Friday, August 25, 2006

The Suwa Shrine crest

Shrine crest

Just like Christianity has a handful of denominations, Shintoism has a number of different types of shrines. My friend Tetsuo tells me that the Suwa branch of shrines is one of the oldest in Japan, dating back as far as the 8th century. According to legend, there were forces in Japan that were trying to unify the country, but those who opposed it fled to the Suwa region, which is now present-day Nagano prefecture.

Tetsuo tells me that during the conflict, "imperial ( Yamato) forces had unified local Kindom of Izumo, and the second son of Izumo had fled to Suwa for independence." Since Izumo's second son had recognizable strength, the Yamato forces decied to recognize the rebels in Suwa as a self-governing kingdom, provided they never leave the area.

As such, the seal on the shrine is different from most others. The majority of shrines bear the imperial chrysanthemum seal. However, the Suwa shrines actually have the seal in this picture.

Interestingly enough, that is also used as the family crest of Tetsuo's family: Araki.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The ceremonial tree

The special tree

Please check out Stardog Photos.

Thanks for your comments yesterday. After going back to Photoshop, I played around with Sunday's image a bit and got it to look much better. You can see the results here.

Now on to today's photo. Like I said in yesterday's post, Shintoists tie shimenawa--sacred ropes with pieces of white rice paper--around anything they consider to be sacred. You can see a small one around this tree, now stripped of its bark and brances.

This is actually used in a very unusual ceremony. According to tradition, Shinto shrines are rebuilt every seven yeras. In the case of Suwa Shrine, they do it with style. Part of the celebration of the rebuilding involves giant logs like this.

Celebrants carry these logs up to the top of the mountain. The brave--or some might say crazy--men who take part in this festival then sit on these logs as they are slid down the mountainside lenghtwise. The men hang on for dear life (literally) as this giant log weighing 12-13 tonnes crashes its way down to the bottom. My friend Tetsuo tels me that every time this ceremony takes place, at least a few people are seriously injured if not killed.

I think I'd rather just watch from a distance with a nice long telephoto lens.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Crystal clear water

Y.T. Drinking the water

Shrines also have purification springs for washing your hands before entering. The water isn't always all that clean though.

But Suwa Shrine is an exception. Being up in the mountains, far away from the grit and grime of the big city, the toxic cloud that hovers over a place like Tokyo is far, far away. This makes the water here clean enough to drink.

Here you see a very rare shot of Yours Truly on this blog. And after seeing this picture, you'll no doubt understand exactly why I stay out of my own pictures, and you'll also no doubt be grateful to me for never showing another picture of myself ever again.

In other news, is up and running. I hope you enjoy checking it out.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The gate to Suwa Shrine

The gate to Suwa Temple, Nagano

Well, now that I've finished my series on my friend's dojo, I thought I'd go back to the mountains of Nagano and show you around a rather unique shrine. This is called Suwa Shrine, and there are a few things about it that set it apart from most Shinto shrines in Japan.

But like all shrines, it has a few of the basic elements, such as the torii, shimenawa, and shishi, also known as koma-inu.

The torii (which literally means "bird perch) is the tall, gate-like thing that stands at the entrance to the shrine. Though traditionally made of wood, some of the newer ones are made of concrete. This one is actually made of metal, which is somewhat rare.

Below the top of the torii, you can see the shimenawa. They also have pieces of jagged white rice paper tied to them, called gohei. These sacred ropes are tied across the entryways to shrines and buildings to ward off evil spirits.

Finally, to the left and right of the torii you can see the koma-inu. These lion-dogs also serve sacred purposes. The one to the right has its mouth open to ward off evil spirits, while the one to the left's mouth is closed to shelter and protect the good.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Which path to choose?

Two roads diverged in a wood...

(Foreword: I know this is a long post, but I ask you to read it all the way through.)

I've been struggling with a bit of a dilemma lately.

The original focus of this photoblog was not really about photography. It was actually meant to be more of a documentary on Japan. The focus was to be on written accounts of life over here, with a few photos thrown in to enhance the story.

But over time, I started to realize just how bad my photos really were. (Part of it was actually thanks to Suby giving a strong "me no likey" to a photo that I thought was really good. Interestingly enough, it was through Azhar's kindness in posting it on his blog for me that it (and this blog) got noticed in the first place.

