Japan Tradition: Akita Kantō

The Akita Kantō (秋田竿燈まつり) is the Akita city festival. It is celebrated from 3 to 7 August with the aim of praying for a good harvest. This festival is very special, and to participate there is a need for special skills.

Akita Kantō

photo credits: Zamboni.

The peculiarity of the Akita Kantō

If you have never had the chance to attend this particular matsuri, surely today you will be surprised. In fact, the festivities consist of taking bamboo poles around the city by night. And so far it could even be simple, except that these poles have a length that varies from five to twelve meters. Furthermore, on top of these, there are twenty-four or twenty-six lanterns with gohei (wooden sticks) attached. The total weight of these poles can reach 50 kilos. They are transported through the city streets on the palms, foreheads, shoulders or backs of the participants.

The Akita Kantō is one of the main festivals in the Tōhoku region together with the Tanabata, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri and the Hanagasa Matsuri. In fact, in 1980 it was defined as an important and intact property of folk culture.

Akita Kantō

photo credits: Laura Tomàs Avellana, hitoyam

The origins

The festival originates from Neburi Nagashi, a celebration that was intended to free from illness and negativity during the summer. Already present during the Horeki period, in the middle of the Edo era, evidence can be found in various historical documents. One of these is "Yuki no huru michi" (written by Soan Tsumura in 1789). This is indeed the oldest documentation describing Neburi Nagashi, which says that the festival was held on 6 July according to the lunar calendar and it's defined as the original Akita tradition.

During Neburi Nagashi, people decorated bamboo trees and plants with pieces of paper where they wrote their wishes. Later, the participants walked around the city with these plants along with candles and lanterns. Later, Neburi Nagashi took the name of Kanto.

photo credits: foxeight 

The history of the Akita Kantō

The current name of the event was used for the first time by Tetsusaku Okubo in 1881. In this period, in fact, the emperor Meiji visited Akita. Here Okubo suggested entertaining the emperor with the Kanto performance.

Due to the change of the lunar-to-solar calendar in 1872 and given the smaller number of Kanto participating in the festival, the realization of the latter began to be uncertain.
However, in 1908 the emperor Taisho visited Akita and fell in love with the Kanto performance. The following year, a soft drink company printed its products' names on the Kanto lanterns. These two events led to the restoration of the Kanto festival and its change of dates, to avoid the rainy season.

Akita Kantō Akita Kantō

photo credits: Laura Tomàs Avellana

As a result, the number of visitors increased and the Kanto Society was established in 1931 was in charge of managing the festival.

Afterwards, the festival was canceled during the Second World War, and then after the end of the conflict, the Executive Committee of the Kanto Festival was created.

In 1976, after a successful performance in San Diego, USA, Kanto became popular in various countries.

Cos’è il Kantō

Literally, Kantō means "a pole with lanterns" and is made from bamboo poles and rice paper lanterns hung on horizontal bars.
The main bamboo pole is called "Oyatake" and they are of rather thick features and all produced in Japan. There are even very strict rules on the thickness and the spaces of junction from the root for these poles.
Therefore, people who choose the pole must be very demanding on the type of bamboo used to produce Kantō.

photo credits: Laura Tomàs Avellana, Choo Yut Shing

The horizontal branches are called "Yokotake" and it is here that lanterns are hung. The pieces of bamboo used to make the Oyatake even longer are called "Tsugidake".

The Kantō are divided into four categories with regulated length: Oowaka, Chuwaka, Kowaka and Youkawa.

Kantō techniques

There are various techniques for using Kantō from the name "Myogi" and divided into 5 categories.

Akita Kantō Akita Kantō

photo credits: Laura Tomàs Avellana

Nagashi
The artists hold the Kantō in the palm of their hands and balance it with their fingers. In this way, other artists can add Tsugitake

Hirate (hand)
The artists hold the Kantō still higher in the palm of his hand

Koshi (hips)
Kantō is held by the fingers. Later moved to the palm of the hand and then to the side. The artist bends sideways and balances with his own legs.

Akita Kantō

photo credits: Laura Tomàs Avellana

Kata (shoulder)
The artists hold the Kantō in the palm of their dominant hand and form a starting line from the leg to the Kantō, raising it even higher.

Hitai (forehead)
The artist holds the Kantō with his fingers and then moves it to the palm, then on the forehead.

During the day there are also competitions to test these skills, the Myogikai. The aim is not only to show their skills but also to study those of the other participants to learn new techniques.

Akita Kantō

photo credits: foxeight

The Akita Kantō today

The date of the festival has been changed three times. It is currently held from 3 to 6 August each year.

The evening performance of the Akita Kantō is the main one and is held at the Kanto Oodori, one of the main streets of Akita. Here the purpose of the performers is not to compete with each other, but to entertain visitors by showing their skills and illuminating Kanto. More than 230 are raised at the same time to the sound of taiko music and flutes.

Akita Kantō

photo credits: foxeight

A unique experience of its kind that is worth living in full, as soon as you have the chance.


Japan History: Takeda Shingen

Takeda Shingen (Takeda Harunobu December 1, 1521 - May 13, 1573), firstborn of warlord Takeda Nobutora, was born in the powerful Takeda clan. He was Shugo Daimyo (military governors) of the then province of Kai, present-day Yamanashi prefecture.

