🌸Sokushinbutsu: The Self-Made Mummies of Tsuruoka ğŸŒ¸

Do you ever think to yourself – “God, how truly wonderful it would be if I buried myself underground, lived off of nuts, roots, and water, whilst ingesting poison for three years and three months?” Well, someone in Japan did. “Hold my beer,” they said as they put the masochists of the world to shame.

The Mummy 2

The practice of sokushinbutsu (buddhahood in this very body) was thought to have been brought over from China by Japanese monks. The practice begins with the monk slowly reducing their diet from grains such as lentils, rice, soybeans, and sesame, to eating only nuts, grass, and roots found in the local mountains, thus removing any body fat, and helping prepare them for the mummification. They also ingest a poisonous tree bark which, besides from slowly killing you, also has the added health benefit of drying out your organs so they don’t decompose once you become an undead holy husk. Once the monk feels they approach death, they go in an underground pit where they chant the nenbutsu (a buddhist mantra). Eventually, they would also abstain from water, helping further shrink and dry out their organs and body. This process would take usually take around 3,300 days. There would be a small bell in the chamber, and the imprisoned monk would ring it every morning to signal he is still alive. When he stopped ringing the bell, the other monks would know he is dead. They would wait three years and three months, and then proceed to clean and dress the monk in new robes. The self-mummified monk would become a holy relic at a temple, where people would come to pray for health, guidance, and good fortune.

“Cool story, but why though,” I hear you ask. This particular sect of buddhists believed that by doing this practice they would become one with the cosmic Buddha, and their sacrifice would help alleviate the misfortunes of those living around them.

The most famous of these monks is probably Tetsumonkai. He famously killed a Samurai, who, while drunk, dismissed Tetsumonkai’s warnings that the dam at the local river was about to collapse due to a recent flood. The two fought and the samurai was slain. To escape punishment for his crimes, he became a monk. He was a devoted monk, and as early as his 20s, he had decided that he wanted to become a sokushinbutsu in order to help the people. When a nearby volcano erupted and showered the surrounding area with ash, many people got an eye disease. He took his own left eye out and cast it into the Sumida River as an offering to the deity of Mt. Yudono so that the people’s eye disease may be cured. At the age of 71, or 91, texts differ, he began the process of becoming a sokushinbutsu.

There are 18 of these mummies across Japan. The most famous of these can be found in Tsuruoka, Yamagata prefecture, Japan. They can be found at Dainichibo, Honmyou, Kaiko, and Nangaku temple. There are monks present which will tell you the history of the sokushinbutsu. Unfortunately for you English-speakers, that’s only available in Japanese. However, there are English-speaking staff at Dainichibo who can give you know-how of what’s what.

Mummy Tales at Dainichibo Temple

Tetsumonkai’s robes are changed every 6 years by local monks. You can view the ceremony, however, the changing of his underwear is done behind a screen, presumably to preserve his divine, uh, integrity. Though you would think once you’ve starved and poisoned yourself for years, died and become a god, a little exhibitionism wouldn’t be a problem, but hey, we’re all slaves to propriety it seems, gods and all. The old robes are cut up into small pieces and put inside talismans you can purchase to secure your health and good fortune – the latter seeming rather superfluous, as once you know what these guys went through, any fate seems a fortunate one in comparison. Mission achieved, I guess.

🌸The Tekkojima Iron Island Festival🌸

Made of cement, steel beams, and industry, the small island of Keihinjima doesn’t look like much. A mere twenty minutes away from Haneda airport, it is an artificial island created for iron manufacturing and recycling. Grey streets, warehouses, and shipping containers dominate the landscape. And the only pulse that can be heard is that of metal and the heavy machinery that works it in the warehouses spread across the island.

Despite this, in this unlikely place, the youth of Kaihinjima have decided to reclaim this space as one for art and expression. In 2016, the Buckle Kobo creative hub decided to transform their metal home into a melting pot for contemporary music, film, art, and expression.

With just a few sound systems and projectors, the empty warehouses transform into clubs, filled with sound, light, and people. And the empty streets suddenly have a new pulse.

Tekkojima Warehouse Club
With just a little light and sound, a cold and empty warehouse suddenly becomes the place to be.

The streets are lined with artisanal food and drink vendors, offering everything from cheese and avocado koroke to nutella latés. Performance artists roam the streets singing, dancing, and toying with various forms of expression. Paintings and art installations are aplenty. Some seek to please the eye, while others strive to express the sense of identity the people of Keihinjima have with metal work.


