Shimenawa are sacred cords made of twisted strands of rice straw. They are believed to have the special power to ward off evil spirits or sickness. They are hung from torii (the entrance gates of shrines) or before the altars of Shinto shrines, and also around trees or rocks considered to be places of the divine. It is also common to find shimenawa over doorways of houses or on the front of cars at New Years.
Originally, it comes from the Chinese custom of placing wet twisted ropes around the dead after burying them in the ground for the purpose of cleansing the souls of the dead.
Kagura, literally “god-entertainment,” refers to forms of sacred music and dance, similar to those of Nohgaku (refer to p.27), that are performed officially at Shinto shrines during rituals. Once strictly a ceremonial art derived from kamigakari (“oracular divination”) and chinkon (“spirit pacification,”) it has evolved in many directions over the span of a millennium. In Iwami-style kagura shown here, the kagura dances serve a number of purposes, including celebration of auspicious days and the reenactment of God’s folktales. As it has become more of a secular folk entertainment and less of a formal religious ritual, it can be understood and enjoyed as a popular art even by children, and in Shimane Prefecture performances are often held in the public hall of a village.
Tomonoura, a quiet port town in Hiroshima Prefecture, features various relics from the Edo Period, and is said to be the only port still remaining in Japan that boasts an old-style lighthouse, stepped pier, dock, wooden ship careenage, and customs house. Based on descriptions on maps in the 17th through 19th centuries, the town is preserved almost unchanged, making it a place without peer anywhere else in the country.
In addition to its appeal as a valuable tourist spot, it has also been used as a location for shooting film. Film director Hayao Miyazaki chose this location for the 2008 animated film “Ponyo,” and he stayed at one of the houses there for as long as two months during its production. The town was also used to shoot “The Wolverine,” a Hollywood film slated for release this coming summer. Some of the port’s residents, annoyed by the chronic traffic congestion, wanted to construct a bridge to the coast. The court ruled in favor of the bridge’s opponents, who wanted to preserve the status quo. Perhaps it is another example of the current trend recognizing the worth of preserving old things over convenience.
Otaku is a Japanese term that refers to people with obsessive interests, particularly in (but not limited to) anime, manga, trains or Japanese video games. A person interested in a recreational capacity in rail transport is called “densha-otaku” or railfan. The Japanese word otaku has become as well known overseas as is “karaoke,” and Wikipedia carries explanations of the word in 35 languages. In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, considered ground zero of Japan’s otaku, the elevated tracks of Japan Railway’s Sobu Line passes through rows of buildings. As it is considered a good place from which to watch trains, a hotel along the route has opened up well-received railway rooms, from which paying guests can enjoy a view of the passing trains.
While horse racing in Japan has a strong image of gambling, it is also respected as an equestrian sport. When viewed from the category of sports, the Tokyo Race Track boasts a capacity of 225,000, many-fold larger than those of other sports. For example, the largest soccer stadium in Japan, Saitama Stadium 2002, has a capacity of 63,000 people — less than one third. Actually the horse track has never actually achieved a gate of over 200,000 people with the largest, for a race in 1990, reaching around 195,000 people.
If you don’t bet, you can enter and watch the races for just 200 yen ($2). Moreover you can experience riding a horse or see the horse racing museum free of charge.