Setsubun Rakugo 節分落語

January flew by in a blink, and here we are already at Setsubun. Setsubun literally means “seasonal division,” and falls on February 3 each year. This cultural and religious holiday can be thought of as New Year’s Eve on the lunar calendar, marking the beginning of spring in Japan. Most people in Japan think of the cleansing ceremony in which people throw beans (mamemaki) and shout “oni wa soto fuku wa uchi” (out with the [disease-carrying] goblins, in with good fortune). Also high on lists is eating the traditional food of Setsubun, Ehômaki. This is basically makizushi named after the direction (ehô) of the God of Fortune. The idea is to eat facing the proper direction, which changes every year. This year the direction of the God of Fortune is north-northwest, as was indicated on the label of the ehômaki I bought today.

A rakugo story perfect for Setsubun is Oni no men (The Goblin Mask).

A young girl, Osetsu, is serving as a dry nurse in the house of a mask maker. The Otafuku (a happy woman with a round, flat face) mask the master of the house gives her looks exactly like her mother, and Osetsu therefore speaks to it daily. One day the master of the house, being the joker that he is, switches her mask with that of a goblin. Seeing such a frightening mask, the girl rushes off for her home in Ikeda, fearing for her mother. This story has a long history in both kôshaku and rakugo traditions. In a slightly different version the live-in apprentice Sadakichi stares at masks of Ebisu and Otafuku, recalling his father and mother. Both versions are quite touching, and listeners cannot help being softened as they observe the disposition of children longing for the parents they have been separated from.

Happy Setsubun. Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!



子守り奉公をする少女・おせつ。面屋の主人からもらった、母親そっくりのおたふくの面に語りかけるのが日課だ。それを知った当家の主人は、いたずら心で鬼の面にすりかえ、この怖い面を見たおせつは、母の身を案じ大急ぎで池田の実家へ向かう… 。講釈ダネで、落語としても昔からあったが、丁稚の定吉がえべっさんとお多福の面を父母と思って眺めるという設定。いずれにしろ、離れた親を慕う子の心根がいじらしく、聞き手の気持ちまで優しくなるようないい噺だ。(あらすじと手引きはやまだりよこの「上方落語家名鑑 第二版」より)


Ômisoka&Gantan 大晦日&元旦

Just like last year, this year I spent Ômisoka (December 31) and Gantan (January 1) at Somemaru’s house. This is a very busy, but very enjoyable time of the year.

One reason I like New Year (Oshôgatsu) in Japan is that it is a time of togetherness for most families. It is the one time of year when the majority of stores close and people are able to focus on things other than work and the commercial world outside their doors. This is also a time when a good deal of the country flocks to local temples and shrines for New Year’s blessings, buying amulets for any number of things, such as commuter safety, help finding true love, having successful childbirth, passing high school and college entrance exams, and so on.

One soon learns that Japanese people (or at least NHK) take Oshôgatsu seriously when they observe the way the wildly popular annual music program Kôhaku uta gassen comes to a sudden, anticlimactic end at Countdown: 10, 9. 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… CUT TO QUIET, SOLEMN SHOTS OF TEMPLES AROUND THE NATION.

Ômisoka and Gantan at Somemaru’s are not exactly solemn, but he does adhere to old customs as far as food (osechi) preparation and ceremonial sake (otoso) pouring goes. Pupils in training and children receive money gifts (otoshidama), and the list of customs followed goes on. Again, togetherness is key. This is the best thing about the holiday.

On Ômisoka I spent the entire day assisting Somemaru with osechi preparation, making enough food for about 40 people. Somemaru does all the cooking himself, working all day in the kitchen, hardly taking a break. Actually, I had to remind him to take a break from time to time. On one of our breaks we enjoyed toshikoshi soba, long buckwheat noodles, an Ômisoka must.

I went home late and returned early the next morning to help with more preparations before Somemaru’s pupils began arriving with their wives and children.

Soon everybody had arrived and the New Year’s banquet was underway. I helped by making sure food and drinks never ran out, and washed a great deal of dishes. Of course I was also allowed to partake in the delicious food and drinks. All of this was wonderful, and the banquet felt like a huge family gathering. Indeed, everybody had a fabulous time, starting off the New Year in grand fashion. I especially enjoyed playing with the children, two of them promising to return to America with me.