Ever since then, I've been on a constant quest to try and take better and better pictures. It's been a struggle, but I've never been one to back down from a difficult task. A big part of it is due to the rather blunt, though extremely helpful tutelege of our friend Suby. Though I have a long way to go, I feel I've made a lot of progress in the past few months.

However, I still enjoy writing. I also enjoy telling stories and explaining things. I guess that's just a bit of an occupational hazard, being a teacher and all. And as such, sometimes in the rush to tell the story, the quality of the photos gets missed.

So, now I am faced with a choice of paths: do I focus on presenting only the best-quality pictures, and step away from storytelling, or do I accept that sometimes a less-than-perfect image will have to suffice to move the story along?

The say you can't have your cake and eat it too. Well, in this case, "they" are wrong, whoever they are. You can have it both ways.

So as such, I would like to annoucne that I am starting a new chapter in my photographic development (no pun intended). I'm starting a new photoblog on shutterchance. It should be up and running in a few days. This is where I plan to put only the best of the best images, with minimal descrpitions. These shots will be there for the world to judge as they are.

I will still keep Stardog Champion's Photoblog up and running, but I want this to return to its original intent: telling stories about Japan.

Also, don't be surprised if you find that a few shots end up in both places. Sometimes a picture can help tell a story, and sometimes, being worth a thousand words, can tell a story all by itself.

It is my hope that the criticisms I get from what I post at Stardog Photos will force me to improve the quality of every photo I take. This should result in better quality of the "storytelling" photos too.

And in that way, I get to travel both paths at the same time, and everyone wins in the end.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Arigato gozaimashita

Onegai Shimasu

The class ends with a simple bow of thanks, as the students show their gratitude to their sensei for dishing out so much pain and suffering, in the hopes that they too may be able to do the same thing when the time is called for.

And as I wrap up this series, I would like to thank all of you who left your comments. I realize that the quality of these images was sometimes a bit lacking, and I thank you for your patience.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Smiles all around

Smiles all around

If you've seen martial arts movies, you will probably have the impression that those who teach the martial arts are cruel slave masters. You might think that they have nothing but contempt for anyone who dares to come to them to study. You might think that they teach through endless hours of pain and humiliation. You may even think that the teachers derive a sick sense of pleasure from doing so.

In Noguchi-sensei's case, nothing could be further from the truth.

True, he's a tough teacher. He has to be to teach at this level. But despite all the dealing and receiving of pain, everyone at the dojo enjoys the experience. And none more so than Noguchi-sensei. Just one look on the smile on his face--and those on everyone else's faces, for that matter--is all the proof anyone needs.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006



Sometimes a counterstrike is needed to subdue an opponent. Of course, it's best to deliver one after imobilizing him so that he can't react in turn.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Maximum pain with minimal force

Here's how it's done

One of the major ideas behind this particular martial art is understanding how the human body works. How the joints go together. How limbs move. How the nerves relay messages.

Then, it teaches you how to exploit those things to make your opponent feel pain.

What's amazing about it is that it takes very little in terms of physical power to do so. All you have to do is understand torque, leverage, and pressure. And then, you have to be quick and clever enough to move out of the way of an attack, and then manipulate your opponent to immobilize him.

Notice here how the back of the student's hand is presed up against Noguchi-sensei's thgh. And all Noguchi-sensei is doing is putting his hand on the student's shoulder to make sure he can't move away. No big headlocks. No devastatig punches. No blood gushing out of any orifice. Just torque, leverage, and pressure.

Of course, it takes years to master these techniques. All of the students here have had years upon years of basic martial arts training. It's assumed that they already understand how to dodge, counter, and most of all, fall without getting hurt.

Monday, August 14, 2006

That looks painful!

That looks painful!

Part of the idea behind any martial art is to get a true feeling of how a technique works, from start to finish. And there's no better way to do that than to be on the receiving end of it.

It certainly can be painful, especially when certain techniques have the potential of breaking bones. However, it also allows the student to appreciate just what kind of pain they'll be dishing out, and whether or not they really want to go that far.

But not all learning has to be through direct experience. As you can see from the grimaces of pain on the other students' faces, you can quite easily learn vicariously just how much something can hurt by watching your friend writhe in pain.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Just throw him like this

Another throw from the master

Noguchi-sensei is a great teacher. He'll gladly show a technique four, five, even six times until everyone understands it. And he'll even give a student plenty of one-on-one istruction to help with the finer points, making sure they're getting it right.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Oh no ya don't!

Oh no ya don't!