Takeda Shingen played a very important role in the battle of Un no Kuchi in 1536, he was only 15 years old. When his father designated his second son as heir, Shingen conducted a coup without bloodshed. This forced his father to retire as head of the clan. Later, Shingen began to expand his family's domains northward into the province of Shinano (present-day Nagano prefecture) and into lands adjacent to Kai.

As the undisputed leader of the Takeda clan, he began his expansionist policy starting with the Battle of Sezawa. He then continued with the sieges of Uehara, Kuwabara and Fukuyo, the battles of Ankokuji, Odaihara, Shiojiritoge, and the Kawanakajima battles series against Uesugi Kenshin.
Shingen decided to have all the warriors in the first lines of his armies wear red lacquered armor to intimidate the enemy psychologically. This idea was also later copied by the Tokugawa army clan.

Shingen

photo credits: japantimes.co.jp

The life of Takeda Shingen

In 1548 Takeda Shingen defeated Ogasawara Nagatoki in the battle of Shiojiritōge and took Fukashi in 1550. Uesugi Kenshin took the field at that time because the Takeda had now reached the borders of his province.
What began was a rivalry that became legendary and that led them to clash in the battles of Kawanakajima. These battles were generally skirmishes, in fact, none of the two daimyō wanted to discover themselves in an all-out battle.

The fiercest battle between the two was the fourth one, during which, according to legend, Uesugi Kenshin managed to break through the Takeda lines and faced Shingen. It is said that Kenshin attacked Shingen with his sword defending himself with his fan (or tessen). Both lost numerous men during the battle. In particular, Shingen lost two important generals, Yamamoto Kansuke and his younger brother Takeda Nobushige.

Takeda Shingen entered the priesthood in 1551, at which time he assumed the Buddhist name Shingen. However, taking religious vows in no way prevented his participation in worldly affairs.

After the fourth battle, Shingen discovered two plots against his life. The first by his cousin Suwa Shigemasa, who was ordered to commit seppuku. While the second, a few years later by his son Takeda Yoshinobu. The latter was exiled to the Toko temple, where he died two years later perhaps by order of his father. After this incident, Shingen appointed his fourth child, Katsuyori as successor to the leadership of the clan.

After conquering Katsurao, Wada, Takashima and Fukuda, in 1554 he returned as many victories in the sieges of Fukushima, Kannomine, Matsuo and Yoshioka.

In 1563, together with Hōjō Ujiyasu, Takeda Shingen conquered Matsuyama Castle in the province of Musashi. Subsequently it obtained the possession of Kuragano in 1565 and of the castle of Minowa. Then he moved against the Hōjō attacking Hachigata castle.
He retired successfully after Hōjō Ujiteru and Hōjō Ujikuni failed to stop him in the battle of Mimasetōge.

Takeda Shingen

photo credits: pinimg.com

Harunobu's main ambition was the submission of Shinano. However, the resistance in that neighborhood was fierce. A number of Shinano warlords, including Murakami Yoshikiyo, Ogasawara Nagatoki, Suwa Yorishige and Kiso Yoshiyasu, made a move designed with the hope to cut off further Takeda aggressions.

The march towards the Kai borders

In April 1542 the four daimyo combined forces and marched towards the Kai border, encouraged by the news that Harunobu was strengthening his defenses and was preparing to take a stand in Fuchu. In fact, Harunobu's activities were a ploy. Far from passively waiting in Kai, Harunobu led his men and took the Shinano warriors by surprise, defeating them at Sezawa.

Encouraged by Sezawa's findings, Harunobu made a trip to Shinano focusing on the territory of the Suwa clan. He first took Uehara in a surprise attack and then moved to Suwa headquarters in Kuwahara, located 2 kilometers to the east. Suwa Yorishige had no choice but to surrender following Harunobu's promise of safe conduct. Yorishige and his brother were taken to Kai where General Takeda, Itagaki Nobutaka, organized their death. Both of them committed suicide.

Takeda Shingen

photo credits: pinterest.it

Harunobu, with the help of Yamamoto Kansuke's strategies, further expanded his territory through the defeat of Tozawa Yorichika and Takato Yoritsugu. The acquisition of the castle of Takato was of particular value. Indeed, it provided a safe stopping area in the south of Shinano, as well as a buffer against any southern aggression.

In 1544 the Takeda marched towards Suruga in support of Imagawa and confronted Hōjō Ujiyasu. No real conflict occurred following this confrontation. Harunobu was in fact forced to enter into a peace treaty between Hōjō and Imagawa.

Over the next decade, Harunobu continued to exert incessant pressure on the Shinano warlords. In 1548 Murakami Yoshikiyo, perhaps the most formidable Shinano enemy of Harunobu, moved to Ueda and defeated the Takeda clan in a bitter battle. Here a number of Chinese arquebuses were used, the first weapons of the genre ever deployed in a Japanese battle. While Uehara's defeat left two of his best generals dead, Harunobu quickly bounced back. In fact, in 1552 the Murakami and Ogasawara clans fled from Shinano to Echigo.

Takeda Shingen vs Uesugi Kenshin

In June and October 1553 the Takeda and Uesugi armies clashed near the Kawanakajima plain in northern Shinano. A clash lasted five times but only the fourth battle produced a wide-ranging race. Both sides suffered heavy losses that slowed both warlords for a few years. In particular, Shingen must have suffered from the loss of Nobushige and Yamamoto Kansuke, both of whom died in the battle.

