[The American Years]

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Greetings from Japan, where since the bad guys don't have guns, neither do the good guys. Police are however highly trained in martial arts. This makes them super good at writing parking tickets, it turns out.

*Japanese is difficult, so let’s not even try:
There are 4 words for brother and 4 for sister. Different words if it's my brother or yours (your brother gets the honorary word, even if he is a total goober), and whether he's older or younger. Same goes for our sisters. And just for fun, a couple more unrelated words which mean 'brothers and sisters'. Fun!

* * *

Takayama is a little town in nearby Gifu prefecture. Gifu is fast becoming my favorite prefecture. And ‘prefecture’ is fast becoming my favorite geographical term.

We went to Takayama for (three guesses…?) a festival! Takayama is famous for centuries-old wooden floats which are wheeled through the streets but twice a year. The woodworking and gold and silversmith craftsmanship on these floats is astounding, and they are all national treasures. The additional attraction to them is the puppetry. There are mechanically controlled puppets on these floats. It’s this skill that Takayama has become famous for.

Kathleen read at the museum that the Takayama area had many woodworkers, and during a generation or so of slow demand, they decided to make puppets and floats to attract business. I guess it paid off, because we went there, right?

You can’t call the puppets marionettes because there are no strings above them.. The puppets are completely internally controlled via strings and levers operated by people inside the floats.

(If this sounds similar to the Tsushima festival from a few posts ago, you’re right. But Tsushima is the minor leagues compared to Takayama.)

The problem is that we got there at 12noon, and didn’t realize that the Sunday parading of the floats had just wrapped up in the morning hours.

Not to be daunted, we found the museum, which had many of the floats on display and a demonstration of the puppetry, which can be best likened to Disney animatronics, without electricity. The most amazing was a puppet which climbs from pedestal to pedestal, being controlled from inside whatever pedestal it is standing on. So the controls are run up through the puppets legs, and connect to the puppet as it steps on each pedestal.

Another puppet just sits there, but it writes for you. His arm is controlled by strings connecting it to a puppeteer below, who can watch his handiwork through a series of mirrors. As the strangest looking people in the audience, we were chosen to receive the puppet’s writings.

The puppet wrote 'Hida', which roughly translates to “Kick Me”.


The puppet wrote 'Hida', which roughly translates to "Help, I'm trapped inside this puppet and they won't let me out!"

The wind-up tea serving puppet is great also. Early robotics. Setting the tray of tea on it starts it moving. Removing the tea makes it turn around and return to its post, ready to serve you again. (It’s just like a Japanese wife, except they are typically self-winding.)

There’s a sampling of the puppetry in the video I have here, which doesn’t do it justice at all. If you are interested in it at all, go to the festival next spring (and get there early), or go to this visitor website which has much better video than I was able to capture.

There was also a pretty impressive Buddhist temple, where we were privileged to see the ancient rite of a car being blessed. It involved a priestly man standing in front of the car while the owner and friends stood beside the car. Then a nunly woman ran around the car shaking some bells. The whole thing took about 15 seconds.

(The car was a Nissan, and I could make all sorts of jokes about how it needs a few more blessings, and all the help it can get, or how the owner was actually repenting for his improper choice, but I’m above all that. Clearly.)

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