The instructor, Noguchi-sensei, is almost 65 years old. But he looks and moves like a man half that age. He is so attuned to the art of combat that he can almost intrinsically sense what an opponent is about to do, even before he himself knows what it is.

In this particular art form, the focus is on using the opponent's energy against himself. Not a single move is wasted. The punch or kick is swiftly deflected, and the remaining energy is used to attack the opponent in turn.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The calm before the storm

The dojo, pre-practice

My friend Podgy was kind enough to invite me to his dojo the other day. He's been training in various forms of martial arts since he was 15 years old. In fact, he came to Japan originally to train, and he's been here for, well, much longer than I have.

Those weapons on the wall are not just for show, either. Granted, the majority of the art revolves around unarmed combat. But from time to time, the sensei will show how a particular technique can be adapted to a particular type of weapon.

During the busy times, as many as 50-60 people can be crammed into this tiny dojo no bigger than a house. Its reputation extends around the world; people come from all different countries to train here.

In the coming days, I hope to show you a slice of the gruelling, yet enjoyable training that these people undergo at the dojo of one of the last true masters of a fading form of combat.

Oh yeah, be sure to check out Podgy's Tokyo Talk for a slightly different perspective on Japan!

A colourful cabin

A colourful cabin

I was walking along the trails near my friends cabin when I spotted this really colourful cabin. I couldn't help but get a shot of it.

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to put the Nagano series on hold for a bit. I just went ty my friend's martial arts dojo and got some pretty cool pictures. I'm still sorting through them, so by tomorrow I should have something to share with you all.

A big thanks to all the new visitors coming in as of late. Your comments and pointers are always greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006



This is one of my first forays into the world of macro photography. The entire Japanese coutryside is abuzz with dragonflies. And they're so docile--I went right up to this one, only about a foot away with my camera. and it never moved.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Welcome to the Dragon's Cliff

Welcome to the Dragon's Cliff

Well, I finally got the scratch together to buy my new camera. And it's a beauty. I'm so happy! And I'm sure you guys will be happy too, since I should no longer be posting crappy-quality pictures.

So, to get the ball rolling, I decided to post one of the very first pictures I took with my new camera.

Ryugasaki City--whose name means "The Dragon's Cliff"--has these dragon-shaped sculptures at certain roads leading into the city. This is one of them by Ushiku Numa at sunset.

Special shoutout to Suby for the post-processing on this image. Thanks a million Suby!

Friday, August 04, 2006

OK, now get me down!

Okay, get me down!

I guess enough was enough for her.

Speaking of enough is enough, I finally got myself a digital SLR! I still have a few shots in my archives I wanna post before turning my attention to the wonderful world of SLR photograpy. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these last few shots from the matsuri.

Oh yeah, I'm going to be off to the mountains of Nagano for a few days, so I won't be around to post anything or visit any blogs. But it should prove to be a good opporutity to get some good shots. Let's see how it goes!

Stand and deliver

Balancing act

A festival wouldn't be complete without children. They participate in all manner of ways, from just showing up in their cute little Yukata summer kimono to scampering around and getting everyone's spirits up to singing and dancing in the processions. These three kids are standing on one of the omikoshi as it inches its way through the crowd. They impress all around with their balance and energy as they chant along with those carrying the shrine, urgint them forward.

On a more technical note, I should apologize for the graininess of these pictures. All I have right now is a point-and-shoot digital camera. Unfortunately, it is quite limited in terms of quality of shots taken in low-light conditions. But I am on the verge of getting my first DSLR (yay!). Hopefully, this should yield much better results.

Thursday, August 03, 2006



The streets of the city flood with a tidal wave of people, as hardy bands of men and women hoist portable omikoshi shrines on their shoulders. With a shout from the men in front, they trudge forth like an army marching into battle.

But this is a joyous occasion; everyone revels in the moment as they sound their frenzied yawp, proclaiming their devotion to everyone.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Taiko drummers

Taiko drummers

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Stardog Champion is back! I know you missed me, but I have returned to bring you all a taste of life in Japan.

And the theme here is summer. Summers in Japan mean three things: hot and muggy weather, copious amounts of beer and sno-cones to beat the heat, and festivals to revel in the heat with lots of beer and sno-cones.

Every festival includes at least one taiko drum performance. They're always so powerful--you can hear the drums long before you can see them. The energy from the thundering rhythms pulsates as it hypnotizes the crowd with a throbbing boom.