Japanland "Suburban Samurai" & "Spiritland"

Japanland "Suburban Samurai" & "Spiritland"

Fri, 09/23/2011 - 7:00pm

Pictured: Karin Muller with her Japanese host father.

Credit: Karin Muller

Join us for parts 1 & 2 of 4 as Karin Muller explores the unique cultures of Japan.

JAPANLAND is a journey into the soul of Japan. For 12 months, author, filmmaker and adventurer Karin Muller (Hitchhiking Vietnam) traveled from one end of the country to the other, living among the people and exploring both Japan’s ancient cultural heritage and its modern ways. Muller integrated herself into areas of society rarely seen by foreigners and discovered a land and people full of complex, and often contradictory, character traits.

Japanland "Suburban Samurai" and "Spiritland" encore Friday, September 23 at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on WXXI World (cable 524/DT21.2). Tune in for episodes 3 & 4, "Gods and Businessmen" and "The Final Test" next Friday, September 30 at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on WXXI World (cable 524/DT21.2).

Episode 1: Suburban Samurai 

Karin’s epic quest begins in Tsujido, a small community on the historic Tokaido Road.  There she trains daily with her judo instructor, a six-degree blackbelt and Japanese champion. Shortly after her arrival, Karin is given the opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to join in the Sanja Matsuri and see a completely different side of modern Tokyo.  This ancient Shinto festival is held in the heart of the old quarter, where wooden houses still have paper doors and mat-rush floors. Through three days of relentless rain Karin learns the meaning of teamwork from her enthusiastic and unflinching teammates.  In the end she experiences Japanese generosity at its best - and most surprising.

Karin’s first solo trek takes her down the ancient Tokaido Road.  She hikes through Hakone, sails on the Black Ships of Shimoda and joins the engineers in the locomotive of a fully-functioning steam train. She reaches Kyoto just in time for the Gion Matsuri, where thousands gather to watch the dangerously unstable three-story floats make their annual pilgrimage along Kyoto’s roads.  Karin is given a unique glimpse into Japan’s traditional world of the geisha when she meets Koubai-san, a 63-year old geisha.  As Karin gradually gets to know the woman behind the white powder mask, she learns the unexpected and heartwarming truth about the mysterious Willow World.

Kamakura – once the ancient capital of Japan.  Karin travels there to find a Living Legend  – a 24th generation swordmaker.  Masamune-san unexpectedly allows her to film as he forges a sacred blade, revealing the many secrets of its strength and beauty.  She is there for the final, tense moment when the sword is tempered and either given life – or cracks and is destroyed.  Through the colorful and dangerous samurai festival in Soma, Karin learns of the sword’s place in Japanese history and culture.  During the forging Karin meets Roberto, a young Brazilian apprentice who has dedicated his life to swords.  Karin also meets his adopted father, 89-year-old Nakamura-san, a famous sword-polisher and iadio-expert. Both Roberto and Nakamura-san are highly skilled in cutting and polishing techniques, but it is the relationship between them -- and Roberto’s clear adoration and obedience to his adopted father -- that finally allows Karin to see the true meaning of the Japanese sword.

Roberto then introduces Karin to his Yabusame team and its 35th generation master, Kaneko-san.  Karin diligently practices the skills and is eventually invited to ride with them.  Roberto has a very unusual method for learning the Zen of archery – on a tightrope.  But it is at the tournament – the culmination of a year’s hard work - that the extraordinary skill of these mounted archers shines through.

Sumo is another traditional art that embodies the traditional values so sacred to the Japanese.  Often ridiculed in the West, it is in fact a sophisticated and disciplined sport that values moral integrity as highly as athletic ability.  How many American teams could boast the same standards?  A sumo stable in Tokyo takes Karin in to let her learn about their strict daily regimen and moral training.

Finally, Karin takes the bullet train past Tokyo and then local transport to the southern tip of Kii peninsula.  There she hikes the ancient road to Kumano – once thought to be the entrance to heaven – and undergoes ritual purification in the 48 sacred waterfalls that line the route.  She is ready for the next stage of her journey – to understand the spiritual underpinnings of Japan.

Episode 2:  Spiritland

Koyasan, the monastic headquarters of Shingon Buddhism.  Karin enters as a pilgrim/acolyte and is quickly introduced to the austere world of the mountaintop monks.  She learns to sing the sutras and discovers some unexpected (and endearing) habits of the young acolytes.  She learns about the saint Kobo Daishi in preparation for her 1,300 kilometer pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku This will form the backbone of the next two episodes.  Before leaving Karin participates in the sacred Goma, or Fire Ceremony, meant  to open the mind to Buddha and keep travelers safe from harm.  At last, Karin is ready to begin her journey to enlightenment.  Along the way she meets generous strangers, other walking pilgrims, and packaged pilgrim tours. She attends the Naked Festival, an ancient Shinto ritual that is being used to solve a very modern – and serious – social issue. Karin also discovers another, little-known form of sumo in a tiny shrine on a remote island. Called Hitori Zumo – “One-Man Sumo”, it pits the village champion against the local shrine god.  Shortly afterwards Karin arrives in Uwajima, just in time for yet another version of the cherished sport -- bull sumo, a 2000-year-old ritual turned dramatic spectator sport. 

The town of Uwajima is a microcosm of the changes occurring to rural Japan.  Its ancient rice terraces are falling into misuse.  Over the years, many Uwajima farmers have turned their efforts to the sea and become pearl farmers.  But pollution and over-farming is causing yet another shift – to the highly sophisticated and technology-intense business of fish farming.  Karin stays with a businessman-turned-fish farmer, Nakata-san, who has rediscovered the pleasures of working out of his home and spending time with his son.

The Shikoku pilgrimage is divided into four parts and Kochi, the most physically demanding, offers a unique challenge to Karin.  In her journey along the coast Karin spends time with all manner of fishermen and farmers, including Uchiko’s cormorant fishermen.  She is even invited for a three-night fishing expedition aboard an all-male trawler that turns out to have a working television but no bathroom.  They bring in an enormous catch and race it to Tsukiji, the largest seafood market in the world.  Tstukiji is home to Japan’s famous tuna auction, with its $50,000 fish and entertaining auctioneers.  At the fish market Karin meets Yo-chan, a sushi restaurant owner,  who allows her to join him in his preparations and an evening with his customers.  His tiny corner restaurant –it has only eight seats - is a haven from the modern world.

Karin continues on her pilgrimage, plagued by rain, blisters, and self doubt.  She is saved by the kindness of the many strangers she meets along the way…  Mr. Hashimoto, who has fully outfitted a parked bus for tired pilgrims to sleep in – free of charge. And the Peach Lady, who invites Karin to stay and help her with her harvest.  Karin attends a village gathering and is encouraged to play a game of gateball – a fast-moving and hard-hitting version of croquet. After losing badly, Karin is astonished to learn how old these spry and energetic women are.

It’s August, and Karin joins a temple to celebrate Obon, the Festival of the Dead.  She goes house-to-house with the local priest to chant sutras at the homes of those who have passed away during the past twelve months.  Karin rises at 4:30AM to prepare four hundred “spirit meals” for all the departed souls who are coming back to visit during the Festival of the Dead.  She journeys to Higashi Otani Cemetery in Kyoto to join in the lighting of ten thousand lanterns, and then on to Miyazu, where she spends the day and most of the night launching spirit boats and floating lanterns to lead the spirits back to the Land of the Dead.  Afterwards Karin joins in the local Obon dance of celebration and joy.