Jun 042016


Today begins Saiō Matsuri (斎王まつり), a 2-day festival held on the first weekend of June in the town of Meiwa, Mie Prefecture, in Japan. The Saiō Matsuri celebrates the town’s history of once being an Imperial residence. The festival re-enacts the march of the Saiō and her entourage to the nearby Ise Shrine. The festival consists of over 100 people dressed in Heian period costume, marching down a section of the Ise Kada, the old Ise Pilgrimage road, toward the Saiku Historical Museum.

In pre-modern Japan, Meiwa was best known as the location of the ancient Saikū, the residence of the Saiō, an unmarried Imperial princess who, in place of the Emperor, was sent to serve as the High Priestess of Ise Grand Shrine to perform three important Shinto rituals. During the Edo period the area developed into a thriving agricultural center and shukuba (rest station), providing lodging to people making the pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine.


According to Japanese legend, around 2,000 years ago the divine Yamatohime-no-mikoto, daughter of the Emperor Suinin, set out from Mt. Miwa in Nara Prefecture in search of a permanent location to worship the goddess Amaterasu-omikami. Her search lasted for 20 years and eventually brought her to Ise, Mie Prefecture, where the Ise Shrine now stands. Prior to Yamatohime-no-mikoto’s journey, Amaterasu-omikami had been worshiped at the Imperial Palaces in Yamato.

According to the Man’yōshū (The Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves), the first Saiō to serve at Ise was Princess Oku, daughter of Emperor Temmu, during the Asuka period of Japanese history. Mention of the Saiō is also made in the Aoi, Sakaki and Yugao chapters of The Tale of Genji, as well as in the 69th chapter of The Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari).


In the 13th century, Jien recorded in the Gukanshō that during the reign of Emperor Suinin, the first High Priestess (saigū) was appointed for Ise Shrine. Hayashi Gahō’s 17th century Nihon Ōdai Ichiran is somewhat more expansive, explaining that since Suinin’s time, a daughter of the emperor was almost always appointed as high priestess, but across the centuries, there have been times when the emperor himself had no daughter; and in such circumstances, the daughter of a close relative of the emperor would have been appointed to fill the vacancy.

The role of the Saiō was to serve as High Priestess at Ise Shrine on behalf of the Emperor, to represent the role first set out by Yamatohime-no-mikoto. Three rituals a year were conducted at the Shrine in which the Saiō prayed for peace and protection. In June and November each year, she journeyed to the Shrine to perform the Tsukinamisai Festival. In September she performed the Kannamesai Festival 神嘗祭 to make offerings to the gods of the year’s new grain harvest.


For the rest of the year, the Saiō lived in Saikū, a small town of up to 500 people approximately 10 km north-west of Ise, in modern Meiwa, Mie Prefecture. Life at Saikū was, for the most part, peaceful. The Saiō would spend her time composing waka verses, collect shells on the shore of Ōyodo beach, or set out in boats and recite poetry upon the water and wait to be recalled to Kyoto.

The Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū), located in the city of Ise, Mie Prefecture,, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Officially known simply as Jingū (神宮), Ise Jingū is a shrine complex composed of a large number of Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines, Naikū (内宮) and Gekū (外宮).


The Inner Shrine, Naikū (also officially known as “Kotai Jingū”), is located in the town of Uji-tachi, south of central Ise, and is dedicated to the worship of Amaterasu, where she is believed to dwell. The shrine buildings are made of solid cypress wood and uses no nails but instead joined wood, rebuilt exactingly every 20 years. The Outer Shrine, Gekū (also officially known as “Toyouke Daijingu”), is located about 6 km from Naikū and dedicated to Toyouke-Ōmikami, the god of agriculture, rice harvest and industry. Besides Naikū and Gekū, there are an additional 123 Shinto shrines in Ise City and the surrounding areas, 91 of them connected to Naikū and 32 to Gekū.


Modern Ōyodo Village was established on April 1, 1889 during the Meiji period establishment of municipalities. It was elevated to town status on February 1, 1924, and was renamed Sanwa on September 3, 1955. In 1958, the town of Sanwa and the village of Saimei merged to form the town of Meiwa.

Inarizushi, a type of sushi, is a good dish to celebrate this festival. Inarizushi (稲荷寿司) is a pouch of fried tofu typically filled either with sushi rice alone or with a mix of rice and vegetables. It is named after the Shinto god Inari, who is believed to have a fondness for fried tofu. The dish is normally fashioned from deep-fried tofu (油揚げ, abura age), but regional variations include pouches made of a thin omelette (帛紗寿司, fukusa-zushi, or 茶巾寿司, chakin-zushi).

Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神, also Oinari) is the Japanese kami (spirit) of foxes, of fertility, rice, tea and sake, as well as of agriculture and industry, of general prosperity and worldly success, and one of the principal kami of Shinto.