In 1560 Shingen had discovered a plot against him led by his cousin Katanuma Nobumoto and in 1565 the one organized by his son Yoshinobu and Obu Toramasa. Two years later Yoshinbou died. Legend says that death is due either to illness or, as many believe, because Shingen had forced him to commit suicide. The event left Takeda's servants uneasy.

photo credits: wikipedia.org

In 1564, Shingen had subdued all of Shinano and turned his attention to Kōzuke, where he took a number of castles from the Uesugi clan. For the next five years, he limited himself to raids and local conquests, focusing on internal affairs.
In 1560, Shingen's greatest achievement was the Damji River Damming project. The benefit of the Fuji river project is considered one of the greatest national initiatives of the sixteenth century.

In 1568, Takeda's army was on the move again, this time south against Imagawa. The daimyo of that clan was Ujizane, the incompetent son of the late Imagawa Yoshimoto (killed in 1560 by Oda Nobunaga). Yoshinobu, son of Shingen, had married Ujizane's sister, but after her suicide in 1567, relations between the families had increased. It would appear that Shingen and Tokugawa Ieyasu had entered into an agreement under which the two would divide the remaining lands of Imagawa (Tōtōmi and Suruga). However, this agreement was never completed. Furthermore, Sagami's Hōjō did not see this shift in the balance of power. Because of this, he sent troops to challenge Shingen. In 1569 Shingen responded by invading Sagami and besieging Odawara (the capital of Hōjō). However, on the way back to Kai, the Takeda army managed to crush an attempted ambush by Mimasetoge of Hōjō.

Thus, in 1570, the lands of Takeda included Kai, Shinano, Suruga and pieces of Kozuke, Tōtōmi, and Hida. Shingen, at 49, was now more than a regional power. Takeda Shingen was in fact the most important warlord east of Mino. Moreover, he was the only one able to derail Oda Nobunaga's march to national hegemony. Only Shingen had the strategic position and the armed forces to stop it.

In 1570 the formidable Hōjō Ujiyasu died and his heir, Ujimasa, made peace with Shingen. This was an act that could have ensured Tokugawa Ieyasu final destruction. However, Shingen died in 1573 sending the plans into smoke.

The Takeda clan allies with the Oda clan

Meanwhile, the Takeda and Oda, aimed at controlling the Uesugi clan. After a failed diplomatic courtship, they started a war of words with the shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki.
Shingen intensified the pressure against Tokugawa and in 1572 launched an attack on Tōtōmi which led to the capture of Futamata. The following January, Shingen returned to the province and attracted Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Mikatagahara. Conducted on January 6 north of Hamamatsu, it ended with an almost complete defeat for Ieyasu.

Although they were often presented as initial moves in a march on Kyoto, Shingen's intentions were undoubtedly more conservative. Probably, Takeda Shingen aimed to test the answers of both Ieyasu and Nobunaga and, if possible, inflict a defeat on the two. In any case, within a few days of winning the battle, he received the news that Asakura Yoshikage had chosen not to oppose to Nobunaga. Shingen was sorry and could count on Yoshikage to maintain the tension on Nobunaga. This may have played a part in his decision to return to Kai, thus granting a truce to the bloody Tokugawa.

The figure of Takeda Shingen

Shingen was a complicated figure, sometimes absolutely cruel. At the beginning of his life, he had forced Suwa Yorishige to commit suicide (or murdered him) after the two warlords had signed a peace treaty. He then took Suwa's daughter as a lover, ignoring the fact that she was technically his own niece.

Apparently, Shingen created Shingen Tsuba, (sword guard) also known as Takeda Tsuba. The story goes that while waiting for a battle to begin, Shingen wrapped the brass wire around a large iron sukashi to keep himself focused and able to think until the battle began. Because of this, many of his vassals followed Shingen's leadership throughout the Edo period.

He is also credited with inventing the toilet drain, bathroom hygiene, apparently, was important to Shingen. He also built the vast dams known as Shingen Zutsumi along the Kamanashi segments of the Fuji river. These walls prevented flooding and were one of the largest and most ambitious national public works initiatives of the sixteenth century.

The well-considered laws of Shingen were not considered particularly severe. He suspended corporal punishment for most minor crimes. In fact, he adopted a system of financial fines, which earned him the respect and praise of the peasants and citizens of the province of Kai.
It is interesting to note that Shingen also had two large iron cauldrons in which to boil criminals still alive. Tokugawa Ieyasu, thinking that the punishment was excessively cruel, destroyed the cauldrons years later.

His economic reform was also innovative at the time. Indeed, Takeda Shingen taxed most of its subjects uniformly and allowed them the option of payments in gold or rice.

Takeda Shingen had planned on the districts of Mikawa and Owari (now both Aichi Prefecture). In 1571 he entered the territories of the Okudaira clan (later Tokugawa) and captured the castle of Noda.
In 1573, he invaded Mikawa and again attacked the castle of Noda. However, this time, the fortifications of the castle had been strengthened, allowing it to stand for several weeks.

photo credits: wikimedia.org

The death

On May 13, 1573, towards the end of the siege, just before the defenders of Noda Castle capitulated, Takeda Shingen was shot by a marksman. Shingen died during the escape.

The death of Takeda Shingen at the age of 49 remained a secret. The remains of the gun that was used to shoot Shingen are kept in the Shitagahara Museum in Nagashino, Aichi Prefecture. His son and successor, Takeda Katsuyori, was defeated by Oda and Tokugawa in the early 1580s, thus ending the power of the Takeda family.

Instead of a poem of death, he left the following words, borrowed from Zen literature: "It is largely left to its natural bodily perfection, and has no special need to resort to artificial coloring and powder to look beautiful. "


Japan Tradition: Tenjin Matsuri

The Japanese summer is characterized by the famous matsuri, including the Tenjin Matsuri (天神祭) of which we speak today.

photo credits: Pic tures, jtabn99

Ranked as one of the three largest Matsuri in Japan, Tenjin Matsuri takes place in Osaka. It started in the 10th century, but today it takes place between 24 and 25 July each year. However, the major celebrations take place on the second day, including the procession along the river together with the fireworks display.

This particular festival is dedicated to the Tenmangu Temple and its main deity Sugawara Michizane, God of scolars. Like other famous matsuri (Gion Matsuri di Kyoto and Kanda Matsuri di Tokyo) also here the festivities begin in the temple.

Le festività

photo credits: hyossie,Sonali

It all starts with the opening ceremony. Here the deity is invited to leave the temple and then a parade begins. The inhabitants of Osaka entertain the divinity with exuberant festivities, before bringing it back to the temple.
This becomes an opportunity for everyone to fully enjoy the hot days of summer. In fact, you can see people wearing traditional costumes and spectacular parades.

The Tenjin Matsuri in detail

As we have said, the Tenjin Matsuri takes place over two days. The first day, on the morning of July 24th, the festival begins at the Tenmangu Temple. Here people gather for a traditional ritual and then move on to pray by the river. The inhabitants of Osaka in this way in fact ask for prosperity and security for their city.
In the afternoon of the same day, the drums are played by men with big red hats. This serves to inform the population that preparations for the festival are complete.

However, the culmination of the celebrations takes place at 3.30 pm on the second day, July 25th. At this time, the drum players with red hats lead the procession.

photo credits: hyossie

Starting from the Tenmangu Temple, the parade crosses the streets of Osaka. In this long procession, we find characteristic masks. We cannot fail to mention the Sarutahiko, a long-nosed goblin riding a horse. These masks are accompanied by inflatables, festival music, dancers of various kinds and other attractions.

An hour after the procession begins it is time for the mikoshi to leave the temple. This "portable temple" contains within it the deity Sugawara Michizane. On this occasion, the mikoshi follows a girl and a boy who have the task of guiding a sacred ox, the messenger of Michizane. During the parade other mikoshi appear, but if you want to see the one dedicated to Michizane, keep your eyes open for the temple with the phoenix.

At 6 pm, the parade arrives at the Okawa river. Here the people and the mikoshi are loaded onto the boats to continue the parade on the river.

photo credits: jtabn99pasteis de nata

The Tenjin Matsuri and the "stage boats"

It is also possible to find "stage boats". In fact, on some of these boats, it is possible to watch performances of the traditional Noh and Bunraku theater. Moreover, in the midst of all these boats, you can also see the Dondoko, small boats that easily navigate the river thanks to young rowers.

 

photo credits: elmimmowolf4max

We cannot then forget the endless delights of street food in Osaka, an extremely famous city for its food.

The procession continues while the celebrations go on during the evening. The climax is reached again from 19:30 to 21:00 when the fireworks show begins. Japan is known, it is famous for its fireworks show. However, those of the Tenjin Matsuri along with its illuminated ships reflecting on the river, offer a unique show of its kind.

After the end of the fireworks, the mikoshi land and return to the temple at 22:00, marking the end of the festival.

photo credits: Ced'ceenoei 

The turnout

Tenjin Matsuri is usually one of the busiest times of the year, especially along the banks of the river during the evening show. In fact, to watch the fireworks show it's really hard to find the right place to fully enjoy the show.
However, there is the possibility of purchasing tickets for seating located near Temmanbashi station. The cost is about ¥6000 and requires reservations in advance. This will allow you to have a good view of the procession but not a perfect view of the fireworks.

photo credits: japannewbie, Mi-Shin Shinoyama

The bridges along the Okawa River are closed during the parade and offer a privileged place as a viewing spot. However, visitors cannot stay long to ensure smooth traffic for all those present. Instead, the Kawasaki bridge is also closed to the public also because common people are not allowed to look at the temple deity from above.

The town decorated

During the Tenjin Matsuri, Osaka is decorated with thousands of colors, lights, torches, and lanterns all along the city center. A show not to be missed for both locals and tourists!

If you have witnessed past matsuri or are planning to attend the next one coming, let us know what you think!

photo credits: Laura Barrio


Tanabata, the legend and modern times

Tanabata: on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month we celebrate one of the five gosekku (五節), the most important festivals of the year. This is also one of my favorite parties because it is extremely romantic.

Tanabata

The Seventh Night

The legend tells of Princess Orihime (the star Vega), devoted daughter of Tentei (the King of the sky) who spent her day weaving on the shores of the celestial river Amanogawa (the Milky Way). However, her heart was sad because she had not yet known love. Then Tentei introduced her to Hikoboshi (the Altair star), a young herder of the heavenly planes who lived across the river. The love between the two exploded immediately, but the passion distracted them from their duties by unleashing the wrath of Tentei.

