The days are getting shorter and shorter
For all of us here in Japan
And for everyone north of the equator
From Massachusetts to Milan
But in north America and Europe
Along come depression and dismay
Spirits are drained of cheer and hope
As dark clouds steal the sun away
Wake up to a sky totally black
Have lunch in a light dreary and gray
At five it’s like midnight as you head back
And every night seems to last all day
Then, sometime deep in December
Old Sol reverses his heavenly flight
He yawns, stretches, rekindles his embers
Then graces each day with a little more light
This is the Winter Solstice
When night gives in to day
And the rising sun, not just Christmas
Makes us want to sing, dance and play
Plato called the day Poseidonia
Yado was a time for Persian pride
Caesar celebrated Saturnalia
While German pagans practiced Yuletide
Jewish candles light up Hannuka
Japanese ring Oshogatsu bells
Christ’s Holy Night and jolly Santa
Bring carols, gifts, choirs of angels
By whatever name you ordain
When the sun’s on the rebound
Have a holiday pleasantly insane
And spread the joy all around
Stirred by Hannibal’s sons
The pregnant waters
Spurred by Pharaoh’s curse
The surging forces
And the mothers
For 18 days
And 18 nights
The flowing mass
And from it spilt
The land awash
In muddy water
No prophet to reveal
Yet hawks fly
And eager is
What do we
Which grains will
Or sweet kernels
The dams gave
To the pregnant flood
Twice each year, on March 21st and September 21st, this crazy world of ours stands upright, balanced evenly in the heavens posed for equal doses of sun rays and moon dust.
Here in Japan these two days are set aside for reflection on our lives and reverence to our ancestors.
For over a millennium, Japanese have taken time on these two mild weather days to celebrate Ohigan (彼岸) by evaluating their lives, and renewing their struggle for enlightenment.
Ohigan means “the distant bank of the Sanzu River,” a euphemism for enlightenment. To cross the Sanzu is to cross from the shore of ignorance and suffering to the opposite shore of enlightenment and peace. A Mahayana mantra describes this journey:
Gone, gone, gone beyond, everyone gone beyond
The muse of the Buddha must have been with me the day I visited Ryoanji in 1982. Unimpressed with the temple’s famous rock garden, I spied a view at the back of the temple that inspired me to write this poem, unwittingly echoing the ancient mantra:
Beyond, ever beyond, there lies a pond
Beyond, ever beyond, we try anon
Beyond, ever beyond, we barely hear
Beyond, never beyond, the pond is here
DD – 1982
© Dane Degenhardt, Monde Dane, 2010
Dane: Yuji, I hear you have another traditional holiday coming up soon.
Yuji: Traditional holiday? Oh, I guess you’re talking about Girl’s Day on March 3rd.
Dane: Not Girl’s Day; the Doll Festival.
Yuji: They’re the same thing. Actually, it’s called Hina Matsuri.
Dane: Is this another holiday you celebrate by doing nothing?
Yuji: No, I have to work on March 3rd.
Dane: You mean only girls celebrate Girls’ Day?
Yuji: No. I mean it’s not a national holiday, nobody gets a day off.
Dane: Well there must be something to it.
Yuji: Not in my family, there are no girls in our family.
Dane: So, what do families with girls do?
Yuji: My girlfriend says she eats chirashizushi, hand-made sushi rolls.
Dane: That’s all? That doesn’t sound very festive.
Yuji: Well, my grandmother said their family had a huge display of dolls.
Dane: What kind of dolls?
Yuji: The empress Hina-sama, the Emperor, three female attendants, five court musicians, two state ministers, and three drunken samurai; plus a lot of accessories.
Dane: Wow! That’s quite a crowd. How can you display that many dolls in your living room?
Yuji: They put up a seven layer stand that takes up most of the room. And then there are large dolls in separate glass boxes, too!
Dane: Sounds pretty ostentatious. Are these doll sets expensive?