The Tekkojima Island Festival was a fantastic experience. Every year they have more and more artists showing up. Some of Tokyo’s most innovative and creative musicians, film makers, artists, and performers make an appearance. It is truly a wonderful thing to see, how a community can so drastically transform itself into something so colourful and lively.

I’ll let their promo video have the last word. If you’re ever in the area this time of the year, do yourself a favour and make an experience. It’s definitely one of the more authentic festivals out there.

 

The Hakone Open-air Museum/Little Prince Museum

Having recently reached the second year of my life in Japan I had developed a more refined taste for attractions and adventures. Well, perhaps not more refined, but rather more demanding. If you threw the word “island” at me paired it with just about any animal in front of it, I would probably be there faster than a salaryman slurps raamen, or an NKH man knocking at your door.

For some time now I have had my eye on The Hakone Open-air Museum. It’s an attraction located in the southern mountains of Kanagawa. It is roughly a 3-4 hour trip by train from central Tokyo. It is an open-air park in the midst of beautiful, lush mountains. There’s a great variety of sculptures and art installations all across the park.  If you appreciate sculpture or just artistic expression in general, this would definitely be a good go for you. As an added bonus, there’s a little Picasso art gallery in the middle of it, so if you’re a fan, you got two reasons to go. “But I want three!” I hear you ask. Well, just a short bus ride away, there’s a Little Prince museum which has sculptures and installations from the book, as well as photographs and excerpts of the author’s work.

The sculptures are the main focus of the Hakone Open-air museum. There’s a great variety of the themes, styles, and materials used. Sadly, no photographs are allowed in the Picasso museum, so you’ll have to find out for yourselves 😛

 

The Little Prince museum is a short bus ride away. Unlike most such museums which are just a giant box with cool stuff inside, this one is made to look like a little French villa. It’s adorned with roses and gardens along the way. There’s even a section of it that’s made out to look like a French street. There are statues of the characters strewn around the gardens. And once you go inside you can enjoy a vast variety of content. There are photographs of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. There’s detailed maps showing the flights he used to take across Africa, and the nature of his adventures. There are manuscripts, doodles, and illustrations. There are descriptions of both his early and later life. And all this along dark and intimate rooms and hallways painted in backdrops from his most famous book.

Again, sorry for the lack of photographs from the inside of the museum. Many of the rooms forbid it. It’s probably for the best, though. This is something better experienced than seen. If you’re ever in Hakone, don’t think twice. These two attractions are well worth the price of admission, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything quite like them anywhere else.

Bon Voyage!

🌸All Hail The Iron Penis, or Kanamara Matsuri Festival🌸

Isn’t it awfully nice to have a penis?
Isn’t it frightfully good to have a dong?
It’s swell to have a stiffy.
It’s divine to own a dick,
From the tiniest little tadger,
To the world’s biggest prick.

Well, Japan definitely seems to think so. Vagina demons, penis black smiths, and lollypops. Ladies, gents, and other such creatures, today we look at the penis festival that is Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of The Steel Phallus).

 

This tradition started in 1969. It is an annual festival held near Kawasaki, Japan. Though it is on April first, make no mistake, this is no joke. Some serious penis tomfoolery goes down every year on this auspicious day.

The legend goes that a demon fell in love with a woman and lodged himself inside her vagina (as one does). She was a strong woman, a confident woman, and not the type to let a little pesky vagina demon get in the way of her happiness. So she found a man, married him, and come the nuptial night, the demon bit off the man’s penis (as one does). However, she was not deterred. She found herself another man, and went on to marry him as well. Come the nuptial night, however, the demon bit off the man’s bits again (as one does). Having had enough, the woman sought the help of the two blacksmith gods enshrined in Kanayama shrine, Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime.

“Bites off me man’s bits, he does, filthy little demon dude,” she said.

“Most uncool, and heinous,” said Kanayamahiko.

“Most heinous, and uncool,” added Kanayamahime.

Together they fashioned an iron dildo of supreme godliness and craftsmanship. They gifted her the dildo, which she used to smash the demon’s teeth (as one does). The demon fled her vagina, and she was free to marry again without the worry of a demon biting off her man’s fun bits. And all lived happily ever after, except of course the demon (for he had no teeth), and the first two husbands (for they had no penises).

 

Now, I know what you’re thinking – “Vulgar nonsense!” Well, honestly, with the exception of a few comedic liberties, that is actually more or less the story. “LIAR!” you say; well, feel free to Google it yourself.

