Setsubun Festivals in Shiga Prefecture

Ogre dancers at Taga Taisha Setsubun.

February 3 is the Setsubun Festival at many temples and shrines in Japan. It marks the beginning of spring (Feb. 4) according to the lunar calendar. They hold a religious ceremony and then throw fuku-mame lucky beans (dry soybeans) for worshippers to catch. They may also throw beans at ogre (oni) to chase away evil and bad luck (symbolized by the oni) and bring in good fortune (fuku). They usually shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Out with bad luck! In with good fortune!). The bean-throwing is called mame-maki. Like giving New Year’s prayers, Setsubun is a popular event because many people want to eliminate misfortune and invite good fortune to come in the new year.

In Shiga Prefecture, you can see the Setsubun festival on February 3 at the following temples and shrines. There may be slight variations in how they conduct the Setsubun festival. You don’t have to be Buddhist to see or participate in Setsubun (or any other Buddhist events in Japan). Just make sure to dress warmly and enjoy one of Japan’s major traditions.

Catching lucky beans at Taga Taisha.

♦ Taga Taisha Shrine Setsubun-sai (多賀大社 節分祭), Taga, Feb. 3, 11:00 am and 2:00 pm
Shiga’s biggest Setsubun festival is in Taga. They have impressive ogre (oni) dancers from Shimane Prefecture to act as the evil demons to be chased away. They will hold two bean-throwing (mame-maki) sessions. Expect a large crowd.

It starts with a religious ceremony in the shrine’s worship hall. The shrine’s outdoor stage will then show a dramatic performance by the ogres as they are chased away by priests throwing beans at them. The main event is when over 300 people born under the current year’s Oriental zodiac begin to throw soybeans and mochi to the crowd.

The soybeans are thrown in little paper bags, so they won’t get dirty if they fall to the ground. But the mochi are hard as a rock, so watch out. The bean-throwing is fun, but potentially dangerous with beans or mochi hitting your face/head and people shoving you around. Better to not pick up beans/mochi on the ground amid the jostling. Taking pictures is pretty risky as well. One mochi even hit my camera lens. Fortunately, no damage. You should always look up and see where the mochi and beans are flying.

Directions: Taga Taisha is a short walk from Ohmi Railways Taga Taisha-mae Station on the Taga Line.
Map | PhotosVideo | Taga Taisha website

Throwing beans at Zensuiji Setsubun-e.

♦ Zensuiji Setsubun-e (善水寺 節分会星祭), Konan, Feb. 3, 1:30 pm
Belonging to the Tendai Buddhist sect, Zensuiji temple is a National Treasure and one of the Konan Sanzan Temple Trio worth visiting at any time of the year. Their Setsubun festival is somewhat unique since it is held entirely inside the temple. It starts at 1:30 pm with priests chanting and the Goma fire ritual (護摩供奉修) with a small fire inside the temple burning worshippers’ wooden prayer sticks (write your wishes on the stick, ¥500 per stick).

After the hour-long fire ritual, the Three Ogres of Poison (三毒鬼) in different colors enter the temple. Each ogre represents one of the three Mahayana Buddhist poisons. The priest introduces the ogres and explains that the blue ogre (holding a rake to gather desired objects) is greed/desire (貪), red ogre is hate/anger (瞋), and yellow ogre is ignorance/delusion (痴). (This is also when babies in the audience frightened by the scary ogres start to cry.)

Instead of chasing away the ogres, the priest uses the power of Buddha to neutralize their poison hearts. Each of the three poisons have an antidote, such as knowledge to quell ignorance. All the ogres acquiesce and are thereby converted into “good” ogres.

At around 3 pm, the good ogres, priests, and other folks throw beans while shouting, “Fuku wa uchi! Oni mo uchi!” (福は内! 鬼も内! In with good fortune! In with ogres!). This is another unusual thing about Zensuiji’s Setsubun festival, they also welcome the ogres. But they are now good ogres. At the end of the festival, worshippers can have one of the three ogres eliminate their respective poison. The ogre taps the person to cleanse his/her poison. Very interesting Setsubun festival. Photography is permitted.

Directions: From JR Kosei Station on the JR Kusatsu Line, catch a bus bound for Shimoda (下田) and get off at Iwane (岩根). From there, walk up the hill, and follow the signs (if you can read Japanese). A small temple admission is charged.
Photos courtesy of Konan Tourism Association (湖南市観光協会).
Map | Zensuiji photos | VideoZensuiji website | Konan video

Good ogres cleanse worshippers’ poisons at Zensuiji’s Setsubun.

