Pi Day is celebrated all around the world on March 14 every year (3/14) since the Greek letter pi (π) is used to represent the mathematical constant for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which is approximately 3.141592653. This year they are calling it the Pi Day of the century because the date 3/14/15 covers the first five digits of pi. And of course, at 9:26:53 on 3/14, the time approximated pi to ten digits. What were we doing at that time to celebrate? Eating pie of course!
It is currently Golden Week here in Japan, the seven-day period during which there are four national holidays. A lot of of people take this opportunity to travel, go sightseeing, or visit family so trains, airports, and sightseeing spots can be packed. No matter how the days are spent, four holidays close together is definitely a reason to be happy! (more…)
Today people are celebrating Easter all around the world: congregating in churches, coloring and hiding Easter eggs, and enjoying chocolate rabbits or marshmallow chicks. Though Christmas has become a popular holiday here in Japan and you see decorations everywhere as I mentioned in an earlier post, Easter has not been adopted in the same way. I did not see Easter themed displays in store fronts or decorations available for purchase. But I did manage to find some Easter themed donuts at Krispy Kreme! (more…)
It has been a month since Valentine’s Day and that means today is White Day (ホワイトデー) here in Japan! What is this White Day holiday? Well, it is one of the interesting differences in how Valentine’s Day is celebrated here in Japan. Back in February, my Valentine’s Day post was all about how women give men chocolates to celebrate the holiday in Japan and how these chocolates might be honmei-choco (本命チョコ, “true feeling chocolate”) given to boyfriends or husbands but also might be giri-choco (義理チョコ, “obligation chocolate”) given to coworkers, bosses, or friends. White Day is the day when men are expected to reciprocate by giving gifts to those women who gave them chocolate on Valentine’s Day.
In the spirit of the holiday here in Japan, I made homemade chocolates for my husband on Valentine’s Day this year. So today, I received White Day gifts from him! He knows exactly how much I love chocolate so he gave me a delicious layered cake in the shape of a heart (which I ate immediately, of course) and a box full of chocolates I cannot wait to try! As soon as I opened the box and smelled the yummy chocolaty goodness, I wanted to immediately try each different kind…but I’m going to at least try to exert some willpower and eat them slowly over the next few days like a reasonable person. I managed to close the box after only eating two pieces (a dark chocolate matcha piece and a white chocolate piece with orange liqueur) so the challenge begins now!
February seems too early for spring in Japan but with the unseasonably warm weather and plum trees blossoming, it does feel like spring is in the air. So I suppose it is only appropriate that today is Setsubun (節分, “division of the seasons”), the holiday in Japan marking the lunar calendar change from winter to spring. This holiday is also associated with the Lunar New Year so some traditions are centered around the idea of cleansing away any evil from the previous year to make way for a fresh start.
My husband and I joined in a Setsubun celebration held at a local shrine to see how they celebrated this particular holiday. After a Shinto ceremony inside the shrine, priests and a few invited guests from the local community stepped outside to throw roasted soybeans to the awaiting crowd. Many of the others there had large bags they held open to catch the soybeans before they hit the ground but we had not come so prepared and it was up to the hood on my jacket and my husband’s outstretched cap to do the job for us.They also threw a few small parcels wrapped in paper which turned out to hold roasted soybeans and paper slips exchangeable for prizes. Our haul included a couple dozen roasted soybeans, a pack of wet tissues, and a bag of some kind of hot lemon drink mix.
The roasted soybeans are called fuku mame (福豆), or “fortune beans,” and are used in a few different ways. One of the other participants at the shrine told us to make sure to eat a soybean for each year of our age to bring good luck. He also told us that at his age, his stomach couldn’t take eating so many so that should tell you he was an older guy. It seems we frequently run into older men and women at festivals and such who are very happy to instruct us in the related customs and traditions (and I am happy to hear what they have to say).
Another custom, called mamemaki (“scattering beans”) or bean throwing, involves throwing roasted soybeans at whichever family member is chosen to wear the Oni (demon) mask. While throwing the beans, you yell “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外！福は内！), which translates to “Demons out! Luck in!” This symbolizes driving away any evil spirits while welcoming good fortune into the home. I saw a lot of Oni masks used as decorations for the holiday, including this one on a little dog figure on top of a collection box for seeing eye dog training. Isn’t he adorable?!
