Akita’s devilish side: the Namahage Sedo Festival

No one really wants their children to be terrified, or do they?

In the far northern Japanese prefecture of Akita, a place steeped in folk culture, there is one nighttime event that is dedicated to scaring the hell out of children, the Namahage Sedo Festival.

Held each year in the dead of winter at the Shinzan Shinto shrine near the (delightfully named) town of Oga, the Namahage Sedo Festival sees men donning straw outfits and masks purified by a Shinto priest before transforming into Namahage, or demons.

In a maelstrom of noise, live taiko drumming, red hot fires and chaos, the Namahage dazzle the audience with a series of performances that culminates as they descend from the thickly snowy mountain above the shrine carrying burning flames and what appear to be massive knives. This is a breathtaking sight for the gaijin (foreign) visitor to take in, truly a world class experience.

To my complete disbelief, parents willingly allow the Namahage to snatch their very young children away and give them a good fright. Several times I saw parents even thrust their quivering offspring into the hungry arms of the monsters! And I am talking about children around 2 and 3 years of age. Apparently there is some sort of lifetime benefit to this “facing up to your demons” experience.

This is what I love about Japan, it is a country full of beautiful contrasts and contradictions. Just when you were sure the Japanese were the epitome of kindness and gentleness, especially toward children, along come the Namahage!

To find out more about the fascinating and underrated Tohoku region of Japan, click here

Beautiful Fukushima

For me Fukushima has gone from being a place name synonymous with disaster and devastation to something completely different. Now after returning from this part of Japan, when I hear the name Fukushima, I picture an area of great natural beauty and wonderful people. The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown have paled in my mind. Of course these catastrophes and the lives lost must never be forgotten, they shouldn’t continue to define Fukushima.

In this first radio and online film story broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I meet Naoko Moteki, an official with the Tohoku Regional Promotion Organisation. In Japanese, Tohoku simply means North East, and it includes 6 prefectures at the top of the country’s main island, Honshu. Tohoku includes Fukushima, and for Naoko and her staff, promoting this prefecture to the rest of the world post-2011 is a monumental task.

When I told friends in Australia that I was visiting Fukushima I was given warnings and told to be “very careful”. I admit I had some concerns but after reading some good online articles about radiation levels (not by conspiracy theorists but by National Geographic and other reputable scientific authors), I felt quite reassured. But I never foresaw just how beautiful Fukushima would prove to be, especially in winter.

Don’t take my word for it, please watch the video and see Naoko’s passion for promoting her area and welcoming visitors.

As she says she wants me, and the rest of the world, to know that “Tohoku is now OK!” To me Tohoku is more than okay, it’s stunning and I can’t wait to go back.

Richard Snashall

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Fukushima’s Lake Inawashiro with its extraordinary birdlife

 

Going to Merimbula to find bodalla!

Click here to watch the film on ABC Open – The bodalla in Merimbula

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At this risk of sounding a little Hollywood, this is the prequel to the other Pomaderris film that I wrote about, featuring ABC TV’s Gardening guru Costa.

This was the first field trip to look at how best to collect cuttings and seed from a particular species of the Pomaderris genus, the Pomaderris bodalla, in Merimbula. I can hear the obvious question – why not go to Bodalla to collect this plant? The answer is that it’s best found around Merimbula. Go figure!

The NSW south coast weather in the morning looked dicey, some light rain was falling and plenty more was predicted. Never good news for the filmmaker who has to work out a strategy to capture a good story and not end up with wet equipment. Of course the botanists and other scientists don’t mind, they’ll head out whatever the conditions. They live for their field trips.

Despite one heavy bucketing of rain around midday (I was able to hide out in a car), the conditions turned to be excellent and the project team was able to get on with the mission. Not only did everyone learn how best to collect and preserve the various species of this genus, but they gathered some excellent cutting material with which to cultivate plants in the various partner botanic garden nurseries.

