Japanland "Mountain Gods and Businessmen" & "The Final Test"

Japanland "Mountain Gods and Businessmen" & "The Final Test"

Mon, 09/13/2010 - 7:00pm

Pictured: Karin Muller with her Japanese host father.

Credit: Karin Muller

Join us for parts 3 & 4 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 "Mountain Gods & Businessmen" and "The Final Test" encore Monday, September 13 at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on PBS World (cable 524/DT21.2). 

Episode 3:  Mountain Gods and Businessmen 

The Firewalking ceremony - an extraordinary tradition that few people would ever associate with the Japanese.  The firewalkers are all Yamabushi – a 1400-year-old pre-Buddhist mountain ascetic cult.  They meditate for hours, perform a mesmerizing fire dance, and then step boldly onto the coals.  Surprisingly, the normally conservative Japanese spectators have so much faith in the Yamabushi prayers that they brave the coals as well.  In the end even Karin walks the fire.  She is so fascinated by these ascetics that she follows them – hitchhiking her way north to the sacred Dewa Sanzan Mountains.  Deep in the heart of Mt. Haguro the Yamabushi are undergoing their summer austerity training, where they hope to be reborn as more enlightened beings. For the first time, they allow a foreigner to film them.  For the next eight days Karin joins them in their arduous treks through the mountains, leading to a dangerous river crossing.  One Yamabushi stumbles and falls in with a most surprising result.  On the final evening they invite her to film their exquisite candlelit celebration and spiritual awakening.

In the meantime, the farmers all around Mt. Haguro are harvesting their crops.  Karin hitchhikes – finding some unusual rides – into the Yamagata countryside, eventually helping with a rice harvest and joining the celebratory dinner afterwards.  She spends a day at the local 8-million-dollar school – with only 29 students – and makes some unexpected revelations about the Japanese school system.  When Karin visits the famous Gembi Gorge she stumbles upon one of Japan’s true treasures – Haruo Chibo – the basket dumpling man, who has built an entire industry around a simple basket, a rope, and an endless supply of rice paste.  He is both an entertaining character and a gracious host.

And then – to Karin’s incredible joy – her mother joins her for three weeks on the ancient Nakasendo.  They backpack through Tsumago to see a 17th century procession - complete with daimyo warlords and the elusive komuso - and then visit Tamba, one of the six original pottery villages in Japan.  Karin remains in the area after her mother leaves to help fire an enormous anagama kiln under the supervision of lifelong potter Gary Moler.  For nearly a week she struggles to keep the voracious wood kiln fed day and night.  Finally, the firing is over - the kiln is allowed to cool and opened, to reveal extraordinary works of art.

Osaka – the merchant capital of Japan.  Each morning in Osaka, tens of thousands of businessmen take the train to work each day.  This crowded form of transportation has evolved its own unique set of etiquette.  There is only one place where the rules break down – on the last train out of Tokyo at half-past midnight, when it becomes a no-holds-barred battle not to be left behind.  Why would anyone go through all that?  The answer is often pachinko. It’s a national obsession - a chance to escape the pressure of work and social obligations.  And for the few who win, pachinko offers an unexpected ending to a successful evening.  Karin then finds her way to a capsule hotel.  The next day she turns to the other side of city life – its young people.  Japan’s youth dance at the local video arcade, get tattoos, and express themselves through their clothes, their hair, and their shoes.  Karin meets a most unusual American – Adam Cooley – a street performer, who does an hour-long Bonsai street performance to the fascination – and bafflement – of Japanese spectators.  Adam, who is extremely shy, feels very comfortable in Japan because the Japanese do not try to get behind his “mask”. 

Just around the corner is the Ebisu festival, dedicated to the god of making money.  But despite its focus on wealth, Osaka is also host to Japan’s largest homeless population.  Karin meets Nishida-san, a collector of aluminum cans, who agrees to let her come along on his daily routine.  Despite his homelessness, Nishida-san is a disciplined worker and thoughtful speaker who takes great pride in his job.  He makes less than $15 a day, but whenever he can he goes to the public library to read and better himself.  Karin volunteers at a local shelter/kitchen, makes some surprising discoveries about how Osaka’s homeless live, and joins in a march to commemorate a homeless man who died on the street.  A moment of tense confrontation ends with the laying down of flowers and a silent prayer.  Violence is not the Japanese way.



Sakata City –one of the coldest places in Japan.  This is where the villagers of Kuromori hold their annual winter Kabuki, a seven-hour performance held outside, in the snow.  Karin joins them as they rebuild their stage, practice, prepare, and perform.  In the process she learns why Kabuki is such a beloved and sophisticated art.  From Sakata City, Karin travels to nearby Oguni, where she participates in the annual cold season judo training, conducted entirely outdoors.  She joins a taiko drumming team run by a flamboyant and charismatic master, Renzan-san.  Karin trains with them and then travels up north to Aomori for their stunning performance, getting to know the players along they way.  She is invited to the home of one of the players and discovers – hidden in the basement, one of the keys to Japan’s economic miracle.

Karin travels down the western coast of Japan to Tottori, the country’s only desert, then turns inland to Kyoto.  In this ancient capital she explores a number of still-flourishing traditional arts – ancient court football, washi papermaking, and calligraphy.  In the backstreets of old Kyoto the traditions of the past are alive and well, in the noodle man, the sweet-potato seller, and the most intriguing of all - the volunteer fire patrol.

Tokyo – the fashion capital of the world.  There is no better place to see cutting-edge style than Harajuku, on a Sunday afternoon.  Tokyo’s modern youth are so baffling to Japan’s older generation that they have been dubbed the “New Human Beings”.

And yet… travel a few hours by train to Noto Peninsula, on the backside of Japan, and discover a land that has changed little in two hundred years.  Where food sold in the market is still made by hand and neighborliness is the glue that holds the community together.  How does Japan reconcile modern city life with old-fashioned village ways?  The answer can be found – surprisingly – at a local gas station.

Village values work just fine in the service sector, but what about manufacturing?  Karin takes a look at a sake-making business, where the employees put their hearts and souls into producing some of the finest quality sake in Japan.

Japan is facing a growing crisis – due to its mountainous geography, less than twenty percent of its land is arable and its resources are dwindling.  Karin visits a raw fish restaurant and a Matzuzaka beef farm.  She spends a week with a three-generation family that makes its living catching giant spider crabs.

Even in religion the Japanese demonstrate their remarkable willingness to absorb new ideas.  Christmas has become big business in Japan, though less than 1% of the population is Christian.  New religions are flourishing, offering a message of hope and community (and an excellent New Year’s Zoni soup) to all who stop by.  This doesn’t mean that the old religions are being left behind.  In Ijika, the villagers still gather at dawn on New Year’s day to immerse themselves in the freezing ocean to purify themselves for the coming year.  It is a Shinto tradition as old as time itself.

But perhaps the best example of the blending of old and new are Honshu’s Lion Dancers.  For eleven months each year they tour the country, purifying people’s homes.  They are doing far more than just keeping evil spirits at bay – they are helping Japan to find a way to embrace the future, without giving up the past.