verb to express the act of an animal making a sound is naku, and connected with a baby chick with the sentence particle to (pronounced as “toe”), which makes the phrase to describe a baby chick chirping hi-hi to naku. This was shortened to hi-hi-naku, and later to simply hina. This word, in turn, came to represent something cute, small, and cuddly — even going on to literally mean chick — and the dolls fit the bill.

In 1579, Megohime, a princess of the Tamura clan, left home to marry the young heir of the powerful Date clan, Date Masamune, at the age of 12. During the Sengoku period (1467-1615), a time of interminable civil war, such marriages were commonplace policy for cementing alliances. Mere child hostages in political marriages, these brides hugged their cherished childhood dolls to their chest as they climbed into the palanquin for the nuptial procession that would take them to a foreign land and a stranger’s bed. Customarily, it was purported that the dolls would intercept and absorb any misfortune lurking along the road to their husband’s home, and thus they regained some of their former function as agamono.

This custom became so widespread and popular that the dolls were considered an indispensable wedding accessory, and mothers began passing them down to their daughters not as toys but as heirlooms for use on the occasion of their own wedding. The Edo period arrived and brought an end to the long years of ceaseless civil war, and the need for children hostages in diplomacy greatly decreased. In this time of peace and stability, marriage was widely considered the most auspicious occasion in a woman’s life, and young brides no longer needed the fond memories stored up in their favorite plaything to comfort them on their nuptial procession. The dolls once again lost most of their function as agamono; instead, thanks to their close association with weddings, they started to symbolize womanly happiness.


Dolls from the Showa period (Nagashibina Doll Museum)

With their newly acquired status as an image of happiness, parents with young daughters began to display their heirloom dolls on March 3rd as a way of praying for their daughter’s happy marriage. Ironically, it was a desire to keep these former toys out of their children's hands that led to their display on  decorative platforms with the most precious dolls positioned highest up and furthest out of reach.  By now, the dolls were widely referred to as hina, and the Edo government declared March 3rd a national holiday for the observance of Hinamatsuri. In other words, from 1687 until today, March 3rd has been celebrated as the Festival of Dolls!


Today And Tomorrow And Beyond

 Back in Genji’s day, failure to toss agamono into the river on March 3rd would leave the owner polluted and at risk of calamity; in the 19th century, putting the family display of heirloom dolls away any later than March 4th would result in a late marriage. Verily, the only immutable experience in human life is change, and today the value of a traditional marriage and children has lost its synonymous status as the supreme happiness of a woman. Even now, at this very moment, the meaning of Hinamatsuri is changing: some families still exhibit their heirloom dolls to express their wish for their daughter’s happy marriage, but more and more do so in celebration of their growth; with every year that passes, the significance of March 3rd as the Festival of Dolls loses ground to its significance as Girl’s Day. Whether cause, effect, or somewhere in between, fewer and fewer girls choose marriage, and Japan’s birthrate plummets; the girls certainly grow, but many grow old with no girls of their own.

 So what of the dolls? Having long since forgotten their role as agamono, toy, and subsequently as a source of consolation, how much longer until they will have forgotten how to symbolize womanly happiness? How much longer until they no longer have a reason to come out from storage and stand upon red-carpeted platforms?


The Nagashibina Doll Museum 

 It is only natural that once hina stopped being tossed into the river that people began to collect them, and the Nagashibina Doll Museum in the Mochigase district of Tottori City has one of the best collections in the nation. Inside, the various kinds of dolls that appeared all throughout the many centuries of their popularity are on permanent display. Whether originally intended as agamono or otherwise, vast expanses of time have made them invaluable, and no hand will set them out to sea, but behind the elegant costumes and placid expression painted on their faces, some of these dolls may yet faithfully harbor the missteps and ill fate of their long since departed owner.


Nagashibina Doll Museum

The museum also carefully preserves the traditional ritual of Nagashibina. On the historically appropriate day of March 3rd on the lunisolar calendar, which falls around the middle of April on the Gregorian calendar, participants follow the ritual once performed by Genji to make dolls and rafts out of paper and straw, transfer their troubles to their agamono, and then set it afloat on the Sendai River. Whether looking to shed some winter sin or simply interested in witnessing one of the oldest rituals in Japan, everyone is welcome, and the museum offers workshops for making the dolls and rafts.  

