Lake Biwa Rowing Song mini concert in Imazu 2017


Video link: https://youtu.be/9G94IppUiiE

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Shiga’s most famous and beloved song, Biwako Shuko no Uta (琵琶湖周航の歌), shiga-ken.com held a special mini concert in Imazu on April 16, 2017 with the cooperation of the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum (琵琶湖周航の歌資料館) and Imazu Port in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture.

The highlight was twin sisters Jamie and Megan Thompson at Imazu Port singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song (English version of Biwako Shuko no Uta) to the accompaniment of Lake Biwa reed flutes (yoshibue) played by Lake Reed (レイクリード), a duo consisting of Kikui Satoru (菊井了) and Kondo Yumiko (近藤ゆみ子). The result was stupendous and oh so pretty, both in sight and sound on a beautiful day in front of a blue Lake Biwa at Imazu Port. Watch the 5-min. video embedded above and see for yourself.

It was only our second time to perform at Imazu Port. The last time was on June 3, 2006 when we first introduced and performed Lake Biwa Rowing Song in public. For this second time, I decided that instead of staging a repeat performance of what we did in 2006, we should do something different. Having Lake Biwa reed players join us was perfect. It turned out that it was the first time for Lake Reed to perform together with multiple singers.


Video link: https://youtu.be/PjnY67sIcqE

We also held an indoor mini concert at the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum. The performance of Lake Biwa Rowing Song was repeated and followed by three pretty songs by Lake Reed. Watch the 23-min. video embedded above.

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Jamie & Megan Thompson together in Japan for the first time in 8 years.

Our mini concert turned out to be a media event with coverage by Asahi Shimbun, Chunichi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Sankei Shimbun, and Yomiuri Shimbun newspapers. I came prepared for the media with these T-shirts I designed and gave to Jamie and Megan to wear. I also gave them Biwa pearl necklaces (closeup photo below).

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Lake Biwa pearl necklaces.

I had these Lake Biwa pearl necklaces custom-made for this day. I found a freelance accessory maker in Otsu named “Malble” (pronounced like “Marble”) who was making earrings using this Lake Biwa-shaped, gold-colored accessory. It says, “Always With You.” (Like Lake Biwa is always with you.) I had her make these necklaces strung together with a medium-size Lake Biwa pearl. They came out very nice at reasonable cost.

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Rehearsing inside the song museum before going to Imazu Port.

Since summer 2016, prominent people and organizations in Shiga and Kyoto announced plans to hold Biwako Shuko no Uta 100th anniversary events in 2017. I also wanted to take part in these events.

So I asked Jamie and Megan (who sang Lake Biwa Rowing Song in English in 2006 while they were working in Japan as JET Program ALTs), if they could visit Japan in 2017 to participate in one of these anniversary events, especially in June (the song’s actual anniversary date) or November (Kyoto University’s main anniversary event).

It turned out that they both could make it to Japan only in April 2017. Since there were no anniversary events in April, we held our own commemorative mini concert on April 16. Couldn’t let such a rare trip to Japan by both sisters go to waste.

The performance at Imazu Port started at around 1:30 pm after all the cruise boats left Imazu Port. It was mainly for me to shoot videos for a music video (embedded at the top). The media also took photos and interviewed us under a somewhat hot sun. We then moved to the nearby Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum for an indoor mini concert and social gathering that lasted until about 4 pm.

The ever so helpful and cooperative Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum allowed us to use their room on the second floor for our indoor mini concert. They also secured permission for us to perform at Imazu Port.

I didn’t really publicize this event since it was intended for only friends and invited guests and the local media. However, during the 2.5 months of planning, the event started to take on a life of its own as it morphed into something more substantial. I knew things like this never go according to plan, so I remained flexible and played it by ear.

As I expected, we ran behind schedule and were unable to do a few things that I had planned. But all-in-all, our event turned out very well with great weather, no accidents or illnesses, great videos and photos, and everyone having a fun time. Many people also went on the 3:30 pm Sakura cruise to Kaizu-Osaki afterward. I’m glad that it was worth coming to Imazu which is quite far for most of us.

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Jamie and Megan talk with the press. Back of the T-shirt is the CD cover and “Children of the Lake” below it.

Talking to the press took longer than expected since so many of them showed up and they had lots of questions. They also kept asking for my age which I declined to say since it was irrelevant. (Japanese newspapers always like to state the age of the people they write about. It has never happened in my case though.)

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Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum, near Omi-Imazu Station. It has panel displays explaining the history and meaning of the song and a listening station where you can listen to many cover versions.

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Mini concert inside the song museum.

Our indoor mini concert started with Jamie and Megan singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song with Lake Reed playing Lake Biwa reed flutes.

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Lake Reed playing Lake Biwa reed flutes. They even brought a bundle of reeds (left) as a prop.

Lake Reed then performed three songs: Furusato (Hometown), Miyagete-goran Yoru no Hoshi wo (Look Up at the Night Stars), and Umi no Koe (Voice of the Sea). (Watch the video to hear them play.) They were brilliant. So pretty. Omi-Hachman resident Kikui Satoru was the person who actually invented the Lake Biwa reed flute in 2000. So he’s been playing it longer than anyone else in the world. We were so lucky to have him and his partner Kondo Yumiko perform for us. Everyone performed on a voluntary basis, no one got paid.

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Over 50 people attended our mini concert inside the song museum.

Mr. Kikui was also generous enough to bring 15 reed flutes to hold a sample lesson mainly for the kids who came. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for it. Sounds like I have to plan a follow-up event to make it happen.

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Kiyora playing the shamisen.

Our third performer was Kiyora, a third grader from Moriyama. She played the famous cherry blossom song, “Sakura, Sakura” with her shamisen. As a beginner, she played quite well.

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Former Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada talks about the upcoming music festival in Otsu. Holding up the PR poster is Kitagawa Akihiro of ~Lefa~.

We were also honored to have former Shiga Governor Kada Yukiko attending our event. Being the president of Biwako Seikei Sport College in Omi-Maiko, she’s very busy. And yet, she made the time to hear us sing. We thank her for coming.

She and singer Kato Tokiko (who made Biwako Shuko no Uta a national hit in 1971) are organizing the 1st Biwako Music Festival (第一回びわ湖音楽祭) at Biwako Hall in Otsu on June 30, 2017. Tickets are still available as of this writing.

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Kitagawa Akihiro sings with Jamie and Megan.

Another special guest was Kitagawa Akihiro, vocalist and one half of the Nagahama-based duo ~Lefa~. Akihiro once studied in Canada, so he does have an interest in singing in English. He sang in English with Jamie and Megan impromptu. He has a very good voice, so I see great potential in him singing in English after I coach his pronunciation. It was the first time for me to meet Akihiro. I saw former Governor Kada’s Facebook video of him singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song in English so I invited him to our event. ~Lefa~ was formed in 2010 and they play all around Japan at shopping malls, local events, etc., and sing Biwako Shuko no Uta. They also often hold mini concerts at Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum. The other half of ~Lefa~ is guitarist and keyboard player Kono Hiroyuki.

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In the end, the few of us who didn’t go on the cherry blossom cruise to Kaizu-Osaki remained to sing Biwako Shuko no Uta in a circle.

We were running an hour late. Most of the audience left at around 3:20 pm to catch the Cherry Blossom Cruise for Kaizu-Osaki departing Imazu Port at 3:30 pm. So only about 15 of us remained until we ended at around 4 pm. Everyone burst into smiles and started clapping after we finished singing the song in Japanese. It’s such a heartwarming song, and being from Hawaii where we have many, many renown hometown songs, I’m so glad Shiga has such a song. It’s been 11 years since we announced the English version, but slowly and surely, I see it catching on.

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Set of six Lake Biwa Rowing Song postcards given as a free memento to all attendees.

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Chunichi Shimbun newspaper was one of five papers that covered us (April 17, 2017 issue).