He divided them by returning his daughter to the opposite bank of the river. Orihime, destroyed by pain, wept a thousand tears. Tentei, struck by his daughter's great love, allowed the two lovers to meet on the seventh night of the seventh month only if they worked diligently throughout the year. The sky, in this special night, must be clear, otherwise crossing the silvery river would be impossible. In fact, if it rained it would swell and the vigor of its waters would prevent the flock of magpies from creating a bridge with their wings to allow the two lovers to hug again.

Tanabata Tanabata

photo credits: Daisuke, せんと

From Shichiseki to Tanabata and the customs of the festival

Tanabata was not the original name of this holiday. In ancient times it was known as Shichiseki, deriving from the reading of the Chinese kanji, from which it originates. In fact, the festival was imported from China by Empress Koken in the Kyoko Imperial Palace in the Heian period. It then spread throughout Japan in the Edo Period and has since become one of the most popular festivals.

Tanabata tanzaku

photo credits: Mark, tototti 

The decorations of the Tanabata

Between July 6 and August 8, according to the region, the streets are filled with zen-washi (paper lanterns) and people wear yukata (浴衣). The latter is a very informal kimono with wide sleeves and flat seams, made of cotton, without lining and therefore suitable for the summer. But the tanzaku (短冊) are the real protagonists of this enchanted night. Strips of colored paper that symbolize the silk threads woven by Orihime and on which prayers or wishes are written. Later these are tied to bamboo branches, considered the main symbol of the Tanabata. In this way, the wind, blowing through the leaves, brings with it the desires and realizes them!

Tanabata Tanabata

photo credits: savvytokyo.com, Hiroshi

As many auspicious decorations appear in the parades during the matsuri. There are Kamigorono (special paper kimonos) that protect against illness and accidents. We can also find toami, fishing nets whose exposure would bring good luck in fishing and in crops. Not to mention the fukinagashi, colored stripes like the fabric that Orihime wove. We then continue with the beautiful orizuru (origami) especially in the shape of a crane, bringing health, protection and long life to families. The kinchaku, small bags that bring good business and wealth. We also have the famous kusudama, oval-shaped ornaments composed of a series of origami sewn and glued together. Then we come to the kuzukagos, garbage bags that symbolize "cleanliness" (understood as purity) and prosperity.

photo credits: savvytokyo.com, Naomi Nakagawa

To each region its date

As we said, the date of the Tanabata varies according to the region. In the Kanto region, The Tanabata of Hiratsuka, in Kanagawa prefecture, takes place between 4 and 6 July. In the region of Chūbu in Ichinomiya, in the Aichi prefecture, it is celebrated between 24 and 27 July. finally, in the region of Tōhoku, in Sendai, in the prefecture of Miyagi, it takes place between 6 and 8 August.

Tanabata tanzaku

photo credits: japancheapo.comEriTes Photo

Even if love is a feeling that always deserves to prevail, during this time of the year the idea of ​​raising one's eyes to the sky and desiring with all one's heart something with the hope that it will come true, is always exciting. Each Tanzaku is special and it is wonderful to read people's dreams and wish them to be heard. This, in fact, is one of the many moments of altruism that can only be shared in Japan.

And you? What dream do you keep in your heart? Whatever it is, find the way to come true! And if you are around Milan, we recommend you to come and celebrate the Tanabata from TENOHA Milan. Ready to hang your tanzaku? We have already done it!

Tanabata

photo credits: timeout.com


Japan History: Sakamoto Ryōma

Sakamoto Ryōma (January 3, 1836 - December 10, 1867) is still recognized as one of the most important figures of the Tokugawa Shogunate and one of the greatest heroes of the Edo period.

Sakamoto

photo credits: budojapan.com

Early youth

He was born on the island of Shikoku, in the Tosa Han (toda's Kōchi Prefecture) on the fifteenth day of the eleventh month of Tenpō according to the Japanese calendar. His family was famous for being a great sake producer, thus obtaining the lowest rank of the Samurai category, the Gōshi (Samurai of the countryside). Tosa had a very clear separation between Joshi (high-ranking samurai) and Kashi (low-ranking samurai). Even in Sakamoto Ryōma's generation, the samurai degree of his family remained Kashi. At the age of twelve, Ryōma was enrolled in a private school, but it didn't last long, because his inclination to studies wasn't very strong.

Thanks to his older sister, he then enrolled in the Oguri-Ryu fencing classes when he was 14, after being bullied at school. In adulthood, he was a master swordsman. In 1853 he was allowed by his clan to go to Edo to improve his skills as a swordsman. There he enrolled as a student at Hokushin Ittō-ryū Hyōhō Chiba-Dōjō, where he received his diploma. He then became Shihan at Chiba-Dōjō and taught Kenjutsu to students along with Chiba Jūtarō Kazutane, his close friend. In 1858 he returned to Kōchi. However, four years later the Commodore Perry of the United States arrived with a fleet to force Japan out of its centuries-old policy of national isolation. In the same year, movements against foreigners, anti-Tokugawa movements and in support of the Emperor began to form.

