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Archive for the ‘Traditional Culture’ Category

I decided to log in to Japan Q&A today after (too) many months. It’s been so long that I couldn’t even remember some of my posts. So, as you can imagine, I was surprised to see all the inspiring comments readers have posted in my absence. I was truly touched, thank you.

For almost one year – probably one of the most difficult years of my life – I wrote blogs about Japan, my life here, my experiences, and my insights. I posted mostly for myself, to give myself a positive outlet for feelings I was not ready to deal with. When I grew healthy in mind and body, I left my blog behind, a beautiful reminder of how I was able to move on.


But, I have yet to share the most meaningful experiences I’ve had here in Japan, and the most interesting observations I’ve made. Something I had not realized up until this moment was that, by keeping this blog I was able to piece together memoirs of a Japan that I see only through my eyes and that exists only in my mind.

Someday I’d like to write a book, maybe a tale. A coming of age story of a girl who slowly discovers Japan, compares the culture to her own, but instead of contrasting the two, she learns to love both. Let me write about my experiences once again, to piece together the plot for this story. I no longer need a creative outlet for unspent energy, but I do need to remember the unending joy, the loneliness, and even the fear that I have experienced while living in Japan.

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Several guys I work with have married their wives in their home countries but have come to Nippon to live indefinitely. They all give the same reason for leaving their jobs and starting a new adventure here in Nippon: their wives have aging parents and they want to help out with the family business or farm, but mostly they want to be close to their family.

Japanese daughters are all expected to live close to home. While many young Japanese women have chosen to embark on careers, and even work abroad, they still make the customary trip back home as often as they can. A lot even take care of their parents indirectly, as can be seen in this article.

There is a Japanese saying that goes like this, good daughters should live close enough that when they take a bowl of miso soup to their parents, it should still be warm. It got me thinking about all the Japanese girls I know. While still single, they still generally live with their parents. The only real move they make is from their parents’ home to their shared home with their husbands. It’s a general viewpoint in a lot of Asian countries, too, I heard.

I really think Japan has done well to keep their traditions intact. But when I come across articles like this one about adult children sponging off of their parents, I often wonder if maybe sometimes it’s a little too much…

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Sendai Tanabata

A few years back, I went on a trip to Sendai for the Tanabata Festival. At that time, I was only interested because of the colorful decorations that I heard were so famous. I badgered a Japanese friend to accompany me, and she was so nice she’d even explained everything I thought there was to know about the festival.

The Legend of Tanabata goes something like this…

Ages ago, in the time of the gods and stars and space, there lived the Sky god. He was called Tenkou. Tenkou had a knock-out of a daughter, named Orihime. Orihime was a career weaver. Her line was goddess kimonos. She was too much into her fashion that her dad soon worried about her. So he fixed her up with this guy, Hikoboshi, who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa. Hikoboshi was a workaholic cattle herder himself, and Tenkou thought they’d totally hit it off. And they did.

Orihime and Hikoboshi fell in love and spent each waking hour together. Orihime forgot about her weaving and Hikoboshi let the cows wander. This angered Tenkou so he banished Hikoboshi and forbade the couple from ever meeting again. Orihime went into deep depression and cried all day and all night. Her dad again got all worried and said yeah, maybe they could again see each other. But this time there was a condition: they could only meet on the 7th day of the 7th month of each year.

The thing was, the Amanogawa was difficult to cross, and the only way they could was if magpies helped them cross it. Magpies don’t come out though if it rains. So many Japanese people hope that it doesn’t rain on Tanabata night, else, the star lovers don’t meet again for a whole year.

Since being to Sendai, I’ve been religiously wishing for the rains to stop on Tanabata night. The stars Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair) just have to meet, they just have to. So join me in wishing the skies will be clear tomorrow night…

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On March 3rd, most families with daughters will be celebrating Hina Matsuri, which is also known as Momo-no-sekku or Girls’ Day in English. Hina Matsuri is my favorite Japanese holiday, or maybe Tanabata is, but I like them both a lot. Hina Matsuri is unlike many foreign holidays. Families celebrate the day by putting Hina Dolls on display. (Learn more about the dolls and their arrangement here. You can also learn how to fold an origami Hina empress and emperor.)