There is always a need to keep your day free when taking to the field with botanists. They’re an enthusiastic bunch and tend to get distracted by the thousands of other species along the way, and the day can become dangerously long. Especially when you realise you hadn’t packed a sleeping bag and toothbrush!

The future of the Pomaderris genus looks positive, with the Australian National Botanic Gardens leading a collaborative partnership of government bodies, including Bega Valley Shire Council, research institutions, national parks, land managers, custodians and south eastern NSW and ACT botanic gardens all contributing to the Pomaderris conservation project funded by the NSW Environmental Trust. The three-year project will involve the collection of seed and cutting material from Pomaderris populations across NSW and the ACT.

Richard Snashall – ABC bio here

Curious Costa on the trail of the Pomaderris

Click here to see the story as featured on the ABC

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At times I thought we should have been making a film about leeches and ticks, such was the rich and moist environment our party had to contend with deep in Budderoo National Park, near Robertson. But no, this was a project about a threatened species of plant, the Pomaderris walshii, one of a number of the Pomaderris genus marked for preservation through a major NSW Environmental Trust project.

We were blessed to have ABC TV’s Gardening Australia presenter, Costa Georgiadis, come along for the adventure. Even though he was there in an informal capacity, I gave him no choice but to get on camera and just be “curious Costa”. He laughed and said he’d do anything asked of him, and proved to be incredibly obliging, enthusiastic and as much fun as he is on the telly.

The leeches were literally being peeled off me by the scientists and rangers as I scrambled through the bush and shot the material. Filming the plants in cultivation back at Wollongong Botanic Garden later that afternoon was, needless to say, slightly less menacing. But I couldn’t understand how Costa didn’t even attract one leech in the National Park, and it made me think that even the smallest bush creatures somehow know to respect him.

I went back to Budderoo a day later to take some aerial footage with my unmanned aircraft, and at one stage the remote controller lost touch with the drone for an excruciating minute. Later that day when reviewing the footage I almost fell off the editing chair seeing the little quadcopter barely skim the top of a very tall eucalypt – missing by about 30 centimetres!

The future of the Pomaderris Walshii is in good hands, with the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) leading a collaborative partnership of government bodies, research institutions, national parks, land managers, custodians and botanic gardens all contributing to the Pomaderris conservation project funded by the NSW Environmental Trust. The three-year project will involve the collection of seed and cutting material from Pomaderris populations across NSW and the ACT.

Richard Snashall

P.S. If you want to feel really immersed in the bush, the 10 minute “director’s cut” of this film can be viewed here

The secrets of Okinawa are coming to Australia!

I shot the above film in Okinawa in 2016, while visiting to make some radio and online stories for the ABC.

Okinawa is part of Japan…..or is it?

Officially it is, but I get the feeling the Okinawans quite like to be considered as “Okinawans” before being quickly catagorised as “Japanese”. The lifestyle of Okinawa is like that of a different country when compared to living in Tokyo, Osaka or other busy parts of Japan. And much of their culture derives from their days as the independent Ryukyu Kingdom.

Okinawan people are known for their long lives due to their diet, activity and outlook.

Life, by Okinawa (http://beokinawa-pr.jp/life/) is an “activation” campaign that seeks to reveal some of the secrets of this longevity. It was launched December 2016 and is now coming to Australia. This February the people of Sydney can enjoy a glimpse into this campaign and perhaps even take home some of the Okinawan philosophies to enhance their own lives.

The activation venue will feature an authentic Okinawan art gallery, garden space – a place to sit and relax away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney life, opportunities to sample Okinawan tea, free Okinawan Karate workshops with a Karate Master from Okinawa (where karate originated).

Having got the “O” bug myself, I’m keen to promote interest in Okinawa where possible within Australia, so hope to see plenty of people at the activation!

Location: 46-48 Kensington St, Chippendale, Feb 3rd ~ Feb 7th, 11:00am~8pm

Richard Snashall

(Video editing with thanks to Adrian Muscat & Tina Costessi)

Goodbye coal, hello kitty – A Taiwan Tail

As the bus wound its way up the mountains I noticed that intermittent signage and debris began to reveal an industrial past, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of where I live in Australia. It wasn’t so much the terrain of this northern part of Taiwan that struck a chord, but rather a history of mining and the lasting environmental impact.

