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!

Skiing in Shiga Prefecture

Mt. Ibuki

Skiing on Mt. Ibuki in the good old days.

Updated: Jan. 14, 2017

For information about current snow conditions at Shiga Prefecture’s ski slopes, see Snow Japan’s useful Shiga Prefecture ski resort page in English.

For the weather forecast at Shiga Prefecture’s ski slopes, see Weathernews (in Japanese, Adobe Flash required) for Akoyama Snow Pal | Biwako Valley | Hakodateyama | Kunizakai Kogen Snow Park | Kutsuki Snow Park | Makino Kogen | Oku-Ibuki | Yogo Kogen Resort Yap

Every winter, I’ve always contemplated writing about skiing in Shiga Prefecture. I never did it until now because I just don’t think the quality of snow in Shiga is up to snuff. I also haven’t skied on all of Shiga’s slopes so I can’t comment on any of them except Mt. Ibuki which has since closed.

Shiga is hardly a place I would recommend or brag about for skiing. I once spent an entire winter in Hokkaido where I went skiing every weekend. Once you experience such pristine snow, anywhere else in Japan (except maybe Tohoku) just doesn’t compare. But I understand that Shiga’s slopes are convenient for many people in Osaka/Kyoto coming to Shiga to ski. It’s better than nothing, and good for kids and beginners who don’t mind slushy snow.

Nakayama Saijiro

Statue of Nakayama Saijiro on Mt. Ibuki’s 3rd station.

But there is actually something to brag about skiing in Shiga. It so happens that Mt. Ibuki in Maibara is one of the first places where skiing started in the Kansai region. Mt. Ibuki was also where people first began skiing in Shiga. All thanks to Nakayama Saijiro (中山再次郎 1867-1963), principal of a high school in Kyoto (forerunner of Toba High School 鳥羽高校) who was a pioneer in spreading the sport of skiing in the Kansai region.

He started bringing his students annually to Mt. Ibuki for skiing from around 1913-14, a century ago. They hiked up to the 3rd station (san-gome) and skied around the 3rd and 4th stations. It must’ve been quite an exercise without ski lifts.

In 1920, the first Mt. Ibuki skiing competition (第1回伊吹山雪艇大会) was held under the supervision of Principal Saijiro Nakayama. And in 1937, the 5th national skiing competition (第5回全国スキー大会) was held on Mt. Ibuki.

Nakayama sensei had learned how to ski from an Austrian. His bronze statue can be found on Mt. Ibuki’s 3rd station. Nakayama sensei also happens to be my grandfather’s high school principal in Kyoto. However, I’m told that my grandfather wasn’t into skiing so he might not have been one of the students who went to Ibuki to learn to ski.

It wasn’t until Dec. 1956 when the Mt. Ibuki Ski Grounds (伊吹スキー場) opened for business at the 1st to 3rd stations by Ohmi Railways. Ski lifts were finally built by Aug. 1958 up to the 3rd station. More modern ski lifts were constructed in the late 1960s and mid-1980s. In Jan. 1989, a gondola lift going from the foot of the mountain all the way to the 3rd station opened. The gondola cabins could carry six people.

Mt. Ibuki

Mt. Ibuki Ski Grounds at 3rd station.

Due to a chronic lack of snow, fewer skiers in Japan, and the more popular Oku-Ibuki Ski Grounds (opened in 1970) further north, the original Ibuki Ski Grounds closed in Oct. 2005 after 48 years in business. A Tokyo-based company bought and took over the ski facilities, but it closed the ski grounds in 2008 citing the lack of snow and skiers. The gondola kept operating only during the summer hiking season, but it too was shut down in 2011. Today, Oku-Ibuki with better snow, better runs, and convenient roads is the ski area of choice in Shiga. The old Mt. Ibuki Ski Grounds now sees paragliders and campers instead.

Makino

Makino Highland Ski Grounds in spring.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the lake in Makino village (now part of Takashima), another skiing pioneer named Hiroi Shinnosuke (広井親之助) found that skiing was feasible at Makino. Hiroi was a physical education teacher at Imazu High School (forerunner of Takashima High School). Inspired by Nakayama Saijiro, he started developing skiing in Makino from Jan. 1917 and called it Makino Ski Grounds (牧野スキー場).

In 1925, Hiroi sensei held a skiing contest sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Osaka. Most of the contestants were local elementary to high school kids. Since Makino was still quite isolated transportation-wise, few people from afar participated.

Thus, Mt. Ibuki and Makino Highland are among the oldest ski grounds in Kansai along with Hyogo Prefecture’s Kannabe Highland and Hyonosen  (神鍋山、氷の山).