Sakura cruises to Kaizu-Osaki

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Kaizu-Osaki is deservedly one of Japan’s 100 Famous Cherry Blossom Spots (さくら名所100選 according to the Japan Cherry Blossom Association). During the first half of April, four kilometers of cherry blossoms bloom along this lakeshore in northern Lake Biwa in Takashima.

During the peak bloom period in mid-April, the traffic along the lakeshore road is horrendous. Renting a bicycle at Makino Station and cycling to Kaizu-Osaki is recommended. Walking is also possible for people who don’t mind walking at least 40 min. from Makino Station.

On sunny days, it’s quite spectacular with the cherry blossoms against the blue lake and blue sky with Chikubushima island in the background. But watch out for the cars since much of the lakeshore does not have a walking path. The tunnels are also narrow. Use a flashlight or turn on your smartphone when walking or bicycling in the tunnels.

In mid-April 2017, I finally tried a different and much more pleasant way of enjoying the sakura along Kaizu-Osaki. I went on Biwako Kisen’s “Sakura Cruise” from Imazu Port for the first time on board the megumi trimaran (triple hulled for stable ride). It was only one of many “sakura cruises” or “sakura hanami boats” that swarm the area during the cherry blossom season. (“Sakura” means cherry blossoms.)

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Imazu Port for cherry blossom cruises to Kaizu-Osaki.

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megumi is powered by bio diesel fuel and solar and wind energy.

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Upper deck of megumi.

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Megumi’s indoor heated cabin with large picture windows.

Cruise operators Biwako Kisen (琵琶湖汽船) and Ohmi Marine (オーミマリン) both offer sakura cherry blossom cruises to Kaizu-Osaki during early to mid-April. Biwako Kisen has boats departing Imazu Port and Nagahama Port, while Ohmi Marine has boats going from Hikone Port and Makino Dock.

Both cruise companies have at least four boats daily, and they may schedule extra boats on peak weekends. The fare is around ¥3,000 to ¥3,500. I highly recommend going on a cruise that also docks at Kaizu-Osaki Port where you can get off the boat and walk around Kaizu-Osaki for about 30 min. before returning to the boat. Otherwise, other boats just cruise along Kaizu-Osaki without docking. Note that if the water is rough on windy days, the boat might not be able to dock.

From Imazu Port, the cruise that includes 30-min. docking at Kaizu-Osaki takes about 90 min. round trip. From Nagahama Port and Hikone Port, it takes about 2.5 hours.

The Biwako Kisen “sakura cruise” schedule is here.

The Ohmi Marine sakura hanami cruise schedule for Hikone Port is here and for Makino Dock here.

I was lucky to see the sakura in full bloom on a sunny afternoon. Here are some photos.

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Kaizu-Osaki in the distance.

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Getting closer to Kaizu-Osaki.

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Approaching Kaizu-Osaki Port where Osaki-dera temple is.

megumi at Kaizu-Osaki Port.

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Beware of heavy traffic when leaving the dock.

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Look for the pedestrian path.

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30 min. is not enough to walk the entire length of the walking path.

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We get another look at the sakura as we leave Kaizu-Osaki.

More photos of Kaizu-Osaki here.

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri 2017 Festival Schedule


Video link: https://youtu.be/3zYuarHUHXs

All 13 Nagahama hikiyama floats appearing in 2017! YOISA!!

Held annually on several days centering on April 15 by Nagahama Hachimangu ShrineNagahama Hikiyama Matsuri (長浜曳山祭) is a major float festival in Nagahama in northern Shiga Prefecture. The main highlight is child kabuki actors (boys age 5 to 12) performing on four ornate wooden floats. On Dec. 1, 2016 (JST), Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri was inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as one of the 33 “Yama, Hoko, and Yatai float festivals in Japan.” All festival events are within walking distance from JR Nagahama Station on the JR Hokuriku Line. Since there’s no detailed festival information and schedule in English from official sources, I provide this festival schedule in English based on official festival information and my recommendations. With a little knowledge of what’s what and what’s going on, I’m sure you’ll be able to enjoy this festival much more after reading this post.

There are 12 kabuki floats (called hikiyama) with a kabuki stage and one “guardian” float named Naginata-yama with no stage. Every year, only four of the kabuki floats perform kabuki at the festival. Three groups of four kabuki floats take turns appearing in the festival each year so each float group appears (performs kabuki) every three years. The same four floats appear together each time. Only the Naginata-yama guardian float appears in the festival every year, but does not perform kabuki.

To see all 12 kabuki floats, you normally would have to see the festival three years in a row. However, this year in 2017, to celebrate the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage designation, all 12 kabuki floats will make an appearance in the festival on April 15, the main festival day. But only four floats (Kasuga-zan, Kanko-zan, Gekkyuden, and Seikai-zan in 2017) will perform kabuki. The remaining eight non-performing kabuki floats will only be pulled to the Otabisho for display.

Although April 15 is the main festival day (called Honbi 本日), there is a slew of festival events and kabuki performances before and after this day. If you can’t make it to Nagahama on April 15, you can still see kabuki performances on April 13 (evening), 14 (morning), and 16 (all day).

In 2016, I photographed most of the festival events held during April 12–16. The video embedded above shows all the major festival events during this period. A few ceremonies and rituals are closed to the public.

Another thing to know is that the four kabuki-performing floats draw lots to determine the order of their performances. Being Float No. 1 is most desirable since they get to perform first on April 15 (main festival day) and can end early and go home early. They also have the honor to host the Sanbaso prayer dancer who performs before their kabuki play.

In 2017, Float No. 1 is Kanko-zan (諫皷山), Float No. 2 is Kasuga-zan (春日山), Float No. 3 is Gekkyuden (月宮殿), and Float No. 4 is Seikai-zan (青海山).

Here is the schedule of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival events in 2017 (times are approximate, and delays may occur). Also see the festival map toward the end of this post. The photos are screenshots from my video embedded above. Click on the photo to see the respective video segment.

April 1, 2017: Float Replacement Event (曳山交替式)
9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.: The hikiyama floats exhibited in the Nagahama Hikiyama Museum will be pulled out and taken back to their neighborhoods to prepare for the festival. Then the four floats appearing in next year’s festival will be brought into the museum to be displayed.

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April 9: Senko-ban Visitation (線香番)
Festival officials visit the four floats’ kabuki practice halls to watch a kabuki rehearsal and time the performance. Before clocks were invented, they used a burning incense stick (senko) to measure the kabuki play’s length. This is also when the parents see their sons perform for the first time. However, the actors do not wear the makeup and costumes yet. This ceremony is not open to the public since the practice hall will be filled with the boys’ parents and relatives.

April 9–12: Hadaka-mairi Shrine Worship (裸参り)
From 8:00 p.m. every night on these four days, scantily-clad young men (wakashu 若衆) from the four floats gather at their respective kabuki practice hall and parade to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine where they pray and purify themselves by running around a well and splashing themselves with the cold well water. They pray for a successful festival, healthy actors, and to draw a favorable lot on April 13 that determines the order of the floats’ performances. They all want to be Float No. 1 which performs first and goes home first on April 15 (main day).

From Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, they march through Otemon-dori shopping arcade to Hokoku Shrine across town where they pray and splash in a well again. On their last worshipping day on April 12, Otemon-dori shopping arcade has festival musicians and representatives from non-performing floats (i.e. those not performing in the festival this year) to greet the wakashu men. They play festival music (called shagiri 囃子) and offer cups of sake (rice wine) to the wakashu leaders and Kujitori-nin. They shout “Yoisa! Yoisa!” the whole time and drink a lot of sake.

You will notice that they wear different colored headbands. The young man wearing a red headband is the Kujitori-nin (籤取り人) who will draw the lot at the lot-drawing ceremony on April 13. The men wearing a blue headband are the guards (警護) who direct the wakashu. The men with a white headband are the rank and file. When a float’s wakashu pass by another float’s wakashu, a scuffle may break out since they are rivals in drawing lots. Quite a spectacle at both shrines and in-between.