This video gives an excellent description of preparing inarizushi. You can buy the deep fried tofu at a good oriental store:

Feb 032014


Today is Setsubun (節分 Bean-Throwing Festival or Bean-Throwing Ceremony) the day before the beginning of spring in Japan. The name literally means “seasonal division,” but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun, properly called Risshun (立春) celebrated yearly on February 3 as part of the Spring Festival (春祭 haru matsuri). In its association with the Lunar New Year, spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year’s Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki (豆撒き) (literally “bean throwing”). Setsubun has its origins in tsuina (追儺), a Chinese custom introduced to Japan in the eighth century.


The custom of mamemaki first appeared in the Muromachi period (c. 1337 to 1573). It is usually performed by the toshiotoko (年男) of the household (the male who was born in the corresponding animal year of the Chinese zodiac), or else the male head of the household. Roasted soybeans (called “fortune beans” 福豆) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the people say “Demons out! Luck in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!) and then slam the door.

This is still common practice in households but many people will attend a shrine’s or temple’s spring festival where this is done. The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one’s life, and in some areas, one for each year of one’s life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come.


At Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all over the country, there are celebrations for Setsubun. Priests and invited guests will throw roasted soy beans (some wrapped in gold or silver foil), small envelopes with money, sweets, candies and other prizes. In some bigger shrines, even celebrities and sumo wrestlers will be invited; these events are televised nationally.

It is customary in Kansai area to eat uncut makizushi called eho-maki (恵方巻) (lit. “lucky direction roll”) in silence on Setsubun while facing the year’s lucky compass direction, determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. This custom started in Osaka, but in recent years eho-maki can be purchased at stores in the Kanto area and it is getting more universal as a part of Setsubun tradition.

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Horoscope charts are published and occasionally packaged with uncut makizushi during February. Some families put up small decorations of sardine heads and holly leaves (柊鰯 hiragi iwashi) on their house entrances so that bad spirits will not enter. Ginger sake is customarily drunk at Setsubun.


Historically, the new year was felt to be a time when the spirit world came close to the physical world, thus the need to perform mamemaki to drive away any wandering spirits that might get too close to one’s home. Other customs during this time included religious dance, fasting, and bringing tools inside the house that might normally be left outside, to prevent the spirits from harming them.

Because Setsubun was also considered to be apart from normal time, people might also practice role reversal. Such customs included young girls doing their hair in the styles of older women and vice versa, wearing disguises, and cross-dressing. This custom is still practiced among geisha and their clients when entertaining on Setsubun.


Traveling entertainers (旅芸人), who were normally shunned during the year because they were considered vagrants, were welcomed on Setsubun to perform morality plays. Their vagrancy worked to their advantage in these cases because they could take the spirits with them when they departed.

While the practice of eating makizushi on Setsubun is historically only associated with the Kansai area of Japan, the practice has become popular nationwide due largely to marketing efforts by grocery and convenience stores. In the Tohoku area of Japan, the head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door. Nowadays peanuts (either raw or coated in a sweet, crunchy batter) are sometimes used in place of soybeans.

There are many variations on the famous Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi chant. For example, in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, people chant “鬼の目玉ぶっつぶせ!” (Oni no medama buttsubuse!), lit. “Blind the demons’ eyes!”

I have spent decades eating and cooking Japanese food.  In 1972 I went to the only Japanese restaurant in London with my girlfriend (of sorts) to celebrate my 21st birthday, as the culmination of a fabulous day.  It was completely brand new to me in those days when few people in the West had ever tried Japanese cuisine.  We were the only Westerners in the place, and the servers, dressed as geishas, barely spoke English.  All the other diners were Japanese men in suits. I left spell bound, determined to learn more; I was hooked. I was glad that by the late 70’s Japanese restaurants were blossoming in New York and I went every time I could, even though the menus tended to be limited to the basics: sushi, sashimi, teriyaki and such (and the majority still are). Nowadays I can make certain dishes reasonably well, including sushi and sashimi, but I will never remotely be a threat to classically trained Japanese chefs.  Tramping all over Japan was an eye opener – such an amazing experience. So many great meals even when eating in cheap noodle joints in hidden places. Here’s a pic of me with my son and a friend in a sushi/sashimi joint in the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo plus my lunch dish. Yum.

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I could walk you through the steps to make eho-make; it’s really not that difficult (although getting the rice right takes a bit of practice, and you must use Japanese sushi rice). Instead I give you this video because it is much easier to see it done than to describe it.  Two things to note.  First, eho-make must be made with seven ingredients – a lucky number.  Second, it is eaten whole, not cut up. This is not easy because the nori (black seaweed) wrapping is quite tough to bite. The bamboo rolling mat is more or less essential, but before I bought mine I used a place mat that was similarly articulated. You also need practice to get the roll nice and round.  But even a lumpy one tastes good.  Trust me on that.

Now it’s your turn.  I’m off to barrio chino to get the ingredients.  Not going to find them in my local supermarket in Buenos Aires.  You can find nori sheets and sushi rice in most oriental markets worldwide. You’ll also need sushi rice seasoning or Japanese sushi vinegar. Here’s a professional chef making the rice: