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Saturday, Jan. 31, 2009

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Milking bovine tourism in '09


Happy Chinese Moo Year! It's the Year of the Cow. And you know what that means: bovine tourism. No, I don't mean cows stampeding to Japan for the "Visit Japan Campaign." I'm talking about the role of cows in Japanese culture and famous places of bovine interest within Japan.

In honor of 2009 being the Year of the Cow, I feel it my duty to help raise your moo awareness. I anticipate that "bovine tourism" will be the Word of the Year.

"Mooving" right along, allow me to elaborate. One should note that: The cow is a symbol of a good harvest.

As a result, you'll find many cow effigies at shrines throughout Japan. One of the more famous shrines featuring cows is Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto. Here, you can actually caress the cow effigies because it is believed that just touching or rubbing them will bring you good luck. If you need even more luck, perhaps you can give the cow a full massage!

Since Kitano Tenmangu shrine is dedicated to the God of Learning (Lord Sugawara no Michizane) people also pray to the cow for scholarly advancement and improved academic performance. So the Kitano Tenmangu cows (there are many), can help you pass exams, get good marks and get into a good university.

From the lowly peasant to the Ph.D. professor, the cow has got you covered. This is "cownter" to the popular belief that cows are dumb.

Mooing cows are an omen.

At one time, mooing cows were considered a bad omen in Japan. One particular story about mooing cows is remembered at the ushi matsuri (cow festival) at Dazaifutenmangu shrine in Dazaifu City, Fukuoka. This festival is to commemorate the story of Sugawara no Michizane, when he journeyed to Dazaifu City to become the provisional governor general. On his way, he stopped to visit his aunt who lived near present-day Osaka. While at her house, he heard the mooing of cows. Perhaps it was the Osaka dialect that tipped him off, but Sugawara sensed something bad was about to happen, so he left his sister's house early the next morning.

Just after he left, his sister's dwelling was ransacked by spies. Why he left his sister behind with the mooing cows is a wonder. At any rate, the cow festival is an opportunity to pray for household safety and protection. So you see that cows can protect us from "cowlamity," "cowtastrophe" and general misfortune.

Cows are protectors from illness.

Akabeko is a famous cow amulet in the Aizu region of Japan. Aka means "red" and beko is Aizu dialect for "cow." The akabeko papier-mache cow is a popular souvenir from Fukushima Prefecture. There are a few stories about how the akabeko came to be revered.

According to local folklore, in the year 807 A.D., cows were used to haul materials to construct Enzoji temple in Yanaizu. When the temple was completed, one particular red cow refused to leave the site. Legend has it that the cow even turned to stone after having given its soul to the Buddha. The townspeople, duly impressed with the cow's loyalty and no doubt its ability to turn itself to stone, made small effigies of the cow, painted them red, and gave them to children as toys. Years later, when a bout of smallpox swept the country, the children who had these akabeko toys didn't get smallpox.

From then on, the akabeko toys were also made as amulets to ward off illness. Get an akabeko charm and "cownt" your blessings that you won't get ill.

Cows are a symbol of enlightenment.

With all the good things the cow has brought to Japanese culture, it is no wonder the cow is thought to be a symbol of enlightenment. Perhaps this is why the cow is the preferred mode of transportation for the gods. Deities such as Daiitoku Myoo, one of the Five Gods of Wisdom, is often seen riding a white cow. Daijizaiten is also seen atop a dark blue buffalo. The cow as a symbol of enlightenment ensures that enlightenment is a truly spiritual "encownter."

For the bovine tourist, a little cow worship goes a long way.



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