Yuji: Let me check on line. OK, here’s a typical set at a discount site. Let’s see…it goes for 120,000 yen
Dane: You’re kidding! That’s about $1,200.
Yuji: That’s a cheapy. Here’s just one Hina doll by a famous artisan for $2,500.
Dane: Who would buy such a thing?
Yuji: Usually people buy one for their grand-daughters.
Dane: Why would anyone spend that much for something you can display for only one week – and gets packed in the attic after a few years?
Yuji: I can see two good reasons. One is just to show off.
Dane: And the other reason?
Yuji: Well, it started in the Heian Era about 1,000 years ago when rich people wanted to imitate the royal family. So it must be important for people who really admire the emperor.
Dane: Is the royal family still so popular?
Yuji: Well, I guess most Japanese respect them, but they aren’t trend setters anymore.
Dane: But even if you love the royals and have the money, are Japanese houses big enough for such a huge display?
Yuji: No. My grandmother had the full set when she was a girl, but she got a miniature set for my mother. And now my girlfriend says she had only two dolls, the Empress and Emperor.
Dane: So the tradition’s dying out, I guess.
Yuji: Yes, girls today are more interested in iPhone displays.
Rousoku no niou
hina no amayo kana?
— 18th Century Haiku by Shirao Kaya
Wafting wax and soot
Is this evening shower
Marking Hina’s reign?
— Translation by Monde Dane
RELATED POST: JAPANESE GIRLS – 3/11/09
11:11 11/11 1918 ARMISTICE DAY
Honoring those who served
in the War to End All Wars
11:11 11/11 2009 VETERANS DAY
Honoring those who served
in all the wars that followed
“Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country.
– Bertrand Russell“
Older men declare war.
But it is the youth that must fight and die.”
– Herbert Hoover
“The military don’t start wars. Politicians start wars.” – William Westmoreland
“When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.”– Jean-Paul Sartre
War is the rich man’s profit,
the politician’s choice,
the youth’s adventure,
the patriot’s anthem,
the family’s tears,
the veteran’s nightmare.
– Monde Dane
An autumn barbeque can be delicious,
Seared steaks, roasted pig, boiling hot stew,
The fire’s products are tasty, not malicious,
Till you get beyond the standard menu.
Your belly bursting and your head aswoon, Your eyes transfix on the blazing embers,
Standing or sitting
‘neath the Autumn moon,
The carnal heat thrills
your outstretched members.
Closer you stand, poking and prodding,
Teasing the flame into a dancing frenzy,
You succumb, body twisting, head nodding,
Plunging your soul into mad infancy.
Crimson coal and amber flame,
Pierce your eyes, singe your heart,
The feast is gone, the fears remain,
Your demon Mara, a la carte.
Cherry Blossom Paranoia
Take the back road, the rail road or freeway,
Stay away from the temples and shrines,
Detour the schools; official buildings of all kinds,
Avoid the throngs, the tourists, the rucksack crowd,
And still you can’t escape the damn Sakura lines.
It’s that time of year again when every single soul seems bent on seeking strength in numbers, nature in harness, as they follow the masses in the worship of the blooming Sakura. It’s the reverse of the resurrection as the meek cherry blossoms tease and taunt their admirers with their brief burst of beauty before death.
Beautiful, yes; but why is the Japanese aesthetic so dependent on the promise of momentary demise. Sakura is a brilliant reminder of life’s frailty and transigence. I prefer to see beauty in a more wholesome, sturdy form. The hardy plum blossoms would be nice. Spring is rebirth, the promise of life, the surge of nature’s most vital gifts. Give me vitality; don’t give me death.
This spring, for the love of art, I have overcome my aversion to the annual salute to the Sakura; I ventured out to the common grounds where the omnipresent cherry trees display their patriotic blossoms so that I could record a series of photos that finally confirm my long residence in the land of the Sakura.
Photos and Text © Dane Degenhardt, Monde Dane, 2009