It is also tradition to eat eho-maki, or “lucky direction rolls,” for Setsubun. Many include seven different fillings as an association with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, called Shichifukujin (七福神). Our rolls included cuttlefish, omelette, cucumber, salmon, tuna, shrimp, and scallops. Yum! Usually thick sushi rolls like this are sliced into more manageable, bite-sized pieces but this will not do for fortune rolls. Since slicing them would symbolize cutting the good fortune, these have to be eaten just as they are. When eating the eho-maki, it is also tradition to face in the good luck direction for the year (east, north-east for 2014) while thinking about what you want for the following year. Oh, and you are not supposed to speak until you finish your entire roll. The rolls we got were so large they just fit on the plate and I am a really slow eater so I had plenty of time sitting here quietly, thinking up lots of things I want for the year.
Yesterday while my husband and I were out for lunch at a local restaurant, I kept seeing young women in kimono. You often see one or two (usually middle-age or older) women wearing kimono in busier downtown Tokyo train stations, but the only time I see lots of (younger) people in kimono locally are during summer festivals. Since it’s definitely not summer, I wondered what was going on. I soon found out, it was Coming of Age Day (成人の日)!
This national holiday celebrates those individuals who have reached the age of majority (20 years) during the past year and marks the transition into adulthood with the associated increase in responsibilities and rights. Turning twenty brings not only the right to vote but also the ability to buy cigarettes and alcohol in Japan. For the holiday, ceremonies are held at local offices and then attendees go out to celebrate with family and friends. Many women wear kimono for the holiday but it seems most men wear Western-style suits instead. Sadly, I didn’t see any men in kimono but I saw many kimono-clad women alone or in small groups, often with men dressed in suits, heading into cafes and restaurants. I’m assuming they were beginning their after-party celebrations.
I love when I come upon someone wearing kimono so this was a happy surprise of a holiday for me. It’s not just the beautiful designs and splashes of color that I love, but the way they add a touch of traditional culture to the modern cityscape. For anyone celebrating their twentieth year in Japan, welcome to adulthood!
At the end of the day on December 25th, Christmas decorations are quickly taken down and replaced with New Year decorations all across Japan. I saw this firsthand last year when my husband and I went to view Winter Illuminations on the 25th. When we left our local train station to head downtown, the store windows displayed Christmas trees and Santas but by the time we got back just a few hours later, the Christmas displays were gone and New Year decorations had taken their place! The transition felt rather abrupt to me but then when I considered that the New Year holiday is really the largest holiday in Japan, it’s somewhat more of a surprise that these decorations aren’t seen sooner. Generally though, they are displayed from December 26th through January 7th.
The kadomatsu (門松, “gate pine”) is one type of traditional Japanese New Year decoration placed in pairs (representing male and female) in front of homes and businesses. Kadomatsu are usually made of pine to represent longevity and bamboo to represent prosperity but other materials are sometimes included to add a little local flavor. The form of the kadomatsu is the same everywhere with three large bamboo shoots of varying heights placed in the center and the pine and other materials bound around them with straw mat and rope. The bamboo shoots from tallest to shortest represent heaven, humanity, and earth. The purpose of these decorations is to welcome ancestral spirits and Shinto deities for the New Year. The kadomatsu is considered temporary housing for the spirits and by honoring and receiving them in this way, it is thought they will bring a bountiful harvest and blessings for all.
The shimekazari (しめ飾り) is another traditional Japanese New Year decoration that it is hung above the house entrance and is meant to keep out bad spirits while welcoming Shinto deities. I saw these hung at homes, businesses, and even on vending machines. Shimekazari are made of shimenawa (注連縄, “enclosing rope”), a Shinto braided straw rope that is considered sacred and marks the border to pure space when hung above a site’s entryway. It is this pure space where the Shinto deities can descend so these are common sights hanging above entrances to shrines. Shimekazari also have shide (しで), zigzag-shaped paper streamers that are often seen as part of Shinto rituals and ceremonies. Other auspicious items are often included. It is difficult to see but the shimekazari hanging over the sushi restaurant above has several auspicious items including pine twigs, a lobster, and a Japanese bitter orange. The pine represents longevity just as it did in the kadomatsu. Lobster also represents longevity because just like the shrimp from the osechi-ryori, the lobster’s shape is similar to that of an elderly man hunched over from old age. The Japanese bitter orange is a symbol of fertility because of a pun on their name. They are called daidai (橙) which can also be written with different kanji (代々) to mean “from generation to generation.”
Now that the 7th has passed, the New Year decorations have been taken down and I find that I miss them. Walking along and seeing these decorations always gave me the feeling that I was seeing a tangible form of hope and cheer for the new year. But I may have one last chance to see them before they are gone for good. Around January 15th, local shrines hold ceremonies where New Year decorations are gathered and burned in order to appease the residing spirits and release them. I think it’s time I check the local paper.