In Dec. 1929, Makino Ski Grounds was renamed in katakana (マキノスキー場) when it turned commercial as a joint venture by Keihan Railways and the Lake Biwa cruise company named Taiko Kisen (太湖汽船). Since “Makino” in katakana became widely known in the Kansai region because of the ski grounds, it was adopted in 1955 as the newly-formed town’s name when Makino village merged with three neighboring villages. The town of Makino-cho (マキノ町) thereby became Japan’s first municipality to have a katakana name. (Makino is now part of the city of Takashima.)

Makino

Makino became Japan’s first municipality to have a katakana name, thanks to skiing. JR Makino Station is also in katakana.

Modern skiing was first introduced to Japan in 1911 in Takada (Joetsu), Niigata Prefecture by an Austrian who used it for military training. Skiing soon spread and developed as a recreational sport beginning with northern Japan. In the early years, popular ski grounds in Japan were usually in onsen hot-spring areas. Local ryokan inns, etc., catered to the skiers and made investments to expand skiing facilities. By the 1930s, Japan had a ski boom as the masses got turned on to skiing. Japan National Railways operated extra “ski trains” to Mt. Ibuki. From 1930, Keihan Railways operated direct trains from Osaka/Kyoto to Hama-Otsu Port where skiers would transfer to Taiko Kisen’s “ski boats” (スキー船) for Kaizu Port near Makino.

Skiers from Kyoto/Osaka would take an evening train to Hama-Otsu and board the ski boat at Hama-Otsu Port. The boat departed at 12 midnight and the skiers slept overnight onboard. When the boat arrived at Kaizu Port in the early morning around 5 am, the skiers walked or took a bus for Makino Ski Grounds. After skiing during the day, the skiers would return and board the boat departing Kaizu Port at 5 pm for Hama-Otsu. The ski boat proved to be popular with day-trip skiers from Kyoto and Osaka on the weekends. These ski trains and boats made Makino Ski Grounds viable since Makino was way out in the boondocks and had no onsen or other attractions to fall back on. Keep in mind that they still didn’t have ski lifts. Something unimaginable today.

Then in 1931, the Kojaku Railway (forerunner of the JR Kosei Line) from Hama-Otsu Station was extended to Imazu Station close to Makino. This brought even more skiers to Makino. By the early 1960s, the road to Makino improved enough for ski buses to carry skiers directly from the Kansai region to Makino, replacing the ski boats and eliminating the troublesome transfers between trains and boats.

A ski lift finally opened in Makino in 1956, and another was added in 1964 funded by the town and Kojaku Railway.

However, Makino suffered a drastic drop in skiers after Hira Ski Grounds opened in 1961 (closed in 2004), Hakodateyama in Imazu opened in 1962, and Biwako Valley (originally named Sankei Valley) opened in 1965. Since these new ski areas were closer, skiers from Kyoto/Osaka flocked to them.

Although you can still ski at Makino Kogen Highland, its low altitude, slushy snow, gentle slopes, and lack of variation in ski runs relegate it to mainly beginners and sled-toting kids. However, Makino still attracts hikers and nature lovers in the warmer seasons. It even has a hot-spring facility.

Japan’s skiing population has dropped dramatically since the turn of this century. Fewer people are willing to take the time, trouble, and expense to go skiing. I’m sure everyone thinks it’s a lot of trouble before they go out the door. But once you’re on the slopes with skis on and feeling the rush, you think that it was all worth it. And at the end of the day when you soak in an onsen, it makes winter worthwhile and memorable.

  • Whenever you write about skiing in Shiga, be sure to say “Shiga Prefecture” instead of just “Shiga.” It’s to avoid confusion with Shiga Kogen Highlands (志賀高原) in Nagano Prefecture which is another ski area and the much more famous “Shiga.”
  • More info on Shiga’s ski areas in English: http://www.snowjapan.com/japan-ski-resorts/prefecture/shiga

Major sources for this article:

  • びわ湖検定実行委員会「琵琶湖検定公式問題解説集」2008年
  • 野間晴雄「マキノ町扇状地群の開発と土地利用」、1987年

Winter festivals Jan.-Feb. 2014 in Shiga

Updated: Feb. 27, 2014

After Japan’s biggest celebration called New Year’s, it’s back to work. But there’s still some fun left during this cold or freezing season. Here are some recommended winter festivals (matsuri) and events in Shiga Prefecture during January to February 2014. (Most Web sites are in Japanese only.)

This page will be updated with new events as the winter weeks go by.

