Monday, August 20, 2012

Tatami-----a prerequisite item for a Japanese house

(a tatami room with an alcove at a Japanese Inn;from a website)

Our house is a typical Japanese style.  That means most of our rooms are tatami rooms.  Tatami mats, if we take a good care of them, it lasts about 20 years or so. Recently one of our tatami rooms finally needed to be renewed.  The inner core of every tatami mat in the room got too soft although we'd had the tatami craftsman change the woven surface coverings of tatami over times by then.  We felt it while walking on them  that it was not a surface but a inner core that didn't function.

(a tatami craftsman renewed our 8-tatami room)

Tatami mats that cover a floor in a traditional Japanese room are something very unique and special that symbolizes the Japanese style of living. It has a long history over 1300 years. In Japan we take off our shoes at the entrance since we sit down on tatami mats in a Japanese style room.

(3 components of tatami mat)

Tatami is made up of three components: surface coverings known as tatami omote, inner bases called tatami doko, and edging borders, tatami beri.

Tatami coverings are made from a plant called candle rush or igusa in Japanese. Its a thin sheet of woven rush grass.  Tatami doko is a tightly packed pile of rice straw stacked in many layers until it is about 5 cm thick. Getting these two components ready, a tatami craftsman stitches a surface covering onto an inner base.  And finally edging borders made of woven cloth are sewn onto a body.  Tatami used to be handcrafted through all the process by skilled craftsmen. It is quite a hard labor so today machines help some part of these steps yet the quality can’t beat skilled craftsmen' s work.

(Nowadays a tatami craftsman use a machine, too)

There are very good reasons to spread tatami in a whole room.  Summer in Japan is very humid and hot.  We also have a damp rainy season just before summer starts. Flooring with tatami mats is ideal from an environmental viewpoint.  Tatami components are made of dried stalks.  A dried stalk has many air holes in it like a sponge and this allows air to come in and out. Good circulation helps to create a comfortable space.  Tatami mats also give a room a refreshing greenery smell.

(dried candle rush (igusa) and its stalk cutaway image)

By the way, the size of one tatami mat differs depending on the local region, but briefly speaking it is just as big as a western size single bed. It is very convenient in a way that we describe the size of a room using numbers of tatami such as a 6-tatami room or a 8-tatami room.  Suppose I say my house consists of two 6- tatami rooms, three-8-tatami rooms and one 10-tatami room, which is not true, though.  This makes easy for anyone to guess how large my house is. 

(a traditional guest room with an alcove)

Nowadays, Western style housing is more common in our daily lives. Yet we still have a Japanese style room with tatami in at least one or even two rooms of a modern house. 

I think Tatami is something special and important to identify ourselves as Japanese.

Monday, August 13, 2012

all the way from another world

I just walked back from our house grave in the temple with some lit incense sticks which I brought back from the grave altar.  It is believed that the souls of the ancestors come along with me, being guided by some lit incense and a small fire for welcoming at the house entrance.  

This is one of the biggest traditional Japanese Buddhist events to commemorate our ancestors' souls as well as those of all people in the past.  Now they are with us for three days to spend time with their descendants at their homestead. Welcome back.

Obon is the biggest traditional as well as religious event besides the New Year in Japan. We have about a week holiday during the Obon nationwide.  In general many young family living away from their parents  put themselves into hustles and bustles of packed trains with people and roads with cars in order to visit their houses they've grown up.  A happy family of several generations visit the house grave together to pay a respect to their ancestors. Definitely Obon makes it possible for many family members to get reunited to enjoy the holidays.  This way Japanese people are more likely to put an importance on a family unity.

Tomorrow our house monk is coming  to give a sutra for our ancestors in front of the house altar. Then the day after tomorrow,  they are ready to go back to their world of the dead riding on a egg plant cow or a cucumber horse which are standing by on the altar.

Our Obon has got underway just now.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Peace Declaration from Hiroshima

Hiroshima marked the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing yesterday on August 6th.

Thousands of people from home and abroad gathered at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the morning. The ceremony was on air on TV/radio. When a clock hit  8:15 sharp , an exact time the first atomic bomb in man's history was dropped onto the city  67 years ago,  the whole nation including people in the park as well as in front of TV sets stopped  to take  a moment of silence.

 (all images from a TV program)

In the ceremony, the mayor of Hiroshima annually gives his address for the worldwide peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons. We call it "Peace Declaration " and it is delivered to the whole world.  It gives us an opportunity to stop for a while to turn our thoughts to Hiroshima.  
We're going to have another memorial ceremony in Nagasaki on August 9th, the second a-bombed city. Finally on August 15th, we have the anniversary of the end of the war.  No more Hiroshima.  No more Nagasaki. 
For every Japanese, August is definitely time to think of everlasting peace on earth.

Here you will read "Peace Declaration" by the mayor of Hiroshima.  
You can get the language you want at the bottom of the page to read this. 
Also you will read the web news article here.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Engraved marks on the stone walls

I attended a workshop with other English speaking guides at Nagoya Castle for an ink impression on a wall stone. 

On many wall stones of Nagoya Castle, you see a number of interesting carved patterns.  It is a well-known fact that these prints represent the clans’ marks or samurai family crests.  A great number of people from each clan had joined the hard labor of transporting the huge stones to construct  the new castle.  

 In 1610 TOKUGAWA Ieyasu,  the founder of the Edo Shogunate ordered to build the Nagoya castle in this area.  Since the area was a flat land, collecting thousands of stones from distant areas was a hard work beyond our imagination. Of all his subordinates, 20 feudal lords were appointed to be in charge of constructing the castle. Their own home lands were away from the castle area.  In order to bring out the stones all the way out the mountain areas they traveled far long on rough roads, or some were by way of sea or river.  When they finally brought their stones at the castle site, they didn’t want to lose any of their stones in confusion with others from different clans. So they carved their marks on every stone to appeal their utmost contribution to the great mission.
By the way, Nagoya Castle was occasionally repaired during its long history of over 300 years until it was completely burnt down in an air raid  in 1945 at the end of  World War II. However many wall stones remained as they were  although some burned quite hard. The present main tower was reconstructed in 1959.

This way people today can feel and touch the predecessors’ resolution.
Considering the story behind these stone seals, it was a very interesting event to make a stone rubbing to a piece of Japanese paper.  I chose two marks, one was said to be from the Maeda clan, which was one of the influential feudal lords of those days. Another one was not known well as for its holder.
First I wetted the stone surface with a soaking cloth and put a sheet of Japanese paper onto a wet surface. Again I wetted a piece of paper on the wall until the engraved print came out to be clear. It was an interesting part of work to see that an engraved mark remained dry and other flat stone surface got wet. After leaving a few second to dry excessive water from a sheet of paper, I patted an ink and then peeled off a paper very carefully out from the stone surface. 


And here they are.  Aren’t they nice?  
 I’m going to make each of them into a nice hanging scroll to put it on the wall of our traditional alcove in the guest room with tatami mats. 

The hanging scroll in the last picture is from the tea house in Nagoya Castle site. 

For those who are interested in doing a stone rubbing at Nagoya Castle, I advice you should check the official website.  A summer session was over last month.

Sorry this is Japanese language only.  If you want to try out  this event, e-mail me so that I can inform you about the coming schedule if any.