In the absence of vagina demons, these days the festival celebrates fertility, safe childbirth, and a protection from STI’s. It is a very light-hearted festival, nowhere near as serious as some of the other more popular Shinto celebrations. People wear penis hats, suck on penis lollies, and take turns petting giant stone and iron penises for good luck. It is always heavily attended, and a lot of fun. You can get all kinds of fun merchandise, such as penis towels, penis t-shirts, penis key chains, penis candles, or penis stickers, to round off your day.

 

For those of you with children, don’t be discouraged. This is not at all considered a lewd or adult celebration. There are children present, and it is considered very normal.

I absolutely recommend this experience as it is very fun and silly, but also a rare look at the bawdy aspects of Japanese culture and mythology that we don’t often get to see.

🌸Okinawa: Cute Stone Doggos, Karate, and Good Vibes🌸

It was a time of unrelenting heat. It was a time of ever-present humidity. The summer was upon me, and it found me with no plans how to best spend it. So I sat beneath a tree in the local park to meditate upon this serious matter. As sweat poured down my body, and the infernal song of hundreds of horny cicadas dominated all manner of sound, a truly profound thought came to me: go somewhere even hotter. Ladies, gents, and other such creatures, today we look at Okinawa.

The islands of Okinawa have always held an attraction for me. Japan has no shortage of history and culture by any stretch of the imagination. And even so, The Ryukyu kingdom stands apart in my eyes.

The Ryukyu kingdom came to officially be in 1429. At the time, there was no trade agreement between China and Japan. The Ryukyu islands situated between them proved a great middleman of both trade and culture. While the two nations couldn’t openly trade with each other, they did so through the Ryukyu islands. The islands became a melting pot of culture. The earliest forms of Karate were born there, inspired by Chinese Kempo. The Ryukyu kingdom thrived on trade, and it continued to develop its own unique culture that was neither Japanese nor Chinese, but a thing of its own. In 1879 the Ryukyus officially became the prefecture of Okinawa, but their culture and heritage strongly endures to this day.

As a long time student of Karate, it was my Mecca. It was the birth place of Karate along with Kobudo – the use of traditional weapons such as the nunchaku, sai, bo staff, tonfa, and kama. And after a year in Japan a pilgrimage seemed overdue.

A comfortable two and a half hour flight later I landed in Naha. The first thing I noticed, literally as I walked out of the airport air-conditioned doors, was the wall of heat. The air was just moister and hotter than anywhere I’d ever been before. And that’s saying something from someone coming from central Japan. That being said, three or four hours later I no longer noticed it. Vending machines are accessible virtually everywhere, so as long as you stay hydrated and pace yourself, honestly it’s just fine. If you’ve heard any horror stories about unimaginable heat and humidity, dismiss them. Don’t let them sway you from an otherwise awesome experience.


The second thing I noticed was how little like the rest of Japan Okinawa looked. If the Japanese signs were to poof out of existence and I had to place my best bet on where I was, I’d have wagered maybe northern Spain, Monaco, or Greece. The streets are wider. There are gardens, flowers, and vegetation hanging out of balconies and adorning street corners. Even the buildings themselves are colourful and the architectural designs vary greatly. A very sharp contrast to the concrete and homogeneous jungle that is Tokyo.


If you’re a museum junkie like myself, you will probably find the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum to your liking. The exhibit has a great collection of old Ryukyu documents, pottery, works of art, and so on. It gives you a decent idea of what life was like six or seven centuries ago. Also, once you’re done getting your history fix, you can just hop on over to the other side for some art. There are regular art exhibits in the very same museum from both contemporary and historical Japanese artists. No pictures allowed there, unfortunately. But hey, you have eyes.

Naha Budokan

For you would-be warriors out there, there’s two facilities worthy of mention. There’s the Budokan in Naha. If a samurai was transformed into a building, it would literally be it. They have classes and seminars on just about every Japanese martial art imaginable. They are open to foreigners as well. Just keep in mind to pay attention to the etiquette, as you are in another country. If the sensei at said classes are willing to share their culture and tradition with you, the least you can do is reciprocate with respect and humility.

Also, freshly opened this year there is the Okinawa Karate Keikan. A facility truly devoted to the preservation and continued influence of Karate. Masters from different styles come to teach there, predominantly the more Okinawan-centric styles. If you train a different style, don’t let that discourage you. The differences in the styles are pretty small. For the most part you can follow along without too much difficulty. They are very welcoming to foreigners, and some of the younger black belts there speak English and really go out of their way to help you and welcome you.


