A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

When the Smoke Clears Away ( on Saturday January 25th) at the HIRASAWA KANGA (平沢官衙遺跡) What SPECIAL WORD Shall Be Revealed ? (weather permitting)

 (From a past year) The grass in front of the reconstructed buildings of the HIRASAWA KANGA was burned- except for a few patches which spelled the word KOKORO (heart, or spirit)

By Avi Landau
The local farmers tell me that in the morning hours there is LITTLE WIND during Tsukuba`s winter season- which is usually the windiest time of year here. I guess that that is the why the SHIBA YAKI (芝焼き) grass burning ceremony held in front of the HIRASAWA KANGA  ISEKI- a beautiful reconstruction of official Nara and Heain Period Storehouses in Tsukuba`s Hojo district, is scheduled for an early  9 AM start on a Saturday morning (the actual burning will not actually get underway until 10!): the calmer conditions help keep the fires from getting out of hand.

The Hirasawa Kanga site with the twin peaks of Mt. Tsukuba in background (The grass-burning ceremony will be held on Saturday January 25, 2020)

The HIRASAWA KANGA enveloped in the smoke created by the burning grass on the day of the SHIBA YAKI (芝焼き)

(The event as I experienced it in a past year)
It was a beautiful, crisp morning- with blue skies as far as the eye could see. On any day, the the site of the old KANGA (government offices)  is one of the most impressive in all of Tsukuba City. And when the weather is as perfect as it was, it is even more special.
So it seemed a bit odd (and ridiculous) when the sixty or so of us who had gathered there for the event were soon engulfed in a thick shroud of smoke!
What we were waiting for, however, would be revealed when the grass fires finally died out and the smoke cleared away-  a word, specially selected for this year- which was left on the slope (by outlining the letters in lime).
The word was KOKORO (こころ)- heart or spirit, and it replaced last year`s KIZUNA (きずな)- the ties that bind.

In what seemed to be no time at all the fires- lit on both sides converged on the center

Why burn the grass at all ? I guess in a way you can say that the custom is a throwback, a reminder of the days when thrashing and burning was the way agricultural fields were prepared. Even when farming techniques became more advanced it remained the habit (and still is) of farmers to burn away what was leftover of last year`s vegetation and agricutural waste in and around the fields. Not only did this clear the field for fresh growth, it also killed the eggs and larvae of pests and the ash could be used as a soil enriching fertilizer.
And why burn the grass in a non-agricultural space? Well, in Japan one of the most difficult things to deal with- if you have a house with a garden- is the overwhelming power of the summer greenery. The plants overwhelm everything- and quickly- if you don`t take firm control of the situation. Haven`t you ever wondered why Japanese Zen Priests filled there gardens with sand and stones? It stops the weeds from growing- and decreases the number of insects! Burning the winter grass was another way of reducing the amount of weeds and insects to be dealt with in summer. It became an important pre- or early spring rite.  In some places, such as the Korakuen Garden in Okayama City or Akiyoshidai in Yamaguchi Prefectire, annual SHIBA YAKI (grass burning) events have become major tourist attractions (while here in Hojo, Tsukuba, it  has not yet caught on very much)
Still I`m sure you don`t feel very bad about having missed all this excitement. And you shouldn`t. Thats because the word (KOKORO) will stay emblazoned there for a long, long while and you can appreciate it anytime you happen to head out to Hojo to admire the reconstructed buildings and the rustic setting of the HIRASAWA NO KANGA- something that you probably should sometime during your stay in Tsukuba.

With blow-torches, the staff works on the bits that did not burn well- and eventually created the word KOKORO in the scorched earth

Setting the grass on fire at the HIRASAWA KANGA SITE

Burning the grass near a temple in Nara Prefecture



Way back in 1975, while carrying out a routine archaeological survey before the construction of a planned housing development, it became obvious that there was had once been  a set of very large structures at the site. This was evident from the presence of foundation stones, which gave a clear picture of the layout of the buildings- which exhibited a size and design rarely found among Japanese ruins.

In 1980, the site was declared a National Historical Monument (国史跡).

Between 1993 and 1994 a project was set up to study the ruins and then reconstruct the buildings. The specialists who were part of the study determined that the buildings were governmnet offices- established more than a thousand years ago. Their shape and size amd the few other artifacts found in the area, led it to be assumed that they were STOREHOUSES, probably to gather the taxes in. At that time these were paid mostly in rice or woven cloth.

The actual recreation of the three buildings began in 1996 and the work took six years.