January 9-11, 2014
♦ Hokoku Shrine Toka Ebisu, Nagahama
Dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, worshipped for succeeding in life and for business prosperity. It holds the Toka Ebisu festival for three days centering on Jan. 10th. Ebisu is one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, representing business prosperity. During the three days, shrine maidens sell small bamboo branches with various lucky decorations. On Jan. 10, there will be a procession of kimono ladies and a float from the shrine to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Hope it doesn’t snow. On the 11th, they will throw lucky mochi. Google Map

January 11, 2014
♦ Katsube Shrine Fire Festival, Moriyama, 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Very impressive fire festival, but cold while you wait for it to start. Twelve giant straw torches are lit up in the shrine grounds at around 8:30 pm after a taiko procession around the city and ceremony at 6 pm. See the video at top of this page. 勝部の火祭り
More about this festival here. | Video | More photosGoogle Map

January 11, 2014
♦ Fuke Sumiyoshi Shrine Fire Festival, Moriyama, 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Six giant straw torches are lit up in the shrine grounds at around 8:30 pm. Related to the Katsube Shrine Fire Festival held at the same time. Less crowded than Katsube Shrine. 浮気の火祭り
More about this festival here. | Video | More photos | Google Map

January 19-December 28, 2014
♦ Kuroda Kanbee Expo (黒田官兵衛博覧会), 9 am – 5 pm, Nagahama
Yet another Taiga Drama-related “expo” in Nagahama. Held in concert with 2014’s year-long NHK Taiga Drama called Gunshi Kanbee (軍師官兵衛) airing on NHK TV. The expo will explain and show Kanbee’s connection with Shiga (Omi) while he served under Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century. There are two venues: Nagahama Castle and a distinctive, Western-style building (formerly a Shiga Bank branch) in Kinomoto. I’ll report on it in more detail when I visit later. Admission 400 yen for Nagahama Castle History Museum and 300 yen in Kinomoto. Google Map | Website

bonbaiten

Bonbaiten in Nagahama.

January 18-March 10, 2014
♦ Nagahama Bonbaiten 長浜盆梅展, Nagahama, Keiunkan (慶雲館), 9 am – 5 pm
This is perhaps Shiga’s most famous plum blossom bonsai exhibition, held annually since 1952. The venue is the stately Keiunkan (慶雲館), a Japanese-style former guesthouse originally built in 1887 to accommodate Emperor Meiji when he visited Nagahama. It’s near JR Nagahama Station. They have 90 bonsai trees on display and can be centuries old. Don’t touch and try to smell these prized trees. Admission: 500 yen (200 yen for high school and younger) Google Map | Website

January 10-March 10, 2014
Kamo-no-sato Bonbaiten 鴨の里盆梅展, Maibara, Green Park Santo (グリーンパーク山東), 9:30 am – 5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm)
Green Park Santo is a large recreational park in Maibara. Inside the Spark Santo hall (すぱーく山東) are about 120 bonsai plum trees raised by over 30 devoted growers. They also have an orchid show at the same time. Near JR Omi-Nagaoka Station. Admission: 400 yen (200 yen for high school and younger, free for elementary schoolers) Google Map | Website

Feb.-early March
Plum blossoms in Shiga
Shiga has a number of plum blossom gardens. See this post for a list of plum blossom gardens in Shiga.

setsubun

Taga Taisha Setsubun bean throwing on Feb. 3.

February 3, 2014
♦ Taga Taisha Setsubun, Taga, 11 am and 2 pm
Shiga’s most impressive Setsubun festival with impressive ogre (called oni in Japanese) dancers from Shimane Prefecture to act as the demons to chase away during the festival. Highlighted by bean-throwing (mame-maki). They will hold two mame-maki sessions on Feb. 3, at 11 am and 2 pm. Expect a large crowd. More about this festival here. | Video | More photos | Google Map | Website

February-March 2014
♦ Hina-matsuri
dolls (雛祭りの雛人形) are being displayed at various locations in Shiga to celebrate Girl’s Day on March 3.

On the weekend of Feb. 15-16, 2014, Gokasho in Higashi-Omi is having a unique event of live hina dolls called Ningen Hina-matsuri (にんげん雛まつり). Yes, they are real girls, ten of them, dressed as Hina dolls. They will appear twice on both the 15th and 16th at 10:00 am to 11:30 am and at 1:30 pm to 3 pm at the Omi-shonin merchant home of Tonomura Shigeru (外村繁邸).

Gokasho, Higashi-Omi: Normal hina ningyo dolls are also displayed in the Omi-shonin merchant homes and museums. They are on display until March 23 (9:30 am to 4:30 pm) in the former residences of Tonomura Uhee (外村 宇兵衛), Tonomura Shigeru (外村 繁), Nakae Jungoro (中江 準五郎), and Fujii Hikoshiro (藤井 彦四郎邸). The homes are large, stately Japanese-style mansions. Must-see for architecture buffs. Buy a single 600 yen ticket and you can enter all the homes. Closest train station is Ohmi Railways Gokasho Station. Google Map