The festivities lasted well into the night. I stayed until the end to help clean up, getting home just before midnight. When I looked in the mirror, I realized I still had a smile on my face.

I have a feeling the Year of the Dragon is going to be a special year.



9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . 全国の静かで厳粛たる寺々のカット。






Okotohajime 御事始

Last year at this time I wrote about (0)kotohajime. It’s hard to believe a year has already passed since then. But here we are.

Kotohajime takes place on December 13 in the Kamigata area (Dec. 8 in Tokyo) and is the day when preparations for the New Year formally begin. In the world of arts that are “practiced,” (keikogoto), members of artistic families often pay a formal visit to their master on this day, bringing with them a present of kagamimochi, usually eaten in a zenzai sweet bean dish on the eleventh day of the New Year.

Kotohajime is a is a day-long event at Somemaru’s house, combined with morning ôsôji, a deep cleaning of his house, and a banquet that lasts into the evening.

Today I arrived at Somemaru’s house at 10 a.m., an hour before everybody else, to have breakfast and help with preparations. Somemaru’s many pupils began showing up one by one at 11 a.m. Everybody came with a gift, presented it to him, bowed deeply, and thanked him for the previous year, also asking him for his generous favors in the year to come.

After the morning greetings were made, straws were drawn Japanese-style to determine everybody’s cleaning duties. This year I landed on the front door area (genkan do). This is a pretty easy job compared to, say, cleaning the bathroom, so I was also asked to tend to the garden outside. Everybody cleaned the house in good spirits, laughing and carrying on.

Of course, with so many pupils, the cleaning goes fast. As I helped, I thought about the importance of everyone being here for ôsôji. Taking care of Somemaru in such a way is one way of performing ongaeshi, paying back one’s personal debts.

Every bit of work that we did today are things Somemaru won’t have to do himself. Personally, it made me feel good that I could be there to show my respect and gratitude for all he’s done for me over the past year. I am still in his debt, as are all of his formal pupils, but us being there for ôsôji helps show Somemaru that we haven’t forgotten our debts to him.

Soon we were done cleaning and it was time to change out of our work clothes and into our suits for kotohajime. Somemaru was helped into his kimono.

Everybody sat Japanese-style before Somemaru, in order of seniority. One by one, we reflected on the year (hansei) and proposed how we might make the coming year better. This is a highly formal event, but humor is permitted at  times too. Depending on the pupil, Somemaru offered heartfelt advice, or critique.

As usual, he presented each pupil with a gift, something they will have use for as they work in the coming year. Last year he presented folding fans, this year we received shikigami, (mats on which to fold kimono, so they won’t get dirty).

After kotohajime proper, we had a great banquet, with delicious sushi and other foods, and of course plenty of alcoholic drinks. It was great fun to enjoy the time with Somemaru’s artistic family.

I stayed a couple hours after everyone left, to clean up, and relax a bit with Somemaru.

It was a busy day, but it went by incredibly fast, just like the year.

Thank you for including me in kotohajime Somemaru shishô.












First Rakugo 2011 初落語

Today Somemaru had two shows, at different venues. The first show was at the Hanjôtei. I am thrilled that Kamigata Rakugo finally has its own yose again (est. 2006, the first in the post-WWII era). Somemaru finished today’s Hanjôtei appearance with an auspicious dance to celebrate the New Year.

On the way to the next show we stopped by the temple Isshinji, near in Tennoji, to pay a visit to the grave of Hayashiya Somemaru II (1867-1952), which essentially serves as a symbol for this great artistic name, and its history, which dates back to the first Somemaru (c. 1831-1877). The second show of the day was at the Isshinji theater, where the current Somemaru performs annually.

At both venues I received otoshi-dama from elder storytellers. When I get  money gifts in this fashion it is my obligation to go directly to Somemaru, show him the envelope(s) that holds the money, announce who it is from, and tell Somemaru “thank you.” After all, if I weren’t associated with Somemaru, I wouldn’t receive such gifts. It was a busy day, but it was nice to get back into the swing of things with rakugo after the holiday hiatus.

Finally, I have to share one more picture. We ran into this sign that reads “Aizen san,” for a nearby temple and pond. A second possible reading for the Chinese characters is “Aisome san,” the name of this pupil, who is currently undergoing training with Somemaru.