♦ Tachiki Jinja Shrine Setsubun Taisai (立木神社 節分大祭), Kusatsu, Feb. 3 at 3 pm, 5 pm, and 7 pm
Men and women born under the current year’s zodiac animal will throw beans three times on this day. Free ama-zake (sweet sake) and locally brewed sacred sake will be served to visitors. The shrine’s mikuji paper fortunes (sold for ¥200) will also be used in a drawing for many prizes.

Directions: 15-min. walk from JR Kusatsu Station‘s east exit (or take the Mame bus and get off at Tachiki Jinja-mae).
Map | Tachiki Shrine website

Minakuchi

Minakuchi Shrine

♦ Minakuchi Jinja Shrine Setsubun-sai (水口神社 節分祭), Koka, Feb. 3, 7 pm
Minakuchi Shrine’s Setsubun festival is mainly held in the evening from 7 pm when they hold a religious ceremony, perform a lion dance, chase away ogres, and throw lucky beans and mochi. From 3 pm to 7 pm, udon noodles and red bean soup (zenzai) will be available to warm you up. The shrine is most famous for the Minakuchi Hikiyama Matsuri in April.

Directions: 5-min. walk from Ohmi Railways Minakuchi Jonan Station. | Map

Wishing everyone good fortune this new year!

Zensuiji showing hidden Buddha

Flyer for Gokaicho.

Flyer for Gokaicho.

Zensuiji is one of the three Tendai Buddhist temples (called Konan Sanzan 湖南三山) in Konan, Shiga Prefecture designated as a National Treasure. The elegant lines of the thatched roof, Japanese gardens, and colorful autumn leaves make Zensuiji one of Shiga’s most aesthetic and popular temples.

Its main object of worship (Honzon 本尊) is Yakushi Nyorai Ruriko Nyorai (薬師瑠璃光如来), the Buddha of Medicine and Healing. It is a statue of a seated Buddha normally hidden from view in the Hondo main temple hall built in 1366.

However, for the first time in 14 years, this main statue will be exposed for public viewing from April 19 to June 14, 2015 to celebrate Zensuiji’s 1300th anniversary of its founding. The main statue is 102-cm high and an Important Cultural Property. The statue was last opened to the public in the temple in 2001 and 1949. This event of showing a hidden Buddha (hibutsu 秘仏) is called Gokaicho (御開帳).

The main statue was also displayed to the public in 2005 and 2006 at the Kyoto National Museum and Tokyo National Museum for a Buddhist art exhibition marking the 1200th anniversary of Tendai’s founding. It was the first and last time the main statue was displayed outside the temple. A photo of the seated main statue is here and pictured in the flyer above.

Formally named Iwane-san Io-in Zensuiji (岩根山王院善水寺), Zensuiji was founded by Empress Genmei during 708-715 as a dojo (small hall) to pray for the protection of Japan. According to legend, in the early Heian Period (794-1185), Priest Saicho (founder of Tendai Buddhism based on Mt. Hiei) was in the Konan-Koka area to harvest wood to build a temple on Mt. Hiei (Enryakuji). A ray of light led him to the dojo temple. He found a paper mulberry leaf floating on the temple’s Momotsute Pond (百伝の池) written with the words, “Excellent medicine, now left here” (是好良薬 今留在此). A 5.5 cm high gold Yakushi Buddha statue then appeared from the pond. Saicho prayed to this Buddha for seven days for rain. His prayers then came true as heavy rains fell and continued all day and night. The gushing river helped him transport the wood he found to Lake Biwa to build his temple on Mt. Hiei.

Later when Emperor Kanmu (737–806) fell ill, Saicho prayed for his recovery by dedicating some water from Momotsute Pond. He then offered the sacred water to the emperor who soon got well. The temple was then named “Zensuiji,” meaning “Efficacious Water Temple.” People come here to pray for good health and to recover from illness. You can also drink or take home the Efficacious Water from Momotsute Pond flowing from a spring.

When the hidden Yakushi Nyorai statue was repaired in 1906, they found a lot of rice husks and a document dated 993 inside the Buddha. The document, called Kechien Kyomyo (結縁交名), listed the people (donors) who contributed to making the Buddha statue as a way to connect with the Buddha.

If you miss seeing the main statue after it becomes “hidden”again after June 14, you can still see 30 other impressive Buddhist statues in the main temple hall. Fifteen of them are Important Cultural Properties dated to be centuries or a thousand years old. Off the beaten path and well worth visiting.

