Entries in New Years in Japan (8)


No Show Gatsu

   In recent years, I have been doing the following activity on the first class after the winter break.

   I split the class up into teams and, while listening to traditional music featuring the koto or shamisen, I have the students write on the blackboard as many words as they can in rōmaji related to the Japanese New Year. 

   In addition to being kind of fun--not barrels of fun, mind you, but fun enough--this activity can be rather instructive.

   For starters, you'll find that many Japanese students, not being proficient in the Hepburn romanization, will write things such as fukubukuro with an "h" rather than an "f" (hukubukuro) or nengajō with a "y" (nengajyo). The reason for this is that many Japanese learn simpler forms of romanization known as kunrei-shiki or Nihon-shiki. For more on this, go here. This is a good chance to briefly re-introduce the students to the Hepburn romanization and encourage them to use it in the future.

   My second year English Communication majors came up with the following words:

   One of the interesting things about this is that while many Japanese students will offer up words like hagoita, a decorative paddle used when playing a game resembling badminton called hanetsuki or even tako-agé (kite-flying), you shouldn't expect to see any of your neighbors playing hanetsuki or flying kites on New Year's Day. (In all my years in Japan, I have never once seen young women in kimono playing this game.)

   I then tell the students to ask one another if they had done any of the things on the board.

  "Did you eat o-sechi or nana-kusa gayu?"

   "Did you decorate your homes with shimenawa and kadomatsu?"

   "Did you send any nengajō?"

   Of the 23 students who attended that day, twenty had eaten o-sechi, four had shimenawa at the entrance of their homes, six had gone to the hatsu-uri New Year's sales, eleven had drunk o-toso, and so on. 

   Erasing those items which few or none of the students had partaken of, we came up with the following significantly pared down list:

   Where New Year's in Japan was once a very colorful, tradition-laden event, all that remains of it today, or so it seems, is the food, the shopping, and banal TV programs. Less than half of the students visited one Shintō shrine (hatsumōde), let alone three, during the holiday. It's kind of sad when you think about it. 

   Now, I'm not suggesting that we need to put the Shintō back in the Shinnen (new year), like some good Christians back home demand Christ be kept in that pagan celebration of the winter solstice also known as Christmas. But, I find it odd that the Japanese are so lackadaisical when it comes to their own heritage and culture.




Because my older son’s kindergarten is Buddhist, there are no Christmas decorations or Christmas-related events. None whatsoever.

(No worries there as we already do plenty enough at home ourselves.)

The kindergarten does, however, hold New Year’s related events, such as “mochi-tsuki”. 

What’s “moji-zugi”, you ask?

Mochi-tsuki (moh-chee-tsoo-kee) is the making of mochi (rice cake) by pounding steamed sticky rice with large wooden hammers for God knows how long. It is in the words of the esteemed Mr. Wiki very “labor intensive”. I think the only thing that we have remotely similar to mochi-tsuki in the US is handmade ice cream.

Now the thing with handmade ice cream is that your effort is rewarded with something that tastes pretty damn good. Mochi, on the other hand, is rather bland. Mixed with sweet beans or covered with syrup, it can be rather nice. But, again, alone it’s so hopelessly boring, it makes you wonder why the go to all the trouble.

My son has already left for school. He asked me to go too, but as only the fathers of third year students can attend—damn—I have been spared the forced labor demanded of tradition.

This evening I will be taking my boys to see the Christmas lights in Kego Park and ride the kiddie “Polar Express” train.

There are only five more days till Christmas. For some reason or another, this holiday season has just whizzed by. Last year, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This year, though, . . .

I think it’s the realization that Christmas with young boys who believe all the stories of Santa Claus, no matter how far-fetched or contradictory, won’t last forever. We’ve got perhaps five or six more years of the season’s magic. And then? Well, we will just have to find a new way to enjoy the holiday. Perhaps with a mochi-tsuki party.



Ebisu Giveth

   On Saturday I took my brood to the Tōka Ebisu Festival to pray to Ebisu, the god of wealth, fishermen, fortune, and merchants. (And if that isn't already large enough portfolio for one god, Ebisu is also said to be the guardian of the health of small children.)

   As I have written before, one of the highlights of the four-day-long festival is a lucky drawing (福引, fukubiki) for Ebisu goods--calendars, large paper fans, daruma dolls, lucky mallets, giant paper-maché fish, and so on. In past years, I've "won" all sorts of prizes, big and small, but last year elder son and I arrived too late and missed the drawing altogether. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I made sure we left home nice and early Saturday morning, the last day of the festival.

   My son wanders off alone in search of a Kyōryūja mask. (I'll write about that one of these days.)

   My son finds a lucky drawing stand, instead. There are all kinds of pellet guns on display.

   "Lucky drawing! Everyone's a winner. Lucky drawing!"

    "I want this one," he says to me.