And really cute and sweet-tasting food is served. Most Girls’ Day fare are pink and pastel colored, and food presentation is especially important. Each of the food served has some kind of special meaning. Like for example, the Hamaguri Soup. It has a clam in it, and after you drink the soup, you need to fold up the clam to ensure a good marriage in the future.

As an honorary daughter of most of my Japanese friends, I always take part in the festivities. I always have Sakura Mochi and I always get these really cool Girls’ Day presents. I really enjoy this festival because everything is pink, lots of beautiful things are on display and I get to celebrate femininity with the rest of the Japanese female population. Incidentally, many Japanese girls complain that Children’s Day, which is the celebration for boys, is a holiday while Girls’ Day is not. They make a valid argument but then, there aren’t a lot of good food and pretty things on May 5th, so I don’t mind.

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Finally! Spring is here! Time to roll out the Hanami mats and sit under the beautiful blossoms…

In the Nara Period (710 – 794), Japanese people viewed Ume (梅, Japanese Plum) Blossoms, as they were the first blossoms that signaled the coming of Spring. Around the Heian Period, however, Sakura viewing parties became more popular among the elite. There are a few reasons why I like Ume: they smell really nice and they come in different hues that are just so pleasing to the eye. I love Sakura, but Ume is a little bit more special, I think.

A lot of the Ume Matsuris have been underway since the beginning of February, but unlike Sakura, Ume is in bloom for a whole month, sometimes a month and a half. There are several places in the Kanto Area where they can be viewed, below are a few suggestions. Enjoy the start of Spring and don’t forget your camera!

Mito Ume Matsuri (Mito, Ibaragi)

Plum blossoms can be viewed at one of the three finest landscape gardens of Japan, Kairakuen. Over 3000 trees, in all colors can be enjoyed from mid-February to late March. It is a 65-minute trip by JR Joban Line from Ueno, costing around 4,020 yen.

Koishikawa Korakuen (Tokyo)

One of Tokyo’s most beautiful traditional landscape gardens, Koishikawa Korakuen is attractive all year round, boasting of an assortment of plum trees, cherry blossom trees and maple trees. Entrance costs 300 yen.

Soga Bairin (Odawara, Kanagawa)

View Hakone and Mt. Fuji during the Plum Blossom Festival at Soga Bairin and Joshi Koen in Odawara City. It is a 2-hour trip from Shinjuku Station to the Shimosoga Station on the JR Gotemba Line, then the park is a 10 minute walk from there. The park has 35,000 trees.

Yushima Tenjin Shrine (Tokyo)

This shrine is popular with students who wish to pass entrance exams. They have poetry readings and traditional concerts on weekends and holidays. The nearest station is Yushima on the Chiyoda Line.

Setagaya Ume Matsuri (Hanegi Park, Tokyo)

A small park with about 700 trees, tea parties and other events are held on weekends until the end of February.

Naritasan Koen (Narita, Chiba)

460 trees can be viewed while on tour of Naritasan Temple, in Chiba. The city of Narita is worth making the trip for, too.

Links and Photos: Japan Guide and Let’s Enjoy Tokyo

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“Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (鬼は外! 福は内!)”

This is what Japanese people chant while throwing beans called Irimame (いり豆) out the door of the house or at a family member wearing a monster mask in a ritual called Mamemaki (豆まき、bean-throwing) at Setsubun (節分). Setsubun will be celebrated on February 3, 2008 and it is a very sacred festival in Japan. Almost all Japanese people visit a temple to attract good luck for the year. Based on the Lunar Year, it is the ancient Japanese New Year.

