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Saturday, April 9, 2011
You can have your steak and eat it too
By AMY CHAVEZ
It's almost time for the annual festival we have all been waiting for: the Hanaguri "cow nose ring" festival! Held on the third Sunday in April at the Hanaguri Zuka inside a temple in Okayama Prefecture, this is one of the more unusual religious ceremonies in Japan.
At this place are amassed nose rings from over 7 million cows. These nose rings, made from rubber and plastic of different colors, form a giant zuka (mound). In front of the zuka is a statue of a bronze cow looking out placidly, as if satisfied that he alone has pleased the palates of hundreds of humans. The bronze cow's nose is so worn from people petting it, it has taken on an envious polished smoothness.
During the ceremony, a priest prays for the souls of the cows who have passed into the bovine afterworld. It's kind of sad, but also comforting to know that the cows have not been forgotten even long after they have been digested and spat out the other end of the human body.
In the presence of over 7 million cow nose rings, one naturally starts thinking deeply about the subject of accessorized bovines. Although nose rings are used to help control cows, especially bulls, you have to wonder if it wasn't cows who set the current fashion trend of nose piercing among our young people. I can just see the first young person sitting on a split rail fence looking out at the cattle and saying, "Dude, I gotta have one of those!" Thus, nasal septum piercing and nostril jewelry were born.
But this shouldn't be surprising: Cows have long been arbiters of fashion. Take, for instance, branding. Farmers used to brand cattle to help distinguish which herd they belonged to. Us humans, however, in another "gotta have one of those" moments, turned branding into the art of tattooing. And what about ear tagging? We said, "We gotta have those too!" and started wearing earrings (even without the advantage of big furry ears). What's next, the cloven hoof look?
Although the origins of nose rings may be with cows, don't blame them for humans piercing other parts of the body. Elsie has never pierced her udders. And even if she did, I don't think those accessories would be honored at a place like this. These cows have been honored for their sacrifices, not for their fashion sense. It is a small but kind way of acknowledging that they have provided us with beef, leather and other bovine fancies.
And we really need to consider that cows sacrifice themselves for our culinary desires before and after. Before they die, they provide us with milk for our cereal in the morning, cream for our coffee and contribute to all sorts of other dairy products. After they die, they appear on our lunch plates as sausages, hamburgers, yakiniku and gyudon. For dinner they turn into steaks, stews, spaghetti sauce and curries. And don't forget cow's tongue, ox tail and offal. Cows have a special place in our stomachs.
According to the nice lady who showed me around the Hanaguri Zuka, the mound is made up of nose rings that farmers have sent from all over Japan since 1925. Previously live beef from Kobe, Okayama, Matsuzaka and nearly all beef-producing areas of Japan are represented here. She also told me that there is the statue of a deity who watches over the mound.
Just like the first cow ever slaughtered in Japan is honored with a statue in Yokohama, here at Hanaguri Zuka they express their appreciation of our steak-bearing friends with a place dedicated to their nose rings.
The gentle Japanese are practical people who dually understand the pity of eating animals, but who are also willing to show their appreciation for those animals' sacrifices. By visiting the place and attending its ceremonies, you can too. After all, when was the last time you thanked a cow?
I should mention that this practice of thanking animals for their sacrifices is not limited to cows. I have a Japanese friend who worked at a lab where they used animals for research (mainly mice). Every Wednesday morning there was a 10-minute ceremony, led by a priest, that acknowledged the lives of the animals sacrificed for science. Attendance by all the people in that department was mandatory.
If you can't make the cow nose ring festival on April 17, every Sunday throughout the year a goma fire ceremony is held in front of the pile of nose rings to pray for the repose of the cows' souls.
You can even rent a bicycle from Okayama Station and take the historic Kibi Bicycle Road 30 to 40 minutes out to the temple, which is run by a religious organization Fukudenkai. It is located near the more famous Kibitsu Shrine. After you're finished worshipping the cows, you can go on to see many other historic shrines and temples along the bike path. I can't think of a better thing to do at cherry blossom time!
At the Hanaguri Zuka in Okayama, can have your steak and eat it too.