To conclude, Joshi combined with Winding Stream Parties and the Shinto ritual of agamono to give rise to Nagashibina, which in turn combined with doll play and wedding traditions to give rise to Hinamatsuri. In these days of progress and its corollary all-out war on traditional norms, the dolls that required nearly a thousand years to become synonymous with March 3rd will not easily retake their position as agamono, toys, tokens of solace, or symbols of womanly happiness; moving forward, their role as purveyors of history will likely define them. Ironically, exhibitions and activities in museums, shrines, and other historical facilities may be the only future left for these little dolls.

The long road of a fond memory...

Thursday, February 25, 2021


Japan's Representative Food

Quick question: what food do you imagine when you hear "Japan"? If you answered "why, sushi of course!" as mostly everyone to whom this question is posed do, then I'll pursue the matter further with a follow-up question: what food besides sushi do you imagine when you hear "Japan"?

Allow me to presume that your answer includes noodles; if not, please take a moment to let me know what non-noodle dish represents Japan for you in the comments and, for the time being, pretend. Before proceeding any further, I should confirm that, despite a veritable cornucopia of noodle dishes in Japan, we all agree that there can be only one noodle to represent Japan, and that it must be made from the buckwheat that the Japanese have been producing since even before the Nara period (710 - 794) to nutritionally compliment their staple food of white rice, and that all of the newcomers and flashy upstarts such as yakisoba, champon, ramen, and tsukemen should hereafter only receive the tepid consideration reserved for distant relations of the fabulously successful. So, of course, we agree that soba reigns supreme. 

Maybe not the prettiest, but a very special soba...

Go to the Dojo

Now that we've settled on Japan's other most representative food, let's imagine someone close to you - say, for the sake of argument, your immediate supervisor - told you to go and pound soba, where would you start? No - no reason for anger: telling someone to go pound soba is not a rebuke; in Japanese, the verb used is "打つ", which means "to hit", and strikes me as far more apt a description for the actions involved in the process. But I digress.  

First, make an appointment to receive training from a soba master at the Shikano Soba Dojo. The lesson fee is \110 per person, but individuals and groups alike must also pay a set fee of \2,860 for ingredients to make soba for four, so it's best to bring a few friends along to split this and the resulting food.

Next, travel to the locality of Shikano in Tottori city. As always, I recommend riding a bicycle, but there is also a bus to Shikano from Hamamura Station (access details here). Once there, change into a soba making gi, wash your hands, and do a few warm-up stretches.

Soba punching gi (apron) provided for use by the Dojo 

Pound Soba

The Dojo uses buckwheat flour grown locally in Shikano. Soba-beating black belts can pound out ju-wari (literally "100%") soba using only this buckwheat flour; however, due to its dry, crumbly consistency, white belts will find themselves punching above their weight. Therefore, wheat flour is mixed in as a form of edible glue to make hachi-wari (literally "80%) soba. 

Training begins with an easy warmup of dumping buckwheat and wheat flour together in a huge wooden mixing bowl. Next, add in water while mixing with by hand as the aroma of buckwheat flour fills the room. After all of the water has been added and the dough formed, knead the soba dough by rolling it around the edge of the bowl until it becomes smooth and glossy.

I received plenty of help and learned techniques from a local expert, though I did think the tables a little short for the vertically endowed. 

After kneading out all of the cracks and dents, the real workout begins: put the dough on the table and then squish it into a disc of 20 cm in diameter. Next, take the large wooden roller in hand and stretch out the dough using the traditional technique: start in the middle, push the roller in one long continuous stroke and slide hands from the middle to the edges of the roller, repeat 3 times, and then change the direction of the dough. Continue until the dough reaches about 40 cm in diameter.

Learning of the double soba palm strike technique

Now comes the part where the choice of verb starts making sense: wrap the dough around the roller and then firmly slap the edges of the dough to flatten and unroll it. These palm strikes require accuracy, strength, and enough endurance to persevere until the dough reaches a uniform thickness of 2 mm.

Weapons Training

Next, position a wooden straightedge atop the folded dough near the edge and, with the left hand, press it down with just enough strength to keep it stationary while not squishing the dough; with the right hand, aim a soba-kiri knife at the sliver of soba dough jutting out from underneath the straightedge.   

The goal is to cut noodles with a uniform thickness of 2mm, and this is done by using the straightedge as a guide for inserting the blade, slicing back, and then tilting the blade to push the straightedge back 2 mm in preparation for the next cut.  

Japanese tamahagane breezes through soba dough

Results may vary. Even though my first cuts resulted in extra-thick noodles, after much practice, I began to cut, slice, and tilt to such a regular rhythm that I felt like I'd become a soba artisan.   

It’s Better to Share

The taste of noodles freshly made by my own hand, I'm sure, is fantastic. But I wouldn't know. The sight of soba of such diverse shape and size beat and cut by my coworker proved irresistible, and was delicious. In turn, he ate all of my noodles in a breathless race without even looking up.

