Happy New Year!!
...I'm a little late, aren't I? In all honesty, I began this last December and was just that
lazy getting around to it. At first I thought I might be done in
time for Koshōgatsu, then a desperate attempt to finish in time for
Chinese New Year, but now it seems the only New Year I'm even with is
some sort of ancient Babylonian fertility festival in honour of the
goddess Ishtar. And here we are at Tanabata.
Regardless, it is my first entry of the new year, so it still sort of counts. First procrastination? First stalling for time?
year is the Year of the Snake (巳年), isn't it? It must be good luck for
anyone born in another snake year. For my first entry of this year, I
wanted to discuss something pertaining to that, and I don't have to tell
you that there are quite possibly as many snake yōkai as there are
types of snakes themselves. But that doesn't seem like a very
auspicious start to the year, does it? Besides, with the amount of
horrible things I plan to do entries on in this Year of the Snake, I
need all the auspiciousness I can get.
So what's something that
is extremely auspicious, has something to do with traditional Japanese
culture, and coils and slithers like a snake?
Well, you already know from looking at the title, but it's incense, of course.
in Japan is something that is only vaguely understood, or even cared
about, but it's actually a pretty fascinating and esoteric subject.
Incense is fairly common in daily life, or at special occasions, that
most people don't even think about, but understanding its use and
appreciation in Japanese culture has fascinated anthropologists and
enthusiasts of the Orient for quite a long time.
Certainly one of the most famous, if not the
most famous, author on Japanese culture is one Mr. Lafcadio Hearn. I
believe I've mentioned him before, but let me bring you up to speed: A
Westerner by birth, he traveled to Japan and recorded his very profound
and astute observations on all things Japanese just as the Japan-craze
was sweeping over Europe. Not only is he still one of the sole sources
on Japanese culture written in English, but his books were also
translated into Japanese, where he is still considered an authority on
the subject. The thing about Lafcadio Hearn is that, as a foreigner,
many Japanese people would tell him stories and information and folklore
that they assumed everybody in Japan knew, when in fact most of their
knowledge had never been recorded or even heard of outside of the
village or region of its origin. Therefore, Hearn also sparked in Japan
a renewed interest in Japanese culture.
He also sparked a renewed interest for amazing moustaches.
Perhaps best known for Kwaidan,
the study of all Japanese things creepy and strange (effectively
sharing with the world and the rest of the country itself a record of
ghost stories and the like), this would go on to inspire most of Japan's
folklorists and yōkai-ologists, so the majority of information we have
on ghosts and yōkai are from around the time of Lafcadio Hearn. But
there are a few modern enthusiasts who stubbornly refuse to let go and
continue to obsess and attempt to spread knowledge of creepy Japanese
things in order to freak out others or just alienate potential friends.
However, Lafcadio Hearn wrote about so much more than
Japanese ghosts. Dutifully recording anything he found interesting,
beautiful, or exciting, his writing was as culturally sensitive and
appropriate to Japanese sensibilities as it was informative and
appealing prose in the West. Anyone who has an interest in Japan can't
go wrong reading Hearn in English or Japanese, though the translations
are perhaps not as indicative of the unique voice Hearn has as an
Anyway, in an attempt to be a bit more high-brow, I'll
begin the year by discussing Hearn's research on incense, which, I'll
admit, seems rather boring and trivial, but actually reveals quite a bit
about Japanese culture, history, and people. Also, I will add photos,
my own thoughts and experiences, and some updates, since quite a bit has
changed in Japan since the time of Lafcadio Hearn.