Now the site has become (as I have already said) one of the most impressive in Tsukuba and it is a great place to relax, have a stroll, a catch, fly a kite, play with the kids…… or just contemplate the past.

The site as seen from the air while it was being excavated

The reconstructed HIRASAWA NO KANGA (official storehouses in the Nara and Heian Periods) lightly blanketed in snow

Burning the fields (NOYAKI) in Nakano, Tsukuba -Feb. 2nd 2013


Hirasawa no Kanga with a rainbow

Hirasawa no Kanga with a rainbow

The special word for 2014 was NAKAMA- colleagues, associates, comrades, friends

The special word for 2014 was NAKAMA- colleagues, associates, comrades, friends

Special word 2014: NAKAMA

Special word 2014: NAKAMA






  • Sibylle Ito says:

    Dear Avi,

    I could be wrong, but I believed so far the goal with the grass burning is to revitalize the ground with the high mineral content ashes like an old style of fertilizer.

    With best regards,

    Sibylle Ito

  • Avi Landau says:

    Dear Sibylle,
    Thank you for posting your comment. You are absolutely correct. By burning the fields and the paths between then- or even whole slope at least three birds could be killed with one stone: killing the eggs and larvae of harmfull insects,clearing away the old growth so that the new growth could come cleanly in- and creating a nutrious ash which could be used as fertilzer.
    Thank you for pointing this out. I neglected to emphasize this point in my original post.

    Another function of burning grass however IS to keep the amount of greenery (and insects) down. From early spring through late summer you can see homeowners in Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods hard at work with blowtorch in hand burning away the vegetation.

    i appreciate your comment and have re-written part of the text ( though I still need to make changes)

    All the best


  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Dear Avi-san, As usual your article is very interesting,especially this one.

    Regarding your comment

    “Haven’t you ever wondered why Japanese Zen Priests filled there gardens with sand and stones? It stops the weeds from growing- and decreases the number of insects!”

    Very interesting!! I have never thought that.

    Av-san! You really have a good sense of humor and have a investigative mind, you found new reason that the purpose of Japanese style rock and sand gardens ( gardens those are typical in Zen-temples like Ryouanji, Saihouji,Daitokuji in Kyoto, they are the most famous rock and sand gardens without ponds nor streams, style of garden is called Karesansui (枯山水=Mountains with no water ), one of the art of Japanese garden-making, the style typically has developed during Muromachi-era 14 century, Origin of Rock and Roll too? ).During the Muromachi Era Japanese Zen Buddhism became prosperous. This proves Avi-san’s reasoning.

    Like you explained Zen-priests might be too busy for their meditation(sitting meditation,no movements were allowed), have no time for weeding and mosquitoes were too troublesome for meditation of no thinking or wondering eternal Cosmos. We have been only taught Karesansui is abstract view of sea and islands or the Cosmos. Before that era in Japanese other Buddhism-sect priests were too noisy with drums or chanting that no mosquitoes could not be coming near them.

    May be recent farmers or their old parent are very busy for their works or watching Soap-Dramas and want to avoid weeding and so make their surrounding of houses to be covered with sand or concrete. Imitating Zen-monks, do they think that they are making Karesansui?

    I have a small garden (flower and kitchen garden) for myself and my wife, and from spring to autumn it is always time consuming and laborious work for me and my spouse for weeding and always hate unpleasant mosquitoes . During weeding , we try just to think nothing (MUSHIN無心=without thinking.=Some kind of Zen?).

    Burning field is good way of refreshing of new green for livestock, also it makes people exciting, before setting fire on fields we drink small bit of Sake for gods of fire,
    40 years ago I have joined burning residues of tree-branches totally around 100 acres (40 ha) during 3 years, started from 3 am, finished 10 am. It was so exciting thing to set fire!! Naturally it was for new grassland development for cattle.

    We are better to make our Garden with just rocks and sand? But it cost very much to make Keresansui-garden and also we should take care of sand to make lines for style of waves with a broom every other day(needs delicate work).
    Thanks your nice article, make me think from cosmos to ocean.

    For reference
    Karesansui gardens (枯山水) or Japanese rock gardens, became popular in Japan in the 14th century thanks to the work of a Buddhist monk, Musō Soseki (1275–1351) who built zen gardens at the five major monasteries in Kyoto. These gardens have white sand or raked gravel in place of water, carefully arranged rocks, and sometimes rocks and sand covered with moss. Their purpose is to facilitate meditation, and they are meant to be viewed while seated on the porch of the residence of the hōjō, the abbot of the monastery. The most famous example is Ryōan-ji Temple in Kyoto.