Zensuiji is also soliciting donations to rethatch its 40-year-old roof this year.

Hours: 9 am–5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm)

Admission: ¥700 for adults, ¥300 for jr. and high schoolers, free for elementary school kids

Directions: At Kosei Station’s North Exit (Kitaguchi), take the Meguru-kun bus that stops at Iwane (岩根). Buses leave once an hour, taking about 12 min. Bus schedule here. From the Iwane bus stop, there is a pleasant hillside trail going up to Zensuiji, taking about 15 min. If you’re traveling with a friend or small group, you can take a taxi. Map here.

Address: 3518 Iwane, Konan, Shiga Prefecture (〒520-3252 滋賀県湖南市岩根3518)

Website: zensuiji.jp

Zensuiji photos | Zensuiji video

*Thanks to Yukiyo Mitaka in Konan for contributing to this post.
*The city of Konan, Zensuiji temple, and the Konan Tourist Association have permission to reprint parts of this post in their free English materials for foreign visitors.

Yahei hot chili peppers in Konan

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Meet Yukiyo Mitaka and Yuzu Sasaki (三峰 教代・佐々木 由珠), a young and peppy pair of hot chili pepper farmers in Konan, Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Under their company name and brand of fm craic (not a radio station), they grow a unique and local variety of super-hot chili peppers called yahei togarashi (弥平とうがらし).

They plant, grow, harvest, process, package, and sell the yahei hot chili peppers as blended spices, sauces, and confections. They do everything by themselves. Just the two of them. They’ve also become media darlings, appearing in numerous Japanese print media and even on TV. And they now appear here at shiga-ken.com, in English. They also appear in my new video introducing the city of Konan:

Video link: http://youtu.be/OjFnVdKMCKI

On a sunny November day in 2014, they gave me an exclusive tour of Konan and their chili pepper field near the Shimoda area where the yahei chili peppers were originally grown. It looked like the size of a football field or bigger. They grow about 1,000 yahei chili pepper plants.

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fm craic’s yahei hot chili pepper field in Konan.

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Yahei chili peppers are orange.

Yahei chili peppers are bright orange.

The harvest season (summer to early fall) was already over, but they still had yahei togarashi plants with bright orange peppers. Most were shriveled and not marketable. All the plants were going to be uprooted and disposed of since they were single-season only. They plant new seedlings every March and harvest in the heat of summer which is tough work.

I couldn’t believe that only the two of them did all the work on this huge field. No help from family members or friends either. They grow and plant the seedlings, till and fertilize the soil, grow the plants, harvest the peppers by hand in summer, process them, and use spoons to carefully fill little spice bottles. Totally homegrown and handmade product. A lot of work, but they can take it easy during the off-season winter months.

The main thing about yahei chili peppers is that compared to ordinary chili pepper spices sold in Japan (like shichimi), their yahei chili pepper spices are super hot. On the tip of a wet chopstick, I tasted a tiny dash of both. The regular, blended shichimi was not even hot. But just a little powder of yahei caused an immediate burning sensation on my tongue. Really hot stuff.

The spicy heat of chili peppers is measured by the Scoville scale. Yahei chili pepper is measured as having 100,000 Scoville heat units which is twice as hot as ordinary chili peppers in Japan. The girls also profess that it’s not only about the spicy hotness. Yahei chili peppers also have umami flavor and a mellow aroma.

The origin of Konan’s yahei hot chili peppers remains unclear. “Yahei” supposed to be the name of the man from Konan’s Shimoda area who brought over yahei hot chili peppers from overseas (probably Korea) over 100 years ago. “Yahei” was also a name given to succeeding generations, so it is unknown exactly which Yahei brought over the chili peppers. However, it is known that the local folks in Shimoda started growing yahei togarashi in their backyards for their own consumption. The peppers were pickled or heated as appetizers for sake rice wine.

fm craic was the first to go commercial with yahei togarashi, billed as Konan’s native vegetable. This has instilled some local pride and the girls have gotten a number of local food businesses to use their yahei chili pepper spices. It’s a good synergy and collaboration because they can then promote each other’s products and businesses. The girls are determined to improve and promote their local area and products. I cannot help but to root for their success.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

One local business which uses yahei hot chili peppers is an American-style cafe called Upper Secret, a short walk from JR Kosei Station on the JR Kusatsu Line. We had lunch there and had the award-winning Indian chicken curry that used yahei chili peppers. Very good. The cafe opened only two years ago in September 2012 and it has become a local favorite. Manager Akane Kaikiri also speaks English because she studied in Oklahoma (of all places).