Omi-Hachiman: Former Ban family residence (旧伴家住宅) until March 23, 2014 (closed Mon.). Omi merchant home which also served as a girls school and public library until 1997. Spacious room with a large display of Hina dolls. The former Nishikawa Residence (Kyu-Nishikawa-ke Jutaku 旧西川家住) also has doll display. This is a large Omi merchant home designated as an Important Cultural Property. The Kawara Roof Tile Museum and some shops in central Omi-Hachiman will also have hina doll displays. Google Map

Hino: Omi Hino Merchant House (近江日野商人館) until March 9, 2014. The former home of Hino merchant Yamanaka Hyouemon was donated to the town in 1981. Now a museum exhibiting the history and artifacts of the Hino merchants. Admission 300 yen. Another place is Hino Machikado Kan-okan (日野まちかど感応館) which is a former home along Hino’s main road. It is also a tourist information office. Free admission. Some shops and homes in central Hino will also have hina doll displays. Google Map

Enjoy Girl’s Day! Japanese hina-matsuri map: http://www.omi-syonin.com/htm01/book2014.htm

Feb. 25 to March 3, 2014
♦ Shiga Prefecture Food and Craft Fair (Dai-Omiten) 琵琶湖夢街道 大近江展, Takashimaya Department Store (8th floor) in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, 10 am – 8 pm (till 6 pm on March 3)
Held annually to promote Shiga products in Tokyo, numerous food booths and crafts are displayed and sold. Hiko-nyan will also appear on March 1 and 2 at 12 noon and 2 pm on the rooftop stage.

Tundra Swans on Lake Biwa


On the third day of this new year, I drove up to northern Nagahama’s Kohoku-cho shore along the lakeside road. I went looking for migratory Tundra Swans (kohakucho コハクチョウ) on the lake since I had never photographed them on the lake.

Every autumn around late October, we always hear about the first arrival of Tundra Swans from Siberia. It’s a harbinger of winter for Shiga and those birds are beloved in Shiga. I’m not really a birdwatcher nor a wildlife photographer, but I decided that I’d better get some swan shots.

Fortunately, I spotted a few of them (top photo). A small family of swans among Taiga bean geese, also a migratory bird. Tundra Swans from northern Siberia have been wintering on Lake Biwa since 1971. They arrive in families. Swan couples fly together with their young born last May-June. The juvenile birds are grayish instead of white. They stick together as a family the whole time. Several hundred Tundra Swans winter on Lake Biwa, and over 600 came over last winter. Most of them can be seen in northern Nagahama such as the Kohoku-cho area.

Meanwhile, Taiga bean geese (オオヒシクイ) also spend winter on Lake Biwa, arriving from around late September. They come from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia and fly over Sakhalin before arriving along the Japan Sea coast. A few thousand of them winter in Japan and a few hundred come to Lake Biwa. Lake Biwa is the southernmost area of Japan where they winter.

Kohoku Mizudori Station

Also visited the Kohoku Mizudori Station, a great place to stop for a bite to eat or to pick up local products and souvenirs. In Japanese, it’s a michi-no-eki, which is a roadside rest stop with a store and eatery. Michi-no-eki are geared for tourists traveling by car. They are conveniently located along a major road (usually far from any train station). Most of Shiga’s cities and towns have at least one michi-no-eki. I’ve included all of them in my Google Maps of Shiga.

Next to Kohoku Mizudori Station is the Kohoku Wildbird Center for birdwatching, which was unfortunately closed for the New Year’s holidays. It’s too bad because there were a lot of people at the Kohoku Mizudori Station and I’m sure they would have also visited the center. Anyway, mission accomplished. Tundra Swan images added to my collection.

Shopping at Kohoku Mizudori Station.

Kohoku Mizudori Station’s ko-ayu sweetfish tempura food stand was very popular. This lady was busy as heck on Jan. 3.

One of the best simple pleasures in Shiga is ko-ayu sweetfish tempura just out of the hot oil. 380 yen.

New Year’s Day 2014 at Taga Taisha


Video link: http://youtu.be/A-m4MmvLVsg

Today on Jan. 1, 2014, I visited Taga Taisha Shrine to photograph the crowds and film the sacred dances. It was my second time at Taga Taisha on New Year’s Day. The first time was way back in 2005.

The shrine was a lot more crowded today than in 2005. The line to pray in front of the shrine was twice as long as what I photographed in 2005. They said that it takes 1 hour to get to the main shrine to pray. (Update: The shrine announced that 490,000 people visited the shrine during the first three days of 2014. This is a lot more than the 400,000 that visited in 2005.)

Since I usually visit a shrine in other prefectures (Ise Jingu last year) on New Year’s Day, it’s been several years since the last time I visited a shrine in Shiga for New Year’s.

Video camera technology and quality have improved a lot since 2005. I wanted to record the sacred dances in Full HD. My old low-res video of Taga Taisha’s sacred dance from 2005 became a surprising hit among viewers. So I thought I’d better make a better version (posted above).

More Taga Taisha New Year’s photos here.

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