   "This isn't a shop. You don't buy these. You have to buy a raffle ticket."

   "I want this one," he says again.

   My son has become rather persistent when he wants something. Usually it's junk, overpriced junk, but he wants it all the same, and wants it NOW.

   A few weeks back, the two of us popped into a convenience store. As I was withdrawing some money from the ATM, my son wandered about the aisles looking for candy and toys and found an Anpan Man Camera.

    “I want this,” he said, placing the toy on the check-out counter.

   "What is it?"

   "Anpan Man Camera."

   "I don't have any money," I said.

   "You have money."

   "Yes, but not for this," I said, picking the camera up. "How much is it, anyways? A thousand yen! No way!"

   "I want it . . ."

   A tantrum threatening to erupt, I scooped up the boy and headed straight for the door. We were going a German restaurant that was about a twenty-minutes' walk away and I'll be damned if my son did not keep saying, "I want Anpan Man Camera! I want Anpan Man Camera!" the entire distance.

   "You have a camera. I nice digital camera."

   "It's broken!"

   The battery had died, but I had since recharged it and emptied the storage. It was working nicely again.

   "It's not broken," I replied. "I fixed it the other day."

   "I don't want Daddy to fix it! I want Anpan Man camera." 

   He finally calmed down by the time we reached the German restaurant, but having carried the 20kg kicking and crying boy the entire distance, I was thoroughly exhausted.


   "You don't understand," I tell my son. "You have to buy one of these tickets first. If and ONLY if you're lucky will you win the gun." 

   The old woman running the stand says, "Everyone's a winner."

   "Yeah, right," I reply.

   "I want this one!"

   I ask the woman how much one of the raffle tickets cost.

   "Five hundred yen."

   "Five hundred yen! Auntie, I think the biggest winner at this stand is you!"


   Just then a middle-aged retarded (sorry, Sarah Palin) man walks up to the booth and says he wants a gun, too. His minder tries to hold him back, but the man tries to take one of the guns, saying in Japanese, "I want this one. I want this one." The minder relents and gives the retarded man a five-hundred-yen coin.

   I tell my son: "You watch! You'll see, he won't win anything."

   Well, as luck would have it, the retarded man ends up winning the very gun my son wants. A second man in his thirties with severe Down's syndrome comes up next and also wins a gun.

   "I want one, too!" my son says.

   Well now I have no choice but to also give my son a five-hundred-yen coin and let him have a go at the game.

   Maybe it is because it's the last day of the festival and the woman has nothing to gain by cheating us, or maybe it is simply because she doesn't want to make a little boy cry, either way, my son "wins" the gun he wanted.

   "What do you say?"

   My boy looks up to the woman and very bashfully says, "Thank you."

   I tell her thank you, too. "That was awfully decent of you."

   "Lucky drawing! Everyone's a winner! Lucky drawing!"


Sansha Mairi

Dazaifu Tenmangu (太宰府天満宮) is Fukuoka's most famous shrine.   If you live in only one region of Japan for an extended time as I have, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that what is true in the town you reside in is also true in the rest of the country.

   I first recognized this many, many years ago when I kept getting tripped up by the local dialect, known as Hakata-ben (博多弁). I’ve written about this elsewhere, but what I’m getting at here here is not my failure to understand what someone is saying because he is speaking the local dialect, but rather people not understand what I am saying because I have unwittingly used the dialect thinking that what I said was standard Japanese.

Take the Japanese word koi (濃い), which can mean deep, heavy, dark or thick—such as in koi aka (濃い赤), “deep red”; koi sūpu (濃いスープ) “thick soup”; ~ wa ajitsuke ga koi (〜は味付けが濃い) “. . . is strongly seasoned”; or even chi-wa mizu-yorimo koi (血は水よりも濃い) “Blood is thicker than water.” For the first ten years of my life here in Japan, I thought koi was pronounced koyui. (Try looking it up in a Japanese-English dictionary.) If you go to Tõkyõ and ask a bartender to make you a stiff drink, saying “make it koyui”, he’ll probably give you a funny look.[1]

Traditional foods, too, can vary from region to region in Japan, so much so that a simple dish like o-zōni—a soup eaten during New Year’s—can contain radically different ingredients and yet still be called o-zōni.

Customs, as I have mentioned before, also differ from prefecture to prefecture. The Bon Festival of the Dead, for example, can, depending on the region, be held as early as July 15th (around Tōkyō) or in other parts on August 15th. Some regions, such as Okinawa, observe what is known as Kyū Bon (旧盆) which falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. In 2014, Kyū Bon will take place from the 8th to the 10th of August. Living all this time in Kyūshū, I used to assume that all Japanese celebrated the Bon in the middle of August and would ask everyone, “Why isn’t this a national holiday like New Year’s?”

And only yesterday it finally dawned on me that something I had taken for twenty-plus years to be a widely-observed custom was actually a very local one: sansha mairi (三社参り).