Besides curry, they had a good selection of yummy-looking, homemade desserts, pastries, cookies, etc. They also sell fm craic’s yahei chili pepper spices and sauces. It’s a nice cafe and a great place for lunch or coffee/tea. Open: 9 am–5:30 pm, closed Tue. Website

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Upper Secret’s manager, Akane Kaikiri.

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Inside Upper Secret.

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Upper Secret’s Indian Chicken Curry using yahei chili peppers.

Yuzu and Yukiyo also manage Konan Marché (こなんマルシェ), a local gift shop selling local produce, food, crafts, and souvenirs. It’s like a Michi-no-eki (roadside rest area for drivers). Opened in autumn 2011 in a former convenience store, they sell a wide variety of local products. Besides yahei chili pepper spices, they have locally-grown vegetables like the unique Shimoda eggplant, rice, snacks and confections, local crafts like Shimoda-yaki pottery, and souvenirs designed with local mascots Ko-nyan (a cat) and Ishibe-don (a Tokaido Road traveler). “Ko-nyan” is a twist on “Konan” with “nyan” meaning “meow” in Japanese.

Konan Marché is open 10 am–7 pm, phone 0748-72-5275. (“Marché” is French for market.) The shop is in Mikumo, but will eventually move to a new location. Website

Konan Marché

Konan Marche

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fm craic’s chili pepper products.

fm craic sells four different blends of yahei hot chili pepper spices in small bottles for ¥630 each. It includes an all-purpose blend and one for curry. They also have two chili sauces, one sweet and one hot. Their products are nicknamed “Piriri” which means spicy hotness on your tongue. At Konan Marché, I bought and tried a few of the confections and snacks that used yahei chili peppers. Interesting how the hot chili taste comes afterward, like after you swallow. I liked their white brownies with small pieces of white chocolate and a dash of yahei chili pepper. It’s sweet at first, but there’s hot-chili aftertaste.

If you don’t have a car, the easiest place to buy yahei hot chili spices would be at Upper Secret near JR Kosei Station. They also sell at the Yurara Onsen hot spring facility near Zensuiji Temple. Or if you can read Japanese, order from their fm craic online store for shipping within Japan.

Upper Secret's booth at the 1st Geki-kara summit in Oct. 2014.

Upper Secret, winner of the 1st Geki-kara Summit.

Another impressive project was the “Yahei Gekikara (Super Spicy Hot) Summit” (弥平激辛サミット 2014) held for the first time on October 18, 2014. It was held together with the Ishibe-juku Matsuri Festival at the Ameyama Cultural Sports Park (Shukuba no Sato). They had food booths selling food using yahei hot chili peppers. It was a contest for the best spicy-hot food selected by popular vote and by a panel of food experts. The winner was Upper Secret’s Indian chicken curry dish. They received a cash prize and a free, year-long PR by the city of Konan. It has apparently replaced the previously held B-class gourmet event. I hope it becomes an annual event.

Shiga Governor Mikazuki at the fm craic booth at Shiga-Biwako Brand Fair at Osaka Station on Nov. 8-9, 2014.

Isn’t it amazing to see how far they’ve gone with some local chili peppers? Not strawberries, not grapes, but chili peppers of all things. Can you imagine?

Even their company name “fm craic” is intriguing for an agricultural company. “fm” refers to “farm” (as well as FM radio station) and “craic” is Irish meaning “fun and interesting.” So I guess they are “broadcasting” the “fun of farming.”

More young people (especially from the cities) are indeed getting interested in farming. If not as an occupation, at least as a temporary experience of getting down and dirty to plant rice, etc.

There’s a label for young farmers like Yuzu and Yukiyo. They call themselves “Noka Girls” (農家ガールズ) or Farm Gals which made me laugh. Shiga has a group of Noka Girls who keep in touch with other. They are all young women farmers. Definitely not the traditional image of old women farmers with bent-over backs.

Their background stories certainly is one reason for the media attention. A pair of young ladies quitting their unfulfilling jobs in the city, returning to their hometowns, and starting a business together. Something that all too many depopulating areas wish would happen more often.

Yuzu hails from Kusatsu. After graduating from a university in Kyoto, she studied the tea ceremony and Chinese language in Tianjin, China. She then worked for a travel agency in Osaka before moving back to Shiga.

Yukiyo is a native of Konan and studied in Boston, Massachusetts as an exchange student and also studied interpreting in the UK. So she speaks English well. She was working for a software firm in Tokyo before moving back to Shiga.