April 12: Portable Shrine Procession (Mikoshi togyo 神輿渡御)
From 6:30 pm, men carry a mikoshi portable shrine from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to the Otabisho rest place across town while shouting, “Yoisa!” They go through the Otemon-dori arcade and a few side streets. Along the way, festival musicians from other floats greet the portable shrine (no sake is served). Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri’s festival music is called shagiri (しゃぎり) instead of hayashi (囃子). The portable shrine was made in 1676 by Fujioka Kanbe’e (藤岡甚兵衛) with donations from shrine parishioners. The Fujioka family was a renown woodcarver and Buddhist altar maker in Nagahama.

The portable shrine brings the deity closer to the people and chases away evil spirits. They occasionally raise the portable shrine to wish happiness and safety to the people around it. The portable shrine arrives at the Otabisho at about 7:30 pm. The Otabisho is a rest place for the god traveling in a portable shrine. The portable shrine remains in the Otabisho until April 15 evening.

April 10–12: Public Kabuki Practice (公開稽古)
Only during these three days, each float’s kabuki practice hall is open to the public. You can watch the boys (mostly age 5 to 10) practice their kabuki play usually once in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The practice hall is typically a small community center in the float’s neighborhood. It has a large room with a makeshift kabuki stage in the same size as on the float. (For practice times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.)

Anybody can watch them practice without any reservation or admission fee, but they do not wear the kabuki makeup and costumes (no dress rehearsals). They have been practicing every day since March 20 (spring vacation), so by this time, they have mastered their roles quite well. They receive some fine-tuning during this time.

When you watch them practice so hard (sometimes they even break down and cry), you will come to appreciate how much work it takes to put on a kabuki play. You can also see what the boys really look like without the kabuki makeup. Then when you do see them in kabuki makeup (from April 13), you will be amazed at their transformation.

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Before the kabuki makeup and costumes…

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And after the kabuki makeup and costumes.

The kabuki play is directed by three instructors called San’yaku (三役): The choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. The choreographer casts the actors’ (yakusha) roles usually according to their physical attributes. The choreographer is usually an experienced kabuki actor and directs the actors’ movements and voice. The tayu narrates the story in a highly stylized manner like in kabuki. The shamisen player provides the only music played during the kabuki performance.

Since 1990, the Nagahama Hikiyama Cultural Association (長浜曳山文化協会) has been working to train local artists to become tayu narrators and shamisen players in the festival. In 2016, for the first time, all four floats had at least one locally-trained tayu narrator or shamisen player. Previously, they were all from outside Shiga.

Each performing float also publishes its own festival program booklet or brochure introducing the float and kabuki actors in Japanese. (If it has English, it’s usually not very good.) You can buy one for cheap at the practice hall.

*Tip: On April 12, you can see three different festival events: Kabuki practice during the day, the portable shrine procession from 6:30 pm, and the hadaka-mairi shrine worshippers from 8 pm.


April 13
The main events on this day are the lot-drawing ceremony and the first kabuki performances in full costume for the public held in the evening.

Taiko Drum Call (起し太鼓): Before dawn at all float neighborhoods, a small team walk around and beat a taiko drum as a wakeup call.

Sacred Staff Receiving Ceremony (御幣迎えの儀)
7:00 a.m.: Representatives (including the Sacred Staff Messenger age 5–7) from the four floats go to Nagahama Hachimangu to receive their sacred staff (zigzag paper streamers) to be mounted on their floats.

Lot-Drawing Ceremony (Kujitori-shiki 籤取り式の儀)
1:00 p.m.:
At Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, four unmarried lads representing the four floats wear a red headband (like they did at the Hadaka-mairi) and sit in front of the shrine priest inside the worship hall. They are the lot drawers (Kujitori-nin).

Four pieces of paper are written with float numbers one to four. Each piece of paper is crumpled into a ball and placed on a tray as a lot to be drawn. There is a tray for each lot, and each lot drawer selects and carries back a tray. While sitting together, they all open their paper lots at the same time to see who is Float No. 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Being Float No. 1 is most desirable since they will perform first on April 15 and can go home early. They also get to host the Sanbaso prayer dancer which is the festival’s opening performance and prayer for an abundant harvest. The Lot-drawing ceremony is not for the public since the shrine’s worship hall is too small to allow the public inside to see the ceremony. However, you can see them from outside celebrating (throwing the lot drawer into the air, etc.).

April 13 Kabuki Performance (十三日番)
6:00 p.m. to around 8:30 p.m.: The four floats hold their first public kabuki performances in full makeup and costume in their respective neighborhoods. (For exact performance times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.)

In case of rain, the float will be covered with a tarp or moved to the shopping arcade for shelter.

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Sanbaso dancer (三番叟)

About the Sanbaso dancer
Float No. 1 receives the honor of hosting the Sanbaso dancer. The Sanbaso dances on Float No. 1 before the float’s kabuki play and he is the first performer on April 15 (main festival day) at the shrine. He holds a bell tree shaped like a ripe rice plant and performs prayer dances for a rich harvest.

The Sanbaso performs two short dance segments. The first segment is Momi-no-dan (stomping segment) where he waves his sleeves and stomps on the ground like he is preparing the ground for planting. He also does the “crow jump” (karasu-tobi) by jumping three consecutive times.

The second segment is Suzu-no-dan (bell segment) when the Sanbaso shakes his bell tree and mimes the planting and growing of rice. His costume has a crane design and his high cap has tiger stripes and a red sun on both sides.

The Sanbaso is a well-known dancer in Noh and kabuki. He comes from a Noh prayer dance called Okina (翁) dating from the 14th century as a religious ritual. Okina has three dancers praying for longevity, peace, endless joy, prosperity, and rich harvests. Sanbaso is the third dancer in Okina which is traditionally performed on auspicious and celebratory occasions like New Year’s and at the beginning of the day’s Noh or kabuki program. This is why he always appears first on the main festival day. The Sanbaso dances each time the float performs during the festival days. The boy playing the Sanbaso is recruited from the public in Nagahama and he is around age 10. He has his own choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. Ciick here to see the Sanbaso video clip.


April 14
The day before the main festival day is also a busy day. Lots to see/photograph.

Kabuki Performance in Local Neighborhoods (自町狂言)
9:00 a.m. to noon: Morning performances of kabuki plays are held by the four floats in their respective neighborhoods. The floats perform once or twice in the morning. For exact times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.

Floats Proceeding to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine (Noboriyama 登り山)
12 noon onward: After they finish their morning kabuki performances, the four floats proceed from their neighborhoods to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Float No. 4 arrives at the shrine first, followed by the others in reverse numerical order. All four floats arrive at the shrine by 4 p.m. It’s a spectacle to watch them pull the floats through the streets and the shopping arcade as they shout “Yoisa! Yoisa!” It’s a stop-and-go process. Meanwhile, the Naginata-yama float is pulled from its storehouse across town and arrives at the Otabisho rest place at 4 p.m. It is the only float that does not go to the shrine.

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About the Naginata-yama “Long Sword Float” (長刀山/小舟町組)
This is the only float with no kabuki stage, an Imperial-style carriage with only three wheels. Carries banners and long swords. A ceremonial and “festival guardian” float appearing every year on April 14-15 only at the Otabisho. It does not go to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Built in 1775 with Chinese lion sculptures on four sides. It’s a nice float, but does not attract the crowds. It’s a quiet float.

After the Sword Procession on April 15, red banners are hoisted on the float. Before Float No. 1 arrives at the Otabisho in the late afternoon, Naginata-yama’s red banners are replaced by white ones bearing the Minamoto Clan’s crest. The float’s caretaker is the Naginata-gumi association from the lakeside Kobuna-machi neighborhood (小舟町 now in Asahi-cho) where Minamoto Yoshiie landed for his victory march to Nagahama Hachimangu.

