Archive for the ‘Traditional Culture’ Category

Yesterday was Seijin Shiki (成人式), the Coming of Age Day Ceremony. All over the city, in the stations and in the streets, kimono(着物)-clad ladies and a few men in hakama(袴) were about. Seijin no Hi (成人の日, Coming of Age Day) is a day many Japanese really look forward to. It is the day they are finally welcomed into society as adults. A lot of restrictions are lifted when one becomes 20 in Japan. For example, adults can finally smoke and drink… but wait, weren’t these kids already doing that before they even turned 15?

On Seijin no Hi, the city government, usually represented by the Board of Education, sponsors a big ceremony for the 20 year-olds. They invite the students’ elementary and junior high teachers, and they raffle off some prizes. When I attended one ceremony a few years ago (not as a participant but as a mere spectator), I witnessed first hand that it was a dress up ceremony. While the participants were posing for pictures and congratulating each other, a co-teacher pointed out several of her bad students to me, saying at least they bothered to wear something nice as they never did as junior high kids, adding they often snuck into school after hours to smoke. Then she pointed out a couple of pretty girls holding their toddlers, saying they already enjoyed adult status, really. And so it went, she pointing out her students who just became adults but who were already doing all you could at 20, legally, save for maybe voting?

As this teacher pointed each of the students out and listed reasons they were violating the ceremony code, I wondered why they even bothered to dress up then. But then it was that really, I later realized. For many Japanese people, especially the ladies, it is one of the rare occasions when they can actually wear a Kimono, a Furisode and have themselves fixed up. It is the one day in their lives when they can meet up with their peers and let loose, enjoying the day nicely dressed and finely groomed. As foreigners, we have an image that all Japanese people are born wearing kimonos, but according to many of my friends, they rarely, if ever, get to dress up in their national dress. So adulthood aside, the ceremony is really about getting the chance to feel free for a day, dress up in the finest kimono and drink, smoke and be merry!


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I wasn’t in Japan this year to join in the relatively quiet celebrations but I was here a few years ago and I enjoyed the whole deal (well, close to it, anyway).

The New Year is probably the most important holiday in Japan. Preparations begin sometime in mid-December, when people have forget-the-year parties called bonenkai (忘年会), and when they order or make their own New Year’s cards called nengajou (年賀状). These nengajou have to be sent out early so they make it to the addressees exactly on New Year’s Day.

Immediately after the Christmas holidays, the trees and Santas disappear during the Osouji (お掃除, the general cleaning of one’s home) to make way for the New Year’s decors: the Kadomatsu (門松)and the Shimenawa (しめ縄). New Year’s Eve is called Omisoka (大晦日)and Japanese people eat Toshikoshi Soba (年越し蕎麦), literally across-the-years noodles. These are eaten to ensure longevity. New Year’s Eve is relatively quiet, with the exception of the 108 tolls of the temple bell. It is rung 108 times to banish each of the 108 sins.

On New Year’s Day, people gather together with family for an intricate lunch of O-sechi Ryouri (御節料理). Each of the dishes included in the Jubako (the O-sechi Ryouri box) has a special meaning, each having a special wish for the New Year. For example:
Datemaki (sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp) symbolizes good fortune.
Kazunoko (herring roe) symbolizes fertility