Archive for the ‘Tokyo’ Category

The executives of 日本美術刀剣保存協会 The Japanese Artistic Sword Protection Society is alleged to have neglected rules regarding the registration of swords in Japan. TBS reports today

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太刀 The Tachi

Hatsumi Sensei told us last year to bring a tachi to training in 2010. Tonight he reminded us that although 太刀 tachi, 剣 ken, and 刀 katana are all translated to sword, each of these close arms are in fact different things, and he is now teaching us.

What distinguishes these different blades, as Hatsumi Sensei tells us, is the era in which they were developed and used.

To appreciate swords better, I visited the 刀剣博物館 Token Museum in Tokyo, which houses ken, tachi, katana, tanto and other sword fittings, many of which are national treasures.The museum is not very big, and only the most essential points about the blades are indicated on the labels in Japanese only. The receptionist handed me an English language pamphlet with essential information. However, the beauty of the blades and the elegant sword fittings speak for themselves.

The association that runs the museum has also revived the tatara, the ancient tradition of producing the kind of steel, called 玉鋼, tamahagane, or treasure steel, used in sword production. The furnace is a joint project of the government, the sword preservation society, and Hitachi Metals have run the furnace since the 1970s, and the Hitachi Metals website chronicles its history in great detail in the Tale of the Tatara.

What distinguishes the way a tachi is used? I’m looking forward to this year’s training as we look back to the elegant curved blade that was first forged in the 12th century.

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photomeijigateA few times week, I walk the grounds of 明治神宮 Meiji Jingu, the grand shrine in central Tokyo dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

The emperial couple were famous poets who composed about 130,000 poems in the classical Japanese form, waka.

Emperor Meiji was born mere months before Commodore Perry’s ships arrived in Japan. He represents the modernization of Japan, taking the recently unified states of the Japanese islands form a closed feudal society, to a modern country capable of economic power in a global economy. Here is Emperor Meiji:






As clear and refereshing

as the rising sun –

Thus might it always be

With the human heart!

Empress Shoken was a powerful, forward looking woman. She championed social welfare organizations like the Red Cross. She was a child prodigy who had mastered Japanese and Chinese literature at an early age. She introduced a court edict which required the wearing of western attire, since, she believed, Japanese traditional garb was outmoded. She wrote:






If you consult your inmost heart

And still need feel no shame,

then let the people of the world

Talk on as they please.

At the 内苑 naien gate, for 100 yen, you can get a fortune paper with a waka poem on it written by these two prolific and wise poets.

I often look in at Shiseikan, the martial hall on the grounds of the shrine. Shiseikan has a school of Aikido and battojutsu. In the reception hall, a massive screen has kanji characters as tall as I am reading 武神, bushin, or warrior gods. I asked a senior Aikido practioner, why is there a budojo on the grounds of the shrine? She told me that the shrine authority wishes to preserve important traditions of Japan, and that the Aikido and battojutsu practiced there are protected by the gods. 

Meiji Jingu is about looking back, to respect tradition, and looking forward to imagine what will be. Budo and the sprit from which it came has its roots and protection at this shrine. The shrine preserves these traditions for the future.

Meiji Jingu celebrates Japanese traditions in October and November, showcasing budo, mounted archery and other arts. The big day for budo is November 3rd, 文化の日 bunka no hi, or Culture Day, which was Emperor Meiji’s birthday.

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Hiwatari at Takao-sanThe view from Takao, the highest spot within Tokyo, takes in a magnificent forest stretching away across the mountain ridges to the north and the south and the towers of Shinjuku. I really feel like I’m flying above the city when I’m up there.

Kotengu at YakuoinAt one of the taikais, a yamabushi’s costume was displayed in the tea room of the Tokyo Budokan. At Takao, yamabushi, practioners of  修験道, shugendo, have been doing ascetic rites for over 1000 years. Enshrined in Yakuoin Temple at the top of Takao is Izuna Gongen, a fierce-looking, beaked man wearing the shugensha’s costume and bearing a sword. His cult originated at Togakushi.

So many expressions of Japanese religiousity and esoteric practices are deeply syncretic; the mountain asceticism combines old Shinto practice, Shingon Buddhism, and Taoism. At Yakuoin Temple, if you have the time to take in the tapestry of symbolism and sacred words decorating the statuary, temple buildings and the mountain itself, there are so many messages from these traditions.

In the Shinto vein, the Shugendo practioners honor the natural cycle, and in the Buddhist practice of letting go of things that hinder you on the path, they mark the early spring with a ritual to burn away attachments and evil in the form of 火渡り, fire walking.

The ritual, attended by thousands of people, priests, monks and nuns, weekend shugensha in white ritual  garb, young people, old ladies, lasted a few hours. The chanting of the Heart Sutra (I like Alan Ginsberg’s translation of the Japanese version) and various mantra, including the Fudomyo mantra, continued as the fire burned, and the monks crossed on the glowing embers barefoot, followed by the throng. When we took our turn, the monks and nuns were chanting as fervently as at the beginning, and the ashes were still warm. Guided and protected by the monks, we stood in salt before and after the crossing, and then knelt to be invested with fire from the head priest.

So many symbols and meanings came to me as we were participating. Salt is used to ritually purify in many cultures, but especially in Japan, it’s used to negate bad luck that might follow after a death or funeral, and little piles of salt are placed at the doors of businesses and houses to keep evil out. To my mind, we died a bit there, crossing the fire. I think some of the baggage got sloughed off. I feel lighter now. And I felt really cared for by the monks. They are present for each person as they emerge from that Fudo-fire.

I’ve been looking for an explanation of the meaning of the Fudomyo mantra, “Noomakusaa mandabaa zaradansen damaka roshada sowataya untara takanman,” for some time, but as yet have not found an English translation of the orginal Sanskrit. So for now, I’m satisfied to chant it and as I do so, think about all that Fudomyo embodies.

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