Evening Kabuki Procession (Yu-watari 夕渡り)
7:00 p.m.: Evening procession of all the child kabuki actors in full costume walking from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to Nagahama Hikiyama Museum through Otemon-dori shopping arcade. It starts with actors from Float No. 4, then No. 3, 2, and 1. Occasionally, the actor will stop and pose for photographers. Each actor is escorted by an adult relative (usually the father) holding a paper lantern and wooden placard indicating the actor’s name, age, and kabuki character. The procession includes festival musicians (no floats). A real crowd pleaser for locals and tourists alike.

All the kabuki actors (and stagehands) are treated like royalty during the festival. They receive gifts from relatives and friends and are very much pampered by their parents for undertaking such a difficult and rigorous task of kabuki acting. (A few of them even do it more than once.) The mothers have to make sure they don’t get sick or catch cold. This childhood experience stays with them for life and many of them come back to Nagahama to help out with the festival. In recent years, the floats have had difficulty recruiting kabuki actors (and musicians) since there are fewer kids in their neighborhoods.


April 15: Main festival day (Honbi 本日)
The festival’s peak day with kabuki performances here and there in central Nagahama from 9:45 am to 8:15 pm. The four floats start at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine where they perform in succession. Then they start moving toward the Otabisho and perform three more times at multiple locations (see map below). Before and after the kabuki performances, there are other processions and ceremonies. Note that the floats can be prone to be late (especially in the evening), so the time schedule is only approximate.

Before dawn: Taiko Drum Call (起し太鼓) at all float neighborhoods.

April 15 Events at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine
7:00 a.m.:
 Spring Festival Ceremony (春季大祭). A religious ceremony, not really for tourists.

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8:30 a.m.: Morning Kabuki Procession (Asa-watari 朝渡り) of child kabuki actors arrive at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Colorful procession, but too early in the morning for spectators.

9:10 a.m.: Sword Procession (Tachi-watari 太刀渡り) of sword bearers arrives at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine after going through Otemon-dori arcade. Led by a golden sacred staff, this procession reenacts the Hikiyama Matsuri’s original samurai procession before floats were added. Young men wear ceremonial aprons (similar to sumo wrestlers) and young boys wear samurai armor and a long naginata sword (2–3 meters long). They depict Minamoto no Yoshiie’s victory march to the shrine after he won the Gosannen War (1080s) in the Tohoku Region. Minamoto no Yoshiie was a famous samurai who founded Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine in 1069.

By the 16th century, Nagahama Hachimangu was ravaged by civil war, so Nagahama Castle Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi moved and rebuilt the shrine at its present location further inland. He also used his own samurai retainers to restart the shrine’s annual festival procession dedicated to Minamoto no Yoshie.

The Sword Procession is conducted by the Naginata-gumi group which also pulls the Naginata-yama float. It has the Matajirohama beach (又次郎浜) where Minamoto no Yoshie landed for his victory march to the shrine.

After resting at the shrine for a short period, the Sword Procession goes to the Otabisho to mount their long swords on the Naginata-yama float.

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9:25 a.m.: Okina Maneki (翁招き) is an opening ritual held in front of Float No. 1 to mark the start of kabuki performances. A long bamboo pole attached with a wooden placard is waved to the shrine and to Float No. 1 as a signal to start the festival and the festival music begins. Float No. 1 is then moved into position for the first kabuki performance (opening with the Sanbaso dancer).

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9:45 a.m.–1:45 p.m.: Kabuki at the Shrine (Hono kyogen 奉納狂言) has the four floats perform kabuki at the shrine in succession starting with Float No. 1. These performances are dedicated to the shrine. Each play is about 40 min. long. After a float finishes a kabuki performance, it leaves the shrine and goes to the next performance location on the way to the Otabisho. The next float is then moved into position in the shrine to give its kabuki performance. So there is a break time between performances.

If you want to see all the kabuki plays on the four floats, one option is to stay at the shrine to see all of them. But it’s standing room only, so you may get tired standing for that long. There is paid seating, but they require advance tickets (costing a few thousand yen) sold in Feb. and usually sell out quickly. If you sit on the ground, you won’t be able to see the float since everyone is standing in front of you.

You can just watch one or two floats at the shrine, take a break, and watch the other floats at other locations and times. For kabuki performance times at the shrine and elsewhere, see the table below. All four floats will also perform at the Otabisho later in the afternoon and evening (also standing room only).

Each float has five to seven kabuki actors and one or two stagehands. There used to be more actors like 10 or more per float, but there are fewer kids now. It’s also quite expensive to rent the kabuki costumes. Since each kabuki float performs every three years, that’s how long they have to raise money for the festival.

Although watching the kabuki is impressive without even understanding it, you would enjoy it more if you knew the kabuki story. Most of the kabuki plays are well known and you may be able to find an English synopsis online if you know the kabuki play’s title in Japanese or English. Sometimes the kabuki play includes something about Nagahama.

*The order of the floats’ performances is decided on April 13 by the Kuji-tori ceremony (籤取り式の儀) where they draw lots to see which float is No. 1, 2, 3, or 4.

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Performing at Kanaya Park.

After performing at the shrine, each float will move across town mainly along Otemon-dori road (shopping arcade, Kurokabe Square, etc.) to the Otabisho rest place. Along the way, they will stop and perform kabuki three more times with the last performance at the Otabisho by Float No. 4 held from 7:35 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. The map below has a red line indicating the float route on April 15 and the kabuki performance spots (1 to 7) along the way. To enlarge the map, click here.

Float No./Location1. Hachimangu2. Shrine path3. Kanaya Park4. Hikiyama Museum5. Arcade intersection6. Kurokabe Square7. Otabisho
Float No. 19:45–10:30 am12:00–12:45 pm2:00–2:45 pm4:00–4:45 pm
Float No. 210:55–11:35 am1:10–1:50 pm3:10–3:50 pm5:15–5:55 pm
Float No. 312:00–12:40 pm1:50–2:30 pm4:05–4:45 pm6:25–7:05 pm
Float No. 41:05–1:45 pm3:05–3:45 pm5:15–5:55 pm7:35–8:15 pm
*Times are approximate. Location numbers correspond to the numbers in the map below.

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April 15 Otabisho Events
In 2017, to celebrate the festival’s designation as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, all 13 Nagahama Hikiyama floats will appear at the Otabisho by evening. The Otabisho (御旅所) is a small shrine building on a large parking lot near Hokoku Shrine (short walk from JR Nagahama Station). It is where the portable shrine rests during its journey away from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine.

10 a.m. to 1 p.m.: The eight non-performing kabuki floats will arrive successively at the Otabisho parking lot to join the Naginata-yama guardian float (暇番山登り山). They will only be displayed and not perform any kabuki. It might be tricky to try and see these floats being pulled to the Otabisho while the four kabuki-performing floats are performing at the shrine and elsewhere at the same time. You won’t be able to see everything.

4:00–8:15 pm: Successive kabuki performances are held by the four floats as they arrive at the Otabisho one by one. Float No. 1 should arrive at 3:30 p.m. and start performing kabuki at 4 p.m. The last float (Float No. 4) is scheduled to finish its kabuki performance at 8:15 p.m. By 7:30 p.m. when Float No. 4 arrives, all 12 kabuki floats and the Naginata-yama guardian float will be on display at the Otabisho. A very rare occasion to see all the floats together. The last time they did this was in 2006 to celebrate the merger of Nagahama’s neighboring towns (Azai-cho and Biwa-cho). The kabuki actors are whisked home right after their performance. They don’t stick around for the latter events. They are exhausted and need to sleep and be ready for the next day.