Sakamoto Ryōma

photo credits: jref.com

Sakamoto Ryōma and Takechi Hanpeita

His friend, Takechi Hanpeita (or Takechi Zuizan), organized Tosa's Loyalist Party "Kinnoto". Their political slogan was "Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians". The group consisted of about 2000 samurai, mostly of lower rank, who insisted on the reform of Tosa's government. As the group was not recognized, they began a plot to assassinate Yoshida Toyo, head of the Tosa domain. Ryōma participated in the plot without really supporting it.
Takechi asked for a revolution only for the Tosa clan, and Ryōma thought they would have to do something for all of Japan instead. He decided to leave Tosa and part with Takechi. In those days, no one was allowed to leave their clan without permission, on pain of death. One of Ryōma's sisters committed suicide precisely because of her brother's behavior.

In 1864, when the Tokugawa shogunate began to take a hard line, Ryōma fled to Kagoshima in the Satsuma Domain, under development as the main center for the anti-Tokugawa movement. Ryōma negotiated the secret alliance between the provinces of Chōshū and Satsuma. Satsuma and Chōshū were historically irreconcilable enemies, and Ryōma's position was seen as "neutral outsider".

Sakamoto Ryōma and the West

Ryōma was an admirer of democratic principles and studied the United States Congress and the British Parliament a lot. He loved these concepts so much that he took them as a model for the government of Japan after the Restoration.
Ryōma wrote the "Eight Proposals During the Expedition" while discussing the future model of the Japanese government with Gotō Shōjirō aboard a Tosa ship outside Nagasaki in 1867. Ryōma stressed the need for a democratically elected bicameral legislature and the drafting of a Constitution. Furthermore, he had considered the formation of a national army and fleet together with the regulation of gold and silver exchange rates. It is believed that Ryōma's proposals form the basis for the subsequent parliamentary system implemented after his death.

Sakamoto Ryōma and the Bakumatsu period

Ryōma pushed for national reform and left the domain, targeting Katsu Kaishu, a senior Tokugawa official.

When he finally managed to find his target, the latter calmly asked to be heard before he was killed. Katsu Kaishu then explained his plans to increase Japan's military strength through modernization and westernization. Instead of killing him as the plans were, Ryoma became his assistant. Together they created a naval force to be reckoned with.

Ryōma is often considered the "father of the Japanese Imperial Navy" because under the direction of Katsu Kaishū he worked to create a modern naval force. All this to allow Satsuma and Chōshū to stand comparison with the naval forces of the Tokugawa shogunate. Ryōma founded the private navy and the Kameyama Shachū trading company in the city of Nagasaki with the help of Satsuma.

Ryōma

photo credits: visitkochijapan.com

Chōshū's subsequent victory over the Tokugawa army in 1866 and the imminent collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate made Ryōma a precious figure for his former masters in Tosa. In fact, it is precisely in this period that he was recalled to Kōchi with many honors. Tosa's domain was anxious to get a negotiated agreement between the Shogun and the Emperor. This would have prevented Satchō's powerful Alliance from forcibly toppling Tokugawa and thus emerging as a new dominant force in the government of Japan. Ryōma again played a crucial role in the negotiations that led to the voluntary resignation of the Tokugawa Yoshinobu Shogun in 1867. With the arrival of the Meiji Restoration, thanks to Sakamoto Ryoma the Shogunate fell. Thus it was that Japan managed to come out of the 260-year Tokugawa Rule.

Ryōma often used the alias Saitani Umetarō (谷梅太郎) as he was often hunted by Bakufu supporters, like Shinsengumi members.

Sakamoto Ryōma's murder

On the night of December 10, 1867, Sakamoto Ryōma and his friend Nakaoka Shintaro stayed at the Omiya Inn in Kyoto. A group of assassins had gathered outside the inn. When one of them knocked on the door killing Ryōma's bodyguard, the rest of the group reached his room assassinating both him and Nakaoka.

The killers were never identified. However, members of the Shinsengumi and their leader Kondo Isami were accused and executed for the murder. Although the Mimawarigumi, members of the pro-Tokugawa group, confessed to the murder in 1870, no action was ever taken against them.

Sakamoto Ryōma's ultimate goal was not personal, but for the sake of Japan. His actions and beliefs have made him a national hero to this day.

Ryōma was a visionary who dreamed of an independent Japan without feudal traps. He was inspired by the example of the United States where "all men are created equal". He realized that to compete with an industrially and technologically advanced outside world, the Japanese had to modernize. It has also been seen as an intriguing mix of tradition and modernity. In fact, a symbol of these traits was his preference for the samurai dress with western footwear.

Sakamoto Ryōma

photo credits: tokyo2020.jp

Modern times

On 15 November 2003, the Kōchi airport was renamed Kōchi Ryōma Airport in his honor.

There is a Sakamoto Ryōma Memorial Museum (坂本龍馬記念館) south of Kōchi, with a large bronze statue of Ryoma overlooking the sea. The city of Kōchi has a number of Ryōma-themed attractions and places, including the Sakamoto Ryōma Birthplace Memorial. Furthermore, the Sakomoto Ryōma Hometown Museum shows the Kōchi center during Ryōma's childhood, including the relevant aspects that may have influenced his opinions. On November 15, 2009, the Hokkaido Sakamoto Ryōma memorial museum was built in Hakodate, Hokkaido.