The facilities themselves are ideal. Large, well-lit dojo with plenty of room for large classes. There’s a garden around the facility if you want some time to collect yourself after a hard work out. And then there’s Shuri hall – a room made in the style of traditional Okinawan dojos. It is used for special ceremonies and important black belt rankings. As a practitioner of Karate, it felt difficult not to be in awe and in love with the place. A lot of time, work, and thought clearly went into making it a Mecca for Karate-ka, and even with my high expectations, there was no room for disappointment. Also, it is worth mentioning that they hold a week-long Karate seminar every summer, open to foreigners from all over the world. The classes cover several different styles of Karate as well as Kobudo. 10/10.

So, you’ve just finished a vigorous session at the Mecca of Karate. What next? How does one Karate even more? By stopping by the Dojo Bar for a drink, of course! Located conveniently in Naha, it is a hub for fellow Karate pilgrims.

The DOJO bar is unique in Okinawa, perhaps in the world. Okinawa is the birthplace of karate and kobudo and the DOJO bar is a tribute to that heritage and a gateway for visitors to the island, its people and its rich fighting arts culture. We offer a truly special place, open and easily accessible to all, across cultures, countries and styles.


Of all the tourist attractions in Okinawa, I feel like one’s actually worth its salt. I am talking about the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. I’ve been to a great number of aquariums, and while most of them are decent, I would say they barely cover the price of admission. I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It is by far the best and biggest I’ve ever been to, and I’ve visited a good amount. Also, while most aquariums are just giant boxes, this one is designed beautifully. The tanks are all underground, and above ground you have beautiful winding gardens with the ocean as a backdrop. The selection of marine life is spectacular. There is a whole host of species which are only native to Okinawa. So you’re not just seeing pretty fish, but you’re getting a good idea of what the surrounding waters hold. Pictures speak louder than words, so I’ll let them do just that.


I visited the Okinawa theater, where you can see some classical Japanese plays. I also went to see Okinawa World where you can explore some pretty cool limestone caves. I saw the shrines, the castles, the beaches. But honestly, the best part about Okinawa is, well, Okinawa. Unlike most big tourist places there aren’t many attractions and things to do. Rather, the atmosphere and the place itself is the attraction of Okinawa. By all means, I urge you to see some of the beautiful temples and castles. But make time for Okinawa itself. Go to a few Jazz Bars (one that comes to mind is Parker’s Mood) or workshops. Strike a conversation with some of the locals. They’re more than happy to exchange a few words with a foreigner, and you’ll learn much more about the real Okinawa from them than any other museum or castle. The transportation in Okinawa is pretty limited, so if you have an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a Japanese license, just rent a car for a few days and drive around the island. It doesn’t take more than three hours to go from North to South. Take the ferries to the smaller islands, and just soak in this awesome and truly unique place!


Oh, and last but not least, as promised – a vast abundance of Shisa stone doggos!

 

🌸Moonlight Masquerade in Tokyo🌸

Moonlight Masquerade Mask

Mr. Author Guy, say I’m in Tokyo and I want cool venetian masks, dimmed lighting, jazzy tunes, finger painting, and awesome people but I don’t want to pay more than ¥2001? Say no more, young rascal, Mr. Author Guy’s got ya. Ladies, gents, and other such creatures, I recently had the opportunity to partake in just such an event – The Tokyo Moonlight Masquerade. Hosted by the Spectrum Series (which I urge you to find on Facebook), The Moonlight Masquerade is an event hosted four times a year in Tokyo. It usually features some of the best local artists and musicians. And I’m not talking paint-by-numbers musical acts either. You will hear a great blend of local indie talent blending and fooling around with everything from jazz to blues, to soul, to funk, to rock, and everything in between with their own creative twists. This particular event hosted (in order of appearance) SOU, Xandra Corpora, Audible Bond, and The Roamers. We also had the very talented Ayaka Nakamura do a live painting while the acts were performing.

First things first, we can’t take anything away from the venue. The event was hosted in the Aoyama Moon Romantic club. This mystery little hut of awesome is hidden away in one of the small alleys of central Tokyo. You can find it here. It’s named for the giant moon that usually decorates the stage. It’s just big enough not to be crowded and just small enough to be intimate. The people are warm, the drinks are cold, and the vibes are right.

 

The night opened up with SOU, a guitar and drum duo. They were a perfect opening act. Their music started out slow and haunting. Melancholy and dissonant guitar melodies slowly drew us in as the atmosphere in the crowd started building up. The drums and the guitar both picked up the pace to make up for some truly spectacular climaxes. You couldn’t ask more from an opening act.

Xandra Corpora graced the stage next. And the only word that comes to mind is “wow”. She was a summer storm of energy. To my ear she did a blend of blues, blue grass, soul, and funk, but all in her own bombastic way. Her voice was absolutely explosive as it dove through melody lines and trills. Just everything about her performance fizzed with energy.