9:00 p.m.: Portable Shrine Procession (Mikoshi togyo 神輿渡御)
After all the floats finish performing at the Otabisho, a short Shinto ceremony is held and the portable shrine that was brought to the Otabisho on April 12 is taken out and carried around the Otabisho a few times before it goes back to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Note that it can get chilly this late in the evening, so dress warmly.

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9:30 p.m.: Returning Floats (戻り山)
The floats start to leave the Otabisho to return to their neighborhoods. Naginata-yama is always the first float to leave, followed by Float No. 1 and the other three floats in order. The last Float No. 4 might leave as late as 11 pm. The floats go back to their neighborhoods. In 2017, since there will be 13 floats, it might take longer for all the floats to leave.


April 16: After-Festival Kabuki (Goen kyogen 後宴狂言)
Morning (9:00 a.m.) to evening: Kabuki performances are given by the four floats in their respective neighborhoods in central Nagahama. They also perform on stage at the Nagahama Bunka Geijutsu Kaikan hall for a paying audience from 10:55 a.m. Each float’s final performance of the festival is called senshuraku (千秋楽). It starts between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. (For exact times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.) Expect to see some tearful kids and relieved parents after the last show is over.

April 17: Sacred-Staff Returning Ceremony (御幣返しの儀)
8:00 am: Representatives (including the Sacred Staff Messenger around age 5–7) from the four floats go to Nagahama Hachimangu to return their sacred staffs (zigzag paper streamers) that were mounted on their floats. Not much for tourists.


For more information about the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival in English, including the festival’s origins, history, and all the floats, watch my YouTube video (embedded above). I don’t mean to brag, but it’s the world’s most comprehensive video about the festival in English. Being 91 min. long, it’s a long video, but you’ll learn a lot and enjoy the festival a lot more by knowing more about it and knowing what to expect.

For festival details in Japanese, see or download the official festival guide book pdf.

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Festival information booth at the shrine.

Buddhist altars made in Shiga Prefecture

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Updated: May 7, 2017

Shiga Prefecture has three handicrafts officially designated as a “Traditional Craft” by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (経済産業大臣指定伝統的工芸品). “Traditional crafts” as defined by the Japanese government are handicrafts used in everyday life that are largely handmade using traditional techniques and traditional materials. And they are made in a specific area.

Shiga’s three designated traditional crafts are Omi jofu hemp cloth (近江上布), Shigaraki pottery (信楽焼), and Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇) or household Buddhist altars made in Hikone.

Japan has over thirty cities and areas that produce household Buddhist altars (“butsudan” in Japanese). Fifteen of them are officially designated as a “Traditional Craft Production Area” (伝統的工芸品産地指定) by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. These areas include the cities of Yamagata, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Niigata, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Hikone. They all have been making butsudan since the Edo Period. In 1975, Hikone butsudan became Japan’s first butsudan to be officially designated as a “traditional craft.”

Hikone butsudan is thus one of Shiga’s signature products. However, Shiga actually has two traditional butsudan manufacturing areas. Besides Hikone butsudan made in Hikone and MaibaraHama butsudan (浜仏壇), commonly called “Hama-dan” (浜壇) which is short for “Nagahama butsudan,” is made in Nagahama, Maibara, and Hikone. Although Hikone butsudan is more famous nationally due to its official designation, Hama-dan is not inferior in any way. Interesting how the Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan production bases are right next to each other, but they have different origins, histories, and designs. Since there is virtually zero English information about Hama-dan, this article will also shed some light on Hama-dan.

butsudan

Hikone butsudan and certified craftsman.

butsudan

Hama-dan Buddhist altar in Mori Tesso’s home. Guess how much it cost? (Read below.)

Chube'e

Buddhist altar room in Itoh Chube’e Memorial House in Toyosato.

Traditional butsudan are like miniature Buddhist temples in Japanese homes. They are more common in rural (old) Japanese-style homes (with tatami mats) than in urban condominiums/apartments. A Japanese-style home may even have a Buddhist altar room called butsuma (仏間) designed for a large butsudan to fit into an alcove.

Japanese families keep a butsudan to memorialize and pray to deceased family members and ancestors. Photos of the recently deceased or small vertical tablets (ihai) inscribed with their names may adorn or complement the butsudan along with various Buddhist implements (candle holders, rice offering holders, incense burner, bell, etc.). They all direct attention to the butsudan’s central figure that is usually a Buddha statue or scroll. While praying in front of the butsudan, a family member might even “talk” or “report” to the deceased about their lives and achievements.

During the obon season in mid-August and on the anniversary of a family member’s passing, the family may hire a Buddhist priest to conduct a memorial service in front of their household Buddhist altar. The butsudan thereby unifies and bonds living family members as it reminds them of their common ancestors. And it’s much more convenient than going to the gravesite to pray to the deceased.

The practice of keeping a Buddhist altar at home is unique to Japan. They don’t do it in other Buddhist countries like Thailand. It supposedly began in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), but it didn’t spread until the Edo Period in the 17th century. When Christians were being persecuted in Japan, butsudan is said to have spread among families who wanted to show that they were not Christian. However, fewer and fewer modern homes in Japan today are designed to have a butsudan, so fewer and fewer families buy and keep a butsudan.

Butsudan is not to be confused with kami-dana (神棚) which are household Shinto altars (miniature Shinto shrines). Keeping a household altar is a common practice in both Buddhism and Shinto. But butsudan and kami-dana altars look totally different and serve different functions.

Kami

Kami-dana household Shinto altar in a Hino merchant’s home.

dana

Kami-dana for sale.

The household Shinto altar is generally less ornate (mostly bare wood) and smaller than butsudan and are mounted high on a shelf toward the ceiling. It is usually dedicated to a local Shinto god or the god of one’s profession. Household members commonly pray to kami-dana for family safety, good health, and business prosperity. Kami-dana is quite common among business owners.

In a nutshell, butsudan are dedicated to the deceased, while kami-dana are dedicated to the living. Also, you don’t have to be Buddhist to keep a butsudan nor a Shinto believer to have a kami-dana. A home may even have both, as many Japanese worship or respect both Buddhism and Shinto. Families commonly hold both Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals even though Shinto funerals and Buddhist weddings are perfectly fine. Even professional sumo wrestlers commonly have Buddhist funerals (sumo is a Shinto sport). When it comes to religion in Japan, things are not so black and white.

Besides serving spiritual and family functions, the traditional butsudan is a major assemblage of intricate, elaborate, and ornate artwork. It provides the livelihoods of highly-skilled traditional craftsmen and artisans required to make a butsudan. There are at least seven types of traditional craftsmen involved in making a butsudan: Cabinet maker (kiji-shi 木地師) who makes the wooden exterior cabinet, inner altar builder (kuden-shi 宮殿師) who makes the butsudan’s inner sanctum complete with a temple-like roof, woodcarver (chokoku-shi 彫刻師) who carves the transoms and Buddha statue, lacquer painter (nuri-shi 漆塗り師) who lacquers the cabinet, gold leaf gilder (kinpaku-oshi-shi 金箔押し師), metallic ornament maker (kazari-kanagu-shi 錺金具師) who makes metallic fittings and ornaments, and maki-e artist (makie-shi 蒔絵師) who creates lacquer decorations with sprinkled gold powder. The butsudan parts are then assembled by the butsudan shop that received the customer’s order. The best traditional craftsmen can also be certified with the official title of “Traditional Craftsman” (伝統工芸士) from the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Installing a metallic fitting on Hikone butsudan.

Attaching a metallic hinge on Hikone butsudan door.

butsudan

Hikone butsudan is very gold.

Hikone butsudan is classified as a kin-butsudan (gold Buddhist altar 金仏壇) in reference to the abundant use of gold leaf (made of 95%+ pure gold). Like Kanazawa butsudan in Ishikawa Prefecture (famous for gold leaf) and Kyoto butsudan, Hikone butsudan looks very gold and is regarded as a high-end butsudan. The lacquer is glossy and the wood is usually hinoki cypress, zelkova (keyaki), or Japanese cedar.