Japan History: Torii Suneemon

photo credits: japanworld.info

Torii Suneemon (1540 - 1575) was a Japanese samurai of the Torii family, known for his courage and for the incredible value demonstrated in the battle of Nagashino (1575). Of his youth, it is known that he was an ashigaru soldier who served Okudaira Sadamasa, a vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu and master of the castle of Nagashino.

On June 17, 1575, after failing to capture Yoshida Castle in Toyohashi, 15,000 of Takeda Katsuyori's samurai attacked Nagashino Castle in modern Shinshiro City, Aichi Prefecture. Nagashino with only 500 men, was built on top of a cliff, where the Ure and the Kansa rivers divided and served as a natural moat. It was a strategically important castle, guarding the Tokugawa against the threat of northern Takeda. Takeda Katsuyori, son of the famous Takeda Shingen, was busy reaching the capital, Kyoto, in an attempt to gain control of the nation.

To get to Kyoto, they first had to conquer Mikawa and Owari, lands held by allies Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga. Nagashino Castle was important as it threatened the supply lines of the Takeda clan.

photo credits: asianartscollection.com

The Takeda forces had surrounded the castle, and the brave Torii volunteered to leave the castle, swim along the river and cut off the nets drawn near the enemy. Later he would have to walk 25 km from Okazaki and call Tokugawa Ieyasu. After warning him and requesting reinforcements, Torii quickly returned to Nagashino where he was captured as he tried to return to the castle.

The story tells of how Torii Suneemon had been tied and crucified with straw ropes in plain sight to his compatriots from Nagashino castle. "Tell them reinforcements will not come, tell them to give up the castle and get out!" one of his captors hissed. Torii looked up at the castle shouting: "Men from the castle of Nagashino... Don't give up! Ieyasu's men are coming! Wait a little longer!" Following his exploit, he was silenced by a spear stuck in the stomach.

The forces of the Tokugawa clan and the Oda allies eventually arrived on the scene a week later with 38,000 soldiers, creating an important turning point in the history of Japan and the samurai war, the battle of Nagashino and Shitaragahara.

It is interesting to know that a Takeda Samurai, Ochiai Michihisa, was so impressed with Torii's loyalty and courage that in a battle he displayed a flag with the image of the crucified Samurai. That flag is now kept in the Tokyo University library.

The martyr Torii was promoted posthumously to the samurai class and his family continued to serve the Okudaira clan until the end of the Edo period. He entered the history books as one of the most courageous and faithful Samurai.

photo credits: japanworld.info

A curiosity: on the Lida line a railway station was opened bearing the name of the brave Samurai, a place not far from where he was crucified.


Japan Tradition: Sanja Matsuri

photo credits: Yoshikazu TAKADA

The festival of the three temples

The Sanja Matsuri (三社祭) is one of the most famous festivals, largest and "wildest" festivals in Tokyo dedicated to the Shinto religion. The festival is held in honor of Hinokuma Hamanari, Hinokuma Takenari and Hajino Nakatomo, the three men who founded the Sensō-ji temple.

The Sanja Matsuri is held on the third weekend of May at the Asakusa temple and the sumptuous parade involves three mikoshi (portable temples), dances, traditional music and lasts about three days.

Like most Japanese festivals, the Sanja matsuri is also a religious celebration dedicated to the spirits of the three men, founders of the temple. This festival seems to have been born in the 7th century and is also known as "Kannon Matsuri" and "Asakusa Matsuri" and with a different shape than today.
The modalities in which today's Sanja Matsuri is organized were established during the Edo period when in 1649 the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu commissioned the construction of the Asakusa temple.

If you happen to be around Asakusa during the festival days, you can feel an atmosphere full of energy. People flock to the streets surrounding the Sensō-ji temple to the sound of flutes, whistles and taiko (traditional Japanese percussion).

photo credits: Atsushi Ebara, Yoshikazu TAKADA

The Mikoshi

The main attraction of this festival is the three mokoshi belonging to the Asakusa temple. These three elaborate temples in black lacquered wood have the function of being a miniature and a portable version of the Asakusa Temple. Decorated with sculptures and golden leaves, they weigh about a ton and are transported by long poles held together by ropes. For each mikoshi there is a need for about 40 people for safe transport and during the day, around 500 people participate in the transport of each temple.

The "parade" of these mikoshi is perhaps the most important moment of the day and the streets are crowded as they pass. As they are also transported, they are agitated and made to bounce strongly, because it is said that this leads to intensifying the power of the Kami inside and that it helps to increase luck in the respective neighborhoods.

While the three main mikoshi are the most important objects in the streets during the Sanja Matsuri, there are about 100 other smaller mikoshi scattered in the neighborhood on Saturday. Many of these temples are also transported by women or children.

photo credits: KMrT, Leo U

Day after day

The Sanja matsuri, is a festival that lasts several days and begins on Thursday with an important religious ceremony. This function requires the priest responsible for the temple to perform a ritual that makes the Kami of the three founders of the temple move from within into the three mikoshi. The latter will then be the protagonists of the parade that will last all weekend in Asakusa.