Home for me is Captain’s Flat, a quiet village in the ranges south east of Canberra that was once a bustling mining town with reserves of copper, silver, gold and zinc. Beginning just above Captain’s Flat, the Molonglo River (which flows into Lake Burley Griffin) and its tributary creeks glow with an unnatural brassy colour, an obvious stain from years of mine discharges.

As soon as I saw the lower stretches of the Keelung River, downstream from the  Taiwanese village of Houtong, that distinct brassiness revealed itself, even brighter and bolder than that of Captain’s Flat. Needless to say I felt quite at home.

The more I found out about Houtong, the more similarities I discovered between it and Captain’s Flat. For example and perhaps trivially, both villages are 45 minutes by car from each country’s capitals, Taipei and Canberra.

Coal was rich in the mountains around Houtong and mining commenced during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), and lasted until the 1990’s. The town then declined as the employment opportunities disappeared. For Captain’s Flat, the decline occurred after the mine closed in 1962. Both towns once boasted populations well into the thousands, only to dwindle to villages of a few hundred when their respective resources booms came to an end.

But that’s where the similarities end. Houtong took a path that no one saw coming.

In 2008, an enthusiastic cat lover rallied together some fellow locals to offer unwanted cats a new home in Houtong. Photos were posted online and the concept went feline viral, and it seems the whole of Taiwan responded. Perhaps not every household gave up its cat, but abandoned moggies started arriving in Houtong by the carload. Within a few years the streets were crawling with kitties and this once forgotten mining town became known as, somewhat unsurprisingly, “the cat village”.

Sure enough when you arrive in Houtong there are cats everywhere, many of which have been desexed and sport trimmed ears as a mark of their neutering. The cats don’t overwhelm you, in fact they sit around casually welcoming guests with a smooch to a neat village spread across a scenic valley. The disused coal processing plant is a curiously attractive piece of industrial archaeology and sits adjacent to the less brassy, healthier upper section of the Keelung River. Rainfall is abundant in this part of Taiwan, and the mountains are green and rich with trees and foliage.

The locals have constructed and carefully placed attractive timber cat houses  around the village, and a bridge has even been constructed to allow safe passage for cats to go back and forth over the still functioning railway line (sadly Captain’s Flat railway line has long since closed).

In Taiwan, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, many people live in small city apartments and are unable or unwilling to keep pets in such confined homes. So a visit to Houtong offers a chance to get out of the nearby capital of Taipei for a day and commune not only with nature, but kitty as well.

In riding this wave of feline popularity, Houtong has been able to generate interest in its mining history. Former miners and their relatives have created a tour that takes unsuspecting visitors into an actual shaft on a century old diesel powered mini-mining train. The tiny carriage wheels squeal painfully as they drag the hard-hatted tourists through an apparently dangerous, dripping tunnel, only then to emerge outside at a confusing collection of closed shaft entrances. After alighting the train, a friendly local offers up an informal mining history lesson in Chinese, which of course I don’t speak – but I seemed to get the gist of it as he waved around various old mining tools. Occupational Health & Safety inspectors obviously don’t swing by Houtong that often as my 3 year old daughter was encouraged to try her hand with an ancient jackhammer and my 5 year old son took (or perhaps lost) control of a rail handcar. They loved it.

Taiwanese people are by nature very kind, and it’s not surprising this small island nation has embraced the concept of a village that welcomes homeless cats. It has given Houtong a whole new identity that is now drawing tourists from much further afield than Taipei.

I’ve come home inspired, dreaming up ideas for Captain’s Flat to become a refuge town for injured and recovering native species (not cats for obvious environmental reasons), and thereby recreate itself as a destination for curious tourists. Cuddle factor is critical to an animal town’s success, as I learnt in Houtong, so I’m aiming more for, say, wallabies than eastern brown snakes.

Richard Snashall