Hikone butsudan originated in the mid-Edo Period (17th-18th centuries). Traditional craftsmen such as cabinet makers, lacquerware artists, and metallic ornament makers who had produced samurai swords, helmets, armor, etc., switched to making Buddhist altars as a peaceful pursuit during the peaceful Edo Period. It started with a lacquerware merchant who made a butsudan after learning from Kyoto butsudan sometime during 1624-44. As household Buddhist altars became more common, the Hikone daimyo (Ii Clan) officially sanctioned and protected the butsudan makers’ livelihoods. Many of these craftsmen lived in the Nanamagari area (七曲がり) of Hikone where a number of butsudan craftsmen and shops still remain while other craftsmen are scattered about in Hikone. In Nanamagari, you can visit butsudan shops and perhaps see an artisan at work or take a workshop in one of the butsudan crafts. In autumn, they hold the Nanamagari Festa (七曲がりフェスタ) with butsudan craftsmen demonstrating their art and offering hands-on lessons for the public.

With the backing of the local daimyo, Hikone’s butsudan industry developed into an efficient production system and became one of Hikone’s major traditional industries. After World War II, Hikone butsudan makers established their own guild and product inspection system to improve and assure the quality of their products. Traditional butsudan are usually signed and dated by the maker or artisan.

Hikiyama

Nagahama Hikiyama festival float (Shojo-maru).

chidori

Hama-dan has a top-edge, bare wood transom and inner roof with three triangular chidori-hafu. The roof’s center is similar to the roof of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival floats.

Meanwhile, Hama-dan Buddhist altars have kind of a confusing history since there was the original Izumi-dan (和泉壇) which has since been grouped together with Hama-dan. Technically, Izumi-dan and Hama-dan have separate lineages and both still exist, but I’m told Izumi-dan is quite rare now due to its high price range and it has since been commonly called Hama-dan. Izumi-dan has a unique kind of sculpture or style that a butsudan expert can distinguish from a Hama-dan. Izumi-dan is named after a prominent Nagahama carpenter and woodcarver named Fujioka Izumi (藤岡 和泉 1617–1705) who specialized in carving lotuses and clouds. He gained fame after creating highly-rated woodcarvings for Izumi Shrine in Nagahama. He made butsudan as well.

Izumi favored making butsudan with less gold leaf and more bare wood than Hikone butsudan and Kyoto butsudan. For example, the wood-carved transom (sama) on the altar’s top edge is bare wood and not gold like on Hikone butsudan. He used zelkova (an expensive and durable wood) for the transom and hinoki cypress for the cabinet and included much maki-e lacquer art.

Another distinctive feature is the Hama-dan’s inner altar roof. It looks a like castle roof with multiple ridges and decorative triangular gables called chidori-hafu (千鳥破風). They make the butsudan look very dignified.

Izumi’s descendants/associates also made the first hikiyama floats for the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri in the 18th century when kabuki became popular. The design of the hikiyama floats was modeled after the Izumi-dan Buddhist altars. In the photos above, you can how the roof design of the hikiyama float and butsudan are similar. Hikone butsudan has a different type of inner roof.

The Fujioka family helped to build and maintain the ornate Nagahama hikiyama floats. However today, the Fujioka family is no longer in this business and the floats are maintained by butsudan craftsmen.

Despite the different designs of Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, both types can be configured to suit any Japanese Buddhist sect. Although the Jodo Shinshu Sect favors gold butsudan (like Hikone/Kyoto butsudan), a Jodo Shinshu family can still use a Hama-dan instead. I’m told that most Jodo Shinshu families in Nagahama and Maibara have a Hama-dan. (The butsudan in my home in Shiga is a Hama-dan as well.) Hama-dan is also reputed to be bigger than Hikone butsudan. Although I’m sure a (rich) customer can custom order a Hikone butsudan in any large size. I’m told that Hikone butsudan has a nationwide market base, while Hama-dan customers are mainly limited to northern Shiga.

Even though they are neighbors, it’s nice that Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan have retained their unique characteristics all these centuries. They also share some of the craftsmen who make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

In September 2015, we visited one such craftsman, a very accomplished and versatile 70-year-old woodcarver (and painter) named Mori Tesso (森 哲荘) who lives and works in Kami-nyu (上丹生) in the city of Maibara. Out of the seven traditional butsudan craftsmen, I was most interested in the woodcarvers. After all, they make the Buddha statues that become the focal point of the butsudan. An online search led me to Mori Tesso at Mori Chokokusho (森彫刻所), a modest woodcarving studio next to his house. He has been a woodcarver in Kami-nyu for 55 years since age 15, right after junior high school. I got an exclusive interview and tour of their studio.

Kami-nyu is a small, rural enclave of butsudan craftsmen in a quiet, mountainous neighborhood in the Samegai area (on the way to the trout farm). There are cabinet makers, woodcarvers, gold leaf gilders, lacquer painters, etc. To have all these traditional craftsman in one place is quite rare in Japan. They make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, although such work has decreased dramatically.

Kami-nyu’s history goes back to the Tempyo Period (729–749) when a clan related to the Imperial Court lived in this area. Through their connections, they were exposed to cultural information and techniques from Korea and China. Kami-nyu thereby developed as a center of highly refined culture. In the early 19th century, two Kami-nyu teenage lads, 14-year-old Ueda Yusuke (上田勇助), who was the son of a shrine/temple carpenter, and friend Kawaguchi Shichiemon (川口七右衛門), spent 12 years in Kyoto to learn traditional woodcarving. When Yusuke came back to Kami-nyu, he worked as a woodcarver for local temples. Since the area was mountainous with little farmland, people in Kami-nyu made a living cutting trees and making woodcarvings for temples, shrines, and festival floats.

In the late 19th century (mid-Meiji Period), Yusuke’s son and successor (Yusuke II) ventured to make woodcarvings for Hama-dan, further refining his skills. Other butsudan craftsmen from different disciplines also started to settle in Kami-nyu. Kami-nyu thereby transformed from a woodcarvers’ neighborhood into a traditional crafts village that continues today. It’s a family business or cottage industry and most everything is handmade. They work separately, but as a team. There are no large, mass production factories. (Yusuke’s current descendants are no longer woodcarvers.)

Kami-nyu has a few butsudan shops (仏壇店) where you can custom order a butsudan to suit your budget and preferences. Many customers have their traditional butsudan custom-made. The shop will then mobilize and coordinate the traditional craftsmen in Kami-nyu to make the butsudan parts to be assembled by the shop.

Although the Kami-nyu craftsmen’s mainstay used to be making butsudan parts, their numbers have sadly shrunk dramatically due to a lack of work. The surviving ones now do mostly other work, any type of job that matches their skills (and fees). It could be a transom in a new house, restoration or repair work for temples, shrines, large altars, butsudan, kami-dana, and festival floats. They are highly versatile craftsmen.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso is a second-generation Kami-nyu woodcarver taking after his late father Hideo (秀男) who started the family trade. He was pretty much forced into the profession by his father who insisted that there were skills that can only be acquired at a young age. Tesso originally did not care so much for woodcarving and wanted to continue on to high school instead. However, after learning the craft from his father and older brother Nozomu, Tesso came to love woodcarving and feels fortunate to have pursued it. Look at his works and you will see that he is very good.

Hideo, born in 1900, apprenticed under a butsudan woodcarver in Kyoto after elementary school. He eventually became a master woodcarver. The post-war years were tough for him as people were too poor to buy butsudan. Old butsudan were often sold to feed the family.

As Japan recovered and people could afford to buy butsudan again, Hideo worked in Kyoto and trained many apprentices including his elder son Nozomu who started in 1951 after junior high school. Nozomu has been carving for over 60 years and lives in Kami-nyu.