By opening the three small doors of the mikoshi the three spirits are invited to enter the miniature temples where they will stay for the duration of the festival. The interior of these mikoshi is also concealed from the public by a thin cotton curtain.

photo credits: Yoshikazu TAKADA

But the actual parade begins on Friday, known as Daigyōretsu (大 行列) which literally means "great parade".
The famous procession goes down via Yanagi Street and continues to the Nakamise-dōri up to the Asakusa temple. This festival is also well known for the sumptuous costumes of the participants, but also for the geishas and city officials who wear hakama, traditional Japanese clothes.
In the evening, six mikoshi from the most central neighborhoods are sent in procession on the shoulders of several dozen people.

photo credits: Hong Seongwan, Yoshikazu TAKADA

The following day, Saturday, about 100 mikoshi belonging to the 44 districts of Asakusa gather at the Kaminarimon and then leave on parade via the Nakamise-dōri in the direction of Hōzōmon. Once here they pay their respects to Kannon, the goddess of Mercy. Later, the mikoshi are taken to the Asakusa temple where the Shinto priest blesses them and purifies them for the coming year. Once the ceremony is completed, these small portable temples are transported back to their respective neighborhoods.

However, the most important event of the Sanja Matsuri takes place on Sunday. It is in this day in fact that we can see the parade of the three mikoshi belonging to the Asakusa Shrine. They march along the Nakamise-dōri to arrive at the Kaminarimon on Sunday morning. These three mikoshi enclose the three spirits of the three founding men of the Sensō-ji temple and, during the final day of this festival, they come to visit and bring blessings to the 44 districts of Asakusa.
When evening arrives, the three mikoshi find their way back to the Asakusa temple creating another great procession that lasts until late at night.

photo credits: ageless foto, Yoshikazu TAKADA

Yakuza Show

This festival of monumental size, also allows to mix fringes of the population that usually remain very detached. It is indeed common to find the Yakuza performing in fundoshi, without shame or fear, proudly showing their tattoos. In the eyes of a westerner, not accustomed to Japanese culture, this could almost seem like a comic scene. However, don't dare to laugh if you don't want bad luck to hit you!

photo credits: Hong Seongwan, syasya_akemi


Japan Tradition: Kanda Matsuri

The festival held on odd-numbered years

photo credits: dydo-matsuri.com

In the middle of May on every odd-numbered year, the Kanda Matsuri (神田祭) takes place in Tokyo’s Kanda. Together with the Sanno Matsuri and the Fukagawa Matsuri, Kanda Matsuri is one of the three most important Shinto festivals being held in Tokyo. It is also one of the three largest festivals of Japan together with Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri and Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri.

The origin of Kanda Matsuri dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu ruled over Edo, now modern day Tokyo. It is for this reason that Kanda Matsuri is also sometimes known as Tenka Matsuri (Tenka meaning shogun).
The celebration of this festival also doubled as a demonstration of prosperity under the new regime.

photo credits: xin beitou, Atsushi Ebara

At the same time, the Sanno Matsuri took place to celebrate the new political center and its rulers. Because of the long and extravagant preparations, competition between the two festivals grew, and eventually, it was decided to celebrate them in alternate years. Under this new rule, Kanda Matsuri was to be celebrated in the middle of May on odd numbered years , while the Sanno Matsuri would be celebrated in the middle of June on even numbered years.

Today, Kanda Matsuri is celebrated in honour of the gods residing in the Shinto shrine called Kanda Myojin that can be found nestled among modern buildings in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in Tokyo, Chiyoda ward. The shrine is dedicated to 3 deities: Daikokuten, the god of good harvest and matrimony, Ebisu, the god of fishermen and businessmen and Taira no Masakado, a revered samurai of the 10th century who was deified.

photo credits: rove.me, bill ben

Celebrating prosperity and good fortune

Like most other festivals, shinto rites are an essential part of the preparations. On the eve of the main procession, the kami (gods) of the shrine are invited to enter the three finely decorated mikoshi (portable shrines) through these rituals. At 8 a.m. on the day of the festival, these mikoshi are paraded through the streets of Kanda, continuing down to Nihonbashi, followed by Otemachi, and finally Akihabara, before returning to the temple at around 7 p.m. This procession is typically accompanied by an immense crowd of people, along with musicians, priests riding on horseback and many other participants wearing colorful, traditional clothes.

photo credits: nlgwest , Kemy Shibata

At the same time, there is a smaller three-hour long secondary procession being held. This is attended by men on horseback dressed as samurai, characters from folk stories, musicians, and dancers who depart from Arima Elementary School in the early afternoon and proceed north towards the Kanda Myojin shrine.

The next day following the festival is dedicated to the procession of mikoshi from various neighbourhoods in the Kanda and Nihonbashi district. Each of them contains an ujigami, guardian deities who, on this occasion, are housed in mikoshi to bless the residents of the area as they are paraded through the streets.

photo credits: Eugene Kaspersky

Many small curiosities

Those who were born and raised in Edo were called “Edokko”. Edokko had a peculiar personality and they were said to be very open and cheerful people. All these characteristics were, and still are, reflected in the Kanda Matsuri, a festival full of energy.

The procession with all its main elements also recalls the celebrations for Tokugawa's victory in the battle of Sekigahara, which cleared the path to the shogunate that led to a long period of peace and prosperity in Japan. Originally, townspeople would dress up and give thanks to the shrine through lavish performances of Noh theater.

photo credits: tokyoexcess.blogspot.it, xin beitou

During the Edo period, the parade with its beautiful decorations would pass by Edo Castle, giving common people a rare chance to enter its grounds.
Most of the original floats, which had been used since the early days of the festival, were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and in the bombing of WWII.

photo credits: viajejet.com, fastjapan.com