Japanese Festivals and Seasonal Events have always fascinated me because of the predictability or maybe the unpredictability of the dates. Like, for example, does anyone think its a coincidence that New Year’s, Girls Day and Children’s Day fall on 1/1, 3/3 and 5/5? And since 7/7 is also Tanabata, is that also a coincidence? Is there like a holiday on 9/9? 11/11? Is there a reason even numbered dates aren’t festival dates? But like for Setsubun, it coincides with the Lunar New Year, I may be wrong, but don’t dates on the Lunar Year change – like the Chinese New Year? In Japan, though, Setsubun is always celebrated on February 3rd.

For those interested to watch the Setsubun Events (I heard a lot of celebrities turn up for these events…), see some of the links for February3, Sunday, below:

Tokyo:

Asakusa Senso Temple (Mamemaki at 12:00, 14:00, 16:00 – the celebrity mamemaki) Station: Asakusa Station (7mins on foot from station)

Takahaka Fudousonkongo Temple (Mamemaki at 10:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:00, 16:00) Station: Takahakafudou Station (5mins on foot from station)

Ikegami Honmon Temple (Mamemaki at 13:00, 14:00, 15:00) Station: Nishi-Kamagome Station (13mins on foot from station)

Kanagawa:

Kawasaki Daishin (Mamemaki at 11:00, 13:30, 16:00) Station: Kawasaki Daishin (7mins on foot from the station)

Chiba:

Chiba Shrine (Mamemaki at 19:00 – 20:00) Station: Chiba Station (14mins on foot from the station)

Saitama:

Chichibu Shrine (Mamemaki at 10:30 – 15:00) Station: Chichibu Station (6mins on foot from the station)

Note: A lot of Japanese traditions have been well preserved because of their Period of Isolation (鎖国, Sakoku) . Many of the traditional Japanese people are proud of this fact, saying it was more beneficial to their country and their people. While I’m sure a lot of people would like to debate that fact, I believe that in a way, Japan was lucky they were able to preserve so much of their ancient traditions. This particular celebration dates back to the Muromachi Era (1392-1573).

Images Via: Let’s Enjoy Tokyo

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Who doesn’t have a story about visiting a doctor in Japan and feeling a little bit more worried than when you scheduled an appointment? What with all those blue tablets for the swelling to go down to the pink capsules that counteract the side effects of the orange pill, and the attendant who didn’t wear proper surgical gloves, there is really a lot to be desired from the medical services here in Japan.

Unfortunately, visiting the doctor is a necessity and we can’t do much about it except complain or make fun of the whole setup. We have to understand though that modern medicine only appeared in Japan a hundred years ago. Before that, the entire nation relied on medical journals smuggled out of Dejima. The details are hazy in my mind, but it seemed these journals were translated and studied but I don’t know about actual schooling in the science of medicine. Of course, during the Meiji Restoration, things changed. But considering that things haven’t really changed, like how people would like to think, there may be a few tricks left over from the years of isolation.

What a lot of us forget though is that this is Japan, so naturally, Western medicine should not be their forte here. What they are really good at, I suppose, is mainly their own healing mechanisms, things like Shiatsu massage, alternative medicine to most of us, but it is a way of life here. Herbal medicines, healing tea and alternative methods of healing are quite the thing here in Asia. Most martial arts and Shiatsu masters are able to tell by pressing down on nerves what is really causing you discomfort, and then they massage these imbalances out. Shiatsu is only one of many massage therapies offered here. Japan also has an abundance of Chiropractors, Reflexologists, and Accupressure Practitioners.

One of my superiors is a Reflexologist, and we have orders to consult her when we feel a cold or some other bout of something coming on. She gives us a really tear-jerking back rub, followed by a hot patch (called a hokkairo, ホッカイロ) placed somewhere in the lower back. You get really drowsy after, but after a really fitful sleep that night, you awake refreshed and full of energy. She’s done this for me more than a couple of times, all with the same result: my cold getting arrested and me getting a second (or third or fourth…) chance at life. As a bonus, I also save on that trip to that doctor which worries me so much…

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