Buddha

Butsudan Buddha statue carved by Mori Hideo.

Unfortunately, Hideo died at age 64, only three years after Tesso started carving. Tesso was quite saddened by his father’s passing and started dabbling in drawing and painting. But after getting married in 1973, he buckled down and pursued butsudan woodcarving seriously for a steady income. It takes at least 10 years to master the craft, and another 10 years to become a more versatile woodcarver.

He soon had two sons, Yasuichiro (靖一郎) and Tetsuo (徹雄), both of whom became woodcarvers themselves. Yasuichiro started training under his father and Uncle Nozomu at age 20 after graduating from a junior art college. Younger son Tetsuo apprenticed under his Uncle Nozomu as a woodcarver after high school. Both Yasuichiro and Tetsuo have been been carving for over 20 years now, so both are already master woodcarvers. Like his father, Yasuichiro has been certified by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry as a Traditional Craftsman for Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇伝統工芸士). (There is no such certification for Hama-dan.) The two sons were not home during our visit so I didn’t get to meet them.

chisels

Mori Tesso and some of his many chisels.

The Moris live along the river flowing through Kami-nyu and Samegai. Their immediate neighbor is another craftsman and there is also butsudan shop right nearby. Their woodcarving studio is in a separate building next to their home. The studio is a fairly spacious room for three woodcarvers to work. They all face a window so they can look outside once in a while. Tesso carves while sitting at a low table which is actually a thick plank of wood. He sits on the floor, but his legs stretch out into a sunken pit. He has many little drawers for an arsenal of many different chisels. Kami-nyu is a quiet and relaxing place to do intricate work.

He showed us a variety of wood sculptures. He sketches the carving on the wood or paper, then makes a rough carving with a hammer and chisel. The final stages are fine carving. If there is a human face, he carves it last, as it is the most difficult part to carve. They don’t use sandpaper, etc., to smooth the surface either. It’s all smoothed with a chisel. This skill itself takes a few years to master.

Besides butsudan carvings, the Moris carve sculptures for shrines and temples (roof beams, transoms, etc.), wooden signboards for businesses, wooden picture frames, and festival floats. They can basically carve whatever the customer wants. They also repair butsudan sculptures. They do have ready-made sculptures for sale, but it seems that they mainly produce custom orders.

Tesso is a very, very versatile artist. He can carve all kinds of things. Just look at their website gallery for samples of their work. They also sell their work online via Yahoo Japan. An incredible variety. The Mori family also carved part of the impressive woodcarving mural displayed at Maibara Station’s east entrance. The mural shows Maibara’s major sights like Mt. Ibuki (top center) and Mishima Pond carved in wood.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

After showing us his workshop, he brought us into his home where we saw a large Hama-dan in his Buddhist altar room (top photo). He made the butsudan with all the woodcarvings except for the Buddha statue that was carved by his father. Tesso told me that one customer saw this butsudan and immediately decided that he wanted one exactly like it. So Tesso had one made exactly like it. The cost? Ten million yen (!).

Indeed, high-end (i.e. large size and ornate), traditional butsudan can cost more than the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz luxury car (S-Class). On the other hand, there are also simplified and compact butsudan called “modern butsudan” (モダン仏壇) which cost a lot less than traditional butsudan. Modern butsudan are basically wooden cabinets sans woodcarvings and major artwork. Average size models (about 60 cm high) can cost around ¥150,000 or more, but when you throw in the standard implements (rice offering holders, candle holders, bell, etc.) and Buddha figure or scroll, it can total around ¥300,000 or more. Modern butsudan are geared for city dwellers and condos where space is limited.

Also, there is a lot of imported butsudan (or parts) from countries like China and Vietnam where labor is much cheaper than in Japan. Imported butsudan started to spread in Japan from the 1990s. They now account for about 70 percent of the butsudan sold in Japan.

Tesso tells me that these imported butsudan pose the biggest challenge or competition to the traditional craftsmen. Sadly, the number of traditional butsudan craftsmen has decreased significantly and the Moris no longer carve for butsudan that much. He says that they have been adapting and adjusting to such market conditions. Traditional craftsmen in Japan are now basically relegated to the high-end market. They are also supported by purists who still favor “Made in Japan” butsudan and other crafts, citing subtle differences in the artwork of imported models. For example, dragon sculptures on imported butsudan may look too “Chinese.” Some butsudan shops proudly indicate that their butsudan are “Made in Japan.” Otherwise, we cannot tell if it is imported or not.

Modern

Even modern butsudan are quite diverse. These are 50-60 cm tall.

During a quick tour of butsudan shops in Tokyo, I was surprised to see so many modern and imported butsudan. Even though the modern ones are more suited for urban families and Western-style homes, it’s still sad to see how the traditional butsudan are being squeezed out. The lower prices of modern/imported butsudan are no doubt very tempting for the average worshipper.

People in the market for a butsudan have a very, very wide selection. Whether it’s traditional or modern, large or small, cheap or expensive, or plain or ornate. Unlike electrical appliances, cars, and furniture, there are no corporate brands of butsudan. There are only traditional regional brands and anonymous brands (modern or imported). Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan are no doubt among Japan’s elite butsudan that can last for generations.

Even if you’re not Buddhist/religious or have no plans to buy a butsudan, I hope this article makes you appreciate the fine artwork that goes into a traditional butsudan and piques your interest to try and identify any butsudan you might sooner or later see in Shiga.

*Special thanks to Mori Tesso for showing us his workplace and sculptures and to Yasuichiro for answering my supplemental questions.

Major references for this article:

Otsu-e paintings then and now

Otsu-e of an ogre at Miidera temple, Otsu.

Anyone who visits Otsu will sooner or later see an Otsu-e painting (大津絵). It can be a picture of an ogre (oni), wisteria maiden (Fuji-musume), Buddhist figure, or other surreal or whimsical human, god, or animal.

Otsu-e paintings originated as a folk art around 1624-44 and were made and sold by roadside stands in Oiwake near Otsu-juku, the last post town on the Tokaido and Nakasendo Roads before people arrived in Kyoto from Tokyo (Edo).

The earliest Otsu-e pictures during 1624-44 depicted mainly Buddhist images. People worshipped these images as an affordable alternative for expensive Buddha statues. Otsu-e paintings were unsigned by anonymous artists and initially served practical and religious functions. They did not start out as paintings for artistic appreciation. Otsu-e was cheap ephemera (as much as a bowl of noodles), not meant to last very long.

There are a few theories as to how Otsu-e came about. One theory says that an artist named Matabei started painting Otsu-e. A more plausible theory is that Buddhist painters who lost their jobs in Kyoto due to a realignment of Buddhist sects moved to Oiwake and started painting Otsu-e Buddhist images to eke out a living.

Otsu-e at Enryakuji temple

Otsu-e at Enryakuji temple.

By the early 18th century, Otsu-e became popular as cheap, local souvenirs and were no longer just for religious purposes. The paintings expanded to include ogre (oni), wisteria maidens, courtesans, gods (of Good Fortune), samurai warriors, falconers, birds, animals like monkeys, sumo wrestlers, and whatever the customer wanted.

Otsu-e were created on demand as the traveling customer waited. They were not ready-made. It took only several minutes to make Otsu-e.

Many Otsu-e were produced as a family business. The husband might create the basic outline in black, the wife colorized it, and their child added more details. They usually used woodblocks for the basic image, then painted it. The paintings were kept simple to make it easier and faster to make. Alas, Otsu-e has never received as much artistic acclaim in the art world as with works by individual artists (i.e. ukiyoe woodblock prints).

From the mid-18th century, most Otsu-e paintings depicted satirical scenes reflecting the contemporary times and moralistic or poetic paintings with writings. Proverbs like “don’t drink too much” still applies today. The most popular were still the ogre (oni) and wisteria maiden.