A highly memorable lunchtime adventure

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Tottori and Vermont 
Tottori and Vermont, though separated by thousands of kilometers, shook hands in 2000, swore friendship in 2008, and embraced as siblings in 2018. As part of this relationship, youths of Tottori and Vermont have had the opportunity to travel, stay, and learn in the other region. There, they come face to face with their host’s culture in an invaluable opportunity to not only develop perspective and objectivity but also forge a friendship that overleaps the distance.
Governor Shinji Hirai and Governor Phil Scott celebrating the Sister State Agreement 

The Tottori Prefectural International Exchange Foundation and Green Across the World have been conducting this youth exchange program since 2009. To date, Tottori has sent 11 delegations of high school students to Vermont and hosted 7 delegations from Vermont on this program. In 2020, not a single student from Vermont or Tottori boarded an aircraft for the long flight to the experience of a lifetime in their Sister State. 
Through Thick and Thin 
Strained but not broken, 18 of the young adults of Tottori who had participated in the program filmed, edited, and sent a message to reinforce the friendship. Out of consideration for the Vermont students that had lost their opportunity to visit Tottori, the video consists of three segments: 

1.) The sights of Tottori that they would have seen
2.) The culture and festivals to which they would have been introduced
3.) The words of welcome and friendship they would have heard 

Only be available until March 31, 2021, please take this time to appreciate the luster of a friendship that sticks through thick and thin by watching this video message.

Monday, February 8, 2021


Hot Running

 What does the word “reggae” summon to mind? Perhaps it brings the sound of an offbeat rhythm guitar, the sight of dreadlocks, and the experience of running 42.195 kilometers. Strange as it may sound, this is the impression of reggae shared by a growing number of people in Tottori.

 This unusual association of reggae to running traces back to March of 2016 when two local runners, one male and one female, performed exceptionally well in the Tottori Marathon. For their effort, they won a trip to Jamaica to participate in the Reggae Marathon, Jamaica’s premier international marathon event. 

The race starts before the sun and temperature rise. 

Bob Marley: Carry-on or Check-in?

Since that hosting of the Reggae Marathon in December of 2016, runners from Tottori have raced in every subsequent hosting of the event. Moreover, they have claimed victory in the men’s full marathon division every year; to date, a total of four Bob Marley trophies and one Rita Marley trophy have relocated to Tottori.


 Tottori boasts the highest ratio of people to Bob and Rita Marley trophies in Japan.

In return, runners from Westmoreland have participated in every hosting of the Tottori Marathon since 2017. 

Jamaican runner becomes an instant celebrity in the Tottori Marathon (Japanese).

Sumo Are Wasted on Cross-country

This mutual marathon exchange has not only sown the seeds of grassroots internationalization along the marathon courses in Tottori and Westmoreland, but also in the sports associations, schools, and businesses that have cooperated in the program.

A warm welcome from the Johoku High School Sumo Stable.    

Unfortunately, the hosting of the 2020 Reggae Marathon event went virtual due to the impact of coronavirus. Therefore, instead of enjoying the thirty-degree temperatures, sun and Caribbean Sea in December, the runners of Team Tottori braved the cold of winter and participated from some of their favorite spots to run in Tottori.

Interested? Visit the Reggae Marathon Official Site)

Running from Japan

Watch this quick video created to share the joyful spirit of participating in the world’s most fun marathon and next time you encounter the word “reggae”, you too might feel like going for a run!  

Reggae Marathon in Tottori

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Special Performance Calligraphy Video Message

Tottori Prefecture and Westmoreland Parish share a special bond of friendship. Officially Sister Regions, they engage in a wide variety of international exchange activities. Amongst these, the annual youth exchange program, which is the first of its kind between Japan and a Caribbean Nation, has grown widely popular.  

Unfortunately, the global spread of coronavirus necessitated the cancellation of the 2020 Tottori-Westmoreland Youth Exchange, and the high school students of Chuo Ikuei that were selected to participate ultimately missed out on an incredible opportunity to visit Jamaica. 

But that didn't stop them from carrying out a cultural exchange: they decided to create and videotape a special performance calligraphy message to their friends in Jamaica. 

Calligraphy, using brush and ink to write characters, is part of traditional Japanese culture. Performance calligraphy combines many of the traditional aspects of calligraphy with modern music and dance. 

Please click the following link to watch their performance calligraphy video message.

Tottori Performance Calligraphy Video Message

March 2021 Tottori Newsletter