In Japan, many people (and I would venture most) visit a Shintō shrine during the first few days of the new year, a custom known as hatsumōdé (初詣), to pray or make wishes. At the shrines, they buy good luck charms called o-mamori (お守り), drink a special kind of saké, and buy written oracles known as o-mikuji (おみくじ). It’s primarily in Fukuoka, I now understand, that people visit (o-mairi, お参り) three shrines (三社) rather than one.

Live and learn.


Do you hear me, God?


[1] On one of my more recent visits to Tōkyō, a woman I was talking to said I spoke Japanese with a “charming southern accent”. Don’t know if she meant that as a compliment or not.


Kagami Mochi

   Kagami mochi (鏡餅, literally mirror rice cake) is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration, which consists of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a Japanese bitter orange, known as a daidai, with an attached leaf on top. It may also have a sheet of konbu and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi.

   It often sits on a stand called a sanpō (三宝, see photo below) over a sheet called a shihōbeni (四方紅), which is supposed to ward off fires from the house for the following year. Sheets of paper called gohei (御幣) or shide folded into lightning shapes are also sometimes attached.

   Kagami mochi first appeared in the Muromachi period (14th-16th century), the name kagami ("mirror") having allegedly originated from its resemblance to an old-fashioned kind of round copper mirror which also had a religious significance.

   The two mochi discs are also said to symbolize the going and coming years, the human heart, yin and yang, or the moon and the sun. The daidai (橙), whose name is synonymous with "generations" (代々), is said to symbolize the continuation of a family from generation to generation.

   Traditionally, the kagami mochi was placed in various locations throughout the house. Nowadays, however, it is usually placed in a household Shintô altar, called a kamidana or placed in a small decorated alcove, called a tokonoma, in the main room of the home. (Once again, adapted from Wikipedia's entry.)

   The kagami mochi in my home.

   At a small privately owned shrine in the neighborhood.

   At Kego Shrine in Tenjin, Fukuoka.

   The neighborhood mochi shop at the end of the year.

   Fresh mochi rice cakes.



   Shimenawa (七五三縄, literally "enclosing rope") are another common decoration during the Japanese New Year. Rice straw is braided together to form a rope, that is then ornamented with pine, fern fronds, more straw and mandarine oranges. They can represent a variety of auspicious items, such as the rising sun over Mt. Fuji or a crane. The shimenawa pictured above is the one hanging on my front door.

   Used mostly for ritual purification in the Shintô religion, shimenawa can vary in diameter from a few centimetres to several metres, and are often seen festooned with shide paper. The space bound by shimenawa often indicates a sacred or pure space, such as that of a Shinto shrine.

   Shimenawa are believed to act as a ward against evil spirits and are often set up at a ground-breaking ceremony before construction begins on a new building. They are often found at Shinto shrines, torii gates, and sacred landmarks.

   They are also tied around objects capable of attracting spirits or inhabited by spirits, called yorishiro. These include trees, in which case the inhabiting spirits are called kodama, and cutting down these trees is thought to bring misfortune. In cases of stones, the stones are known as iwakura. (Adapted from the Wikipedia site.)

   Most of the following photos were taken of shimenawa hanging at the entrance of restaurants in my neighborhood.



   A kadomatsu (門松, literally gate pine) is a traditional Japanese decoration of the New Year placed in pairs in front of buildings, and to a lesser extent homes, to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. They are placed immediately after Christmas, sometimes as early as the evening of the 25th, and remain until the 7th of January. 

   Designs for kadomatsu vary depending on region but are typically made of pinebamboo, and sometimes ume tree sprigs which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness, respectively.

   The fundamental function of the New Year ceremonies is to honor and receive the toshigami (deity), who will then bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors' blessing on everyone. After January 15 the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami and release them. (Adapted from the Wikipedia entry on kadomatsu.)

   Inside the Nishitetsu Grand Hotel

   Outside the Daimyô Elementary School

   At the entrance of the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tenjin, Fukuoka.

   At the Seaside Momochi Hilton in Fukuoka

   In front of the popular Japanese restaurant, Chikae.


Sorry, but . . . 

   Few Japanese customs are sillier than the that of sending mochū hagaki (喪中葉書, "mourning postcard"). The mochū hagaki (pictured above) is a postcard which is mailed to friends, relatives, co-workers, and others in the month of December notifying them that due to the death of family member during the past year the family will be in mourning and unable to send out New Year's greeting cards known as a nengajō (年賀状). It is as if they are saying, "I am sending this postcard to you to inform you that I cannot send you a postcard."

   To be fair, the mochū hagaki does serve the useful purpose of informing others that they need not bother sending a nengajō to the family out of respect for their loss, even when the person who has died was 105 years old, as is the case in the postcard on the left, and "relief" might be a better word to describe the emotions felt upon the passing of Great Grandpa.