The oni (ogre or goblin) is shown wearing Buddhist priest robes, an umbrella on his back, a gong around his neck, and a mallet in his right hand. His left hand holds a list of temple donors (奉加帳). One of his two horns is also always bent. The oni is walking around soliciting donations. It expresses the notion that a priest without truth has the heart of an oni (devil or evil thing). It reminds priests and people to be honest.

By the late 19th century when trains became the main mode of transportation, roadside Otsu-e artists went out of business. They became extinct, but remnants of their existence have remained. Authentic Otsu-e are highly collectible and only some examples from the 17th-18th centuries remain today.

Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei.

Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei.

Tanaka Kokei.

Tanaka Kokei showing two Otsu-e folding screens fitted together.

gallery

Other works in Kokei-an gallery.

In the modern age, Otsu-e has been resurrected by a number of practitioners. I recently met two of the most established Otsu-e artists. Both have created their own approaches and versions of Otsu-e, although purists might not accept either of them as a traditional Otsu-e artist who sold paintings anonymously for cheap.

One of them is Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei (田中胡径) based in western Otsu. She gave me an exclusive interview at her gallery named Otsu-e no Yakata Kokei-an (大津絵の館 胡径庵) in July 2014. She was kind enough to bring out a whole bunch of heavy folding screens to show me, in addition to what was displayed in her gallery.

Her work is beautiful, but very high end, apparently targeting well-heeled collectors. They are not ephemera and do not come cheap. Especially when they are presented on exquisite folding screens, scrolls, or frames which are works of art in themselves. She even showed one folding screen with a washi paper backing made by the late washi artist Abe Eishiro (安部栄四郎) who was a Living National Treasure. So the picture mounting adds to the cost. Definitely not for the masses nor for the ordinary passing tourist on a budget.

But her works are outstanding. She works with her daughter Yumi in an interesting arrangement. Kokei directs how the picture is drawn or composed, but it’s Yumi who actually paints the picture and does the calligraphy. Like an art director and art technician working together. Although their Otsu-e are not signed, they can be easily identified by the innovative and unique mounting on folding screens, scrolls, and frames.

They are meticulous in all aspects of making and presenting Otsu-e. They diligently reproduce authentic Otsu-e colors by using authentic pigments, methods, paper (handmade washi only), and other top-quality materials. Their pictures are designed to last and be appreciated for a long time. Even the folding screens for mounting the Otsu-e are intricately made by highly skilled artisans. Sometimes she even argues with the folding screen artisans over the design, etc.

Rather than making Otsu-e ephemera that people might just stuff in a closet or attic, Kokei wants her work to be treasured from generation to generation as a family heirloom. Make it important enough for the owner to give it the attention it deserves. And to give it a place in the home. She’s most satisfied when her Otsu-e ends up in a home of people who can appreciate it. She believes that unless Otsu-e are presented in a more permanent and impressive way, its artistic heritage might be lost. Longevity and preservation seem to be her keywords. A far cry from 17th-century artists whose paintings were simply rolled up for carrying and used for a short time. Kokei sensei has taken Otsu-e to a much higher level.

I also asked if Kokei sensei accepts custom orders, painting according to the customer’s specifications. Although the customer may have some requests, Kokei usually ends up convincing the customer that her proposal would work better based on where the Otsu-e would be placed in the home.

Kokei is originally from Kyoto. Her family ran a picture frame/mounting business. Her father also repaired art works. Sometimes he would restore old Otsu-e. Visiting customers bringing Otsu-e would talk to her father while Kokei, still in jr. high school, would bring tea for the customer. That’s when she first saw Otsu-e. Her first impression of Otsu-e was that it was grungy, dirty, and manga-like.

After getting married and moving to Otsu, she again saw Otsu-e and was appalled by how different or untraditional modern Otsu-e was compared to traditional Otsu-e. She didn’t think the modern Otsu-e was doing the traditional art justice. Around 1984 while in her 30s, she started seriously studying Otsu-e. She wanted to know what the authentic Otsu-e was, the definitive form of Otsu-e. She studied under a number of Otsu-e teachers and eventually decided to create or resurrect Otsu-e herself.

Kokei asked her daughter Yumi to paint Otsu-e while Kokei would handle the mounting. Yumi, who was a certified art curator, said yes and quit her job at an art museum and studied how to paint Otsu-e. Evidently, she’s very good at it after about 10 years. She even does the haphazard-looking calligraphy.

When they first started out, they were prepared for a frugal life on a frugal income. Similar to when early Otsu-e painters started in the 17th century. Kokei was also brought up by a frugal family which she says was a blessing. Her family was dedicated to preserving traditional culture and Kokei and daughter Yumi are continuing this family mission.

Kokei-an

Entrance to Kokei-an gallery.

In 1994, she opened her Otsu-e no Yakata Kokei-an gallery in a quiet residential neighborhood in Shimo-Sakamoto in western Otsu. The gallery shows several tens of her pictures mounted on scrolls, in glass frames, on folding screens, etc. As of this writing, she has no website, so she might be obscure to the layman and foreigners. She has exhibited at department stores, but she’s not into mass marketing. You either know about her or you don’t.

To visit her gallery (or purchase her paintings), call to make an appointment (English not spoken). The gallery is somewhat hard to find and there is limited parking. Best to call and get directions. The closest station is Anoo Station on the Keihan Line. Map here.

Address: 2-19-20 Shimo-Sakamoto, Otsu, Shiga (〒520-0105 滋賀県大津市下阪本2丁目19-20)
Phone: (077) 579-8517

*Kokei sensei is holding an exhibition of her Otsu-e at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine’s Hiyoshi Kaikan hall during Nov. 20–28, 2015 at 9:30 am to 4:00 pm.

Takahashi Shozan

Takahashi Shozan (Shinsuke) at a Shiga crafts fair.

shozan2

Otsu-e by Takahashi Shozan.

Otsu-e by Takahashi Shozan. Notice his signature.

Otsu-e by Takahashi Shozan. Notice his signature/seal on the lower right of each work.

The other prominent, modern Otsu-e artist is Takahashi Shozan IV (高橋松山). His father Shozan III was also an Otsu-e artist under whom he apprenticed in the 1950s. His son Shinsuke is also an Otsu-e artist.

Unlike Kokei, Shozan is very much into mass marketing and I’ve come across his Otsu-e pictures a number of times at crafts fairs and souvenir shops in Shiga. He also has a website (partially in English) and an online shop.

His Otsu-e are available on high-end scrolls and driftwood as well as on cheaper media such as handkerchiefs, postcards, and stationary. They are nice and colorful and look traditional. He’s got all the popular Otsu-e designs such as ogres, wisteria maidens, courtesans, etc. They make for a nice decoration or gift. If you cannot afford his pricey Otsu-e paintings, you can always buy something cheap like a postcard. All his works are signed by him. They are not anonymous like the original Otsu-e were.

This is understandable in this day and age. I always believe that credit should be given or claimed where it’s due. But Otsu-e purists might say “no” and it might be disheartening, but any kind of tradition is always changing in some way.

Shozan has a shop in central Otsu. He also teaches Otsu-e classes.
Address: 3-38 Miidera-cho, Otsu, Shiga 滋賀県大津市三井寺町3-38
Phone: 077-524-5656. Also see my short video interview of Shozan.

It’s interesting to see how Otsu-e has evolved, reflecting the times, even today. In this modern age, we still have a good choice when it comes to Otsu-e, one of Shiga’s unique art forms.

*You can see original, centuries-old Otsu-e at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) in Tokyo which has a large collection of Otsu-e that was donated by an avid collector. They also published a comprehensive and well-illustrated bilingual book (Japanese and English, ISBN 978-4885919251) about Otsu-e. You might find the book in a public library in Shiga. The Japan Times also published an article about the museum’s Otsu-e exhibition in 2005. The Otsu City Museum of History also has a few Otsu-e.

 

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