And a little taste of her sound:

Next followed Audible Bond. Whatever Xandra did in energy, Audible Bond did in smooth. Their blend of chilled out jazz, soul, and R&B brought us down and hypnotized us as they went through their numbers. Their energy was great, they pulled the crowd in, and their music lacked for nothing. If you ever have the chance to see them, do. The forty minutes of your life that you’ll never get back will  be well worth it.

Here’s a little snippet of their sound:

Last, but certainly not least, The Roamers filled the stage. If they were a drink they’d be an aged, dry whiskey. Classic, tested, and plain good. They rocked the stage with their funk music which would invariably find its way to some pretty dirty rock sections. And it was always the perfect blend of it, too. You’d have the funky bass and drums accompanied by the vocals which tantalizingnly threatened to go out of tune and never did, and just when you got into the loop, they’d darken it with some heavy guitar. It was a marvelous fusion of sound and style.

Here’s a taste of their funk:

 

And the unsung hero of the night – Ayaka Nakamura. Japan based artist, she soaked up all the evening’s vibes and sounds, stirred them with her imagination, and infused them into her live art. She painted along the musicians all night, and the result was truly spectacular.

So if you are visiting Tokyo or are in the area and have a love for all things artistic, you’ll be well out of your mind not to check this event out. From my experience, the people are there are as varied, awesome, and creative as the music on the stage. Make sure you don’t miss the next one 😉

Shoe Collage

🌸Dildo-Nosed Demons, Monkeys, and Shrines (AKA: Mount Takao)🌸

Ladies, gents, and other such creatures, today we take a look at Mount Takao. It stands apart from other mountains in that it has dildo-nosed demons, known as Tengu, glorious snow monkeys, and numerous shrines and gardens. Frankly, it is one of my favourite places in Japan, and it is absolutely gorgeous in the fall.

Mount Takao is located in Saitama, about a 40-60 minute drive/train from Tokyo. The easiest way to access the mountain is through Takaosanguchi station, on the Keio-Takao line, located conveniently at the base of the mountain. There are convenience shops nearby, so I wouldn’t worry about stocking up on provisions. There are plentiful snack booths, souvenir shops, and washrooms along the way. Though be warned, it can be quite crowded during the weekends during the fall period. That being said, the further up you go the crowds tend to disperse a bit.

There are several trails to choose from. Most people take trail #1, which is more or less a straightforward path to the summit of the mountain. You can reach the summit in about 90 minutes if you keep a constant pace, maybe 120 minutes if you take the odd break here and there (and really you should, the place is beautiful and worth your time). The beginning is pretty steep, but don’t be discouraged, after about 30-40 minutes the elevation levels out for a very pleasant hike. However, along the way many other trails intersect and you can easily spend an extra few hours exploring the mountain. There are many different shrines hidden along the mountain, gardens and gazebos for some relaxation and contemplation, as well as simple, lush natural beauty covering every square cm of this gorgeous place.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, he promised us monkeys. SNOW MONKEYS! Worry not, nature’s little agents of chaos are here. There’s a little enclosure halfway up the mountain where you can see these little dudes. It’s about ¥400 for adults. You can go in and have a look at them, and I THINK you can also buy food to feed them, but I don’t rightfully recall. If Japanese people in uniform start talking to you in a stern tone, then you might not be allowed to feed them – play it by ear. Credit must go to the following blogger (http://crystaltjapan.tripod.com/letsgototokyo/id25.html) for the photos, alas I didn’t actually go to the enclosure this time by way of democracy via my monkey unappreciative friends(?).

Also, Yakuo-in temple is definitely worth visiting. It is a historic temple more than halfway up the mountain. It was established in 744 and later restored in the 14th century. It was considered a holy site, and many people would make pilgrimages to the temple for enlightenment. Tengu statues stand guard around the temple looking menacing. The Tengu are servants of the gods, often depicted holding uchiwa (Japanese fan) which they use to sweep away misfortune and bring good fortune. They are guardians of the mountain, looking to help the good and chastise the evil. Also, they have dong-like noses, just saying.

Last, but surely not least, there is the summit. It’s a wide resting area with benches, gazebos and a restaurant. There’s even a little bit of a park branching off to the side if you feel like turning a few idle pages or just sitting down to enjoy the presence of the mountain. The view from above is quite lovely, you can see distant mountain ranges in Saitama which make for a scenic peisage. Also if you linger ’till dark you can see the local towns lit up beneath the mountains.

Anywho, that is my tale of dildos, monkeys and beauty. If you are in Japan I strongly recommend you check it out. This is by far one of the best experiences you can have in a day.