Both had a yearning to work in the food/farming business so they took a course in agriculture held by the Shiga Prefectural government. That’s where they met each other. Two inexperienced girls getting into the hard work of farming. They now have a lot to show for their hard work. It’s an interesting story for anybody. When they were starting out, veteran farmers in Konan were understandably skeptical of them. Like, “You gotta be kidding me.” But look at them now. They’ve come a long way in a few short years.

When you have the passion and the willingness to commit yourself, the wheels start to turn and things tend to fall into place. Shiga needs more people like them. Ambitious and determined folks out to improve their community. Konan is very lucky to have these two girls and it was a pleasure meeting them.

More about Konan | Map of Konan | Photos of Konan

*About the Konan video embedded above, it was my very first video introducing a city rather than just a single event or attraction. You can’t introduce everything about a city in a short video like this (about 10.5 min). So my strategy was to present some key words and images of Konan that people can remember.

The video also shows the indigo dyeing shop Konki Senshoku. The indigo dyeing master, Uenishi Tsuneo, helped us tie-dye a handkerchief when we visited in June 2011. I had an interesting talk with him and part of it is in the video. He speaks with a very rural and heavy Shiga dialect/accent. Since he talked like my late grandmother in Shiga, I could understand him. But he is rare one, I call him a “Living Treasure of Shiga.”

The video also shows a photo of Konan City Hall people showing drawings made by school kids in St. Johns, Michigan. Konan has friendship city relations with St. Johns. Every year since 20 years ago, artwork by elementary school kids in St. Johns are exhibited in Konan’s public library. And vice versa with artwork from Konan kids being displayed at Briggs Public Library in St. Johns. Website

Happy New Year 2015!

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Wishing ewe all a Happy 2015 filled with happy and fulfilling events in this Year of the Sheep/Ram.

This ewe lives in Konan, Shiga Prefecture. Her name is “Yurabo” (ゆら坊). Photographed in Nov. 2014.

Konan Sanzan Zensuiji temple in autumn

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Finally visited Zensuiji temple (善水寺) in Konan, Shiga Prefecture during autumn. The first and last time I visited this temple was during spring. Although it was pleasant in spring, I now have to say that it’s much more colorful in autumn. These photos were taken yesterday, so the maples should still look good during the next few days.

Zensuiji was established in the 8th century and it is one of the Konan Sanzan Trio (湖南三山) of Tendai Buddhist temples in Konan (other two are Chojuji and Jorakuji). All three temples are National Treasures. Zensuiji’s impressive main Hondo Hall is a National Treasure. It worships Yakushi Nyorai (the buddha of healing and medicine). “Zensuiji” means “Efficacious Water Temple,” so named after Emperor Kanmu recovered from an illness after drinking the water from the temple’s pond in the 9th century. The temple is on the slope of Mt. Iwane.

During the autumn foliage season, they have a guide (sometimes the temple priest himself) inside the temple to explain the Buddhist statues, etc. Only in Japanese though. The temple’s main Hondo Hall is open almost year-round unlike the other two Konan Sanzan Temples which require an appointment to enter the Hondo Hall (except during the autumn foliage season in Nov.). A small admission is charged.

Zensuiji is also asking for donations to reroof the main Hondo hall. The current thatched roof is 40 years old (from 1975). It will take a few years and 300 to 500 million yen to do it. I’m told all the thatch and tree bark materials will come from domestic sources. Since it is a National Treasure, the cost will be borne by the temple, Japanese government, Konan, and Shiga Prefecture. What a bundle it is.

Unlike the Koto Sanzan Temple Trio north of Konan in eastern Shiga, there are no convenient shuttle buses linking the three Konan Sanzan temples during the popular autumn season.

Directions to Zensuiji: Go to JR Kosei Station (甲西駅) on the JR Kusatsu Line, catch a bus (10-min. ride) and get off at Iwane (岩根). In the morning, buses leave JR Kosei Station (north exit kita-guchi) for Zensuiji at 8:28 am, 9:20 am, 9:30 am, 10:15 am, and 11:25 am. Bus schedule here. From there, you still have to walk a bit, follow the signs (if you can read Japanese). Or get off at JR Mikumo Station and catch a taxi for a 15 min. ride. (No waiting taxis at Kosei Station.) Map here.

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Zensuiji

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water spring

Zensui natural spring water. Donate small change to get a bottle to fill up with this healing water.

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Welcome our 湖南市. (Mistaken English)

Click here for more photos of Zensuiji.

My video introducing Konan includes Zensuiji:

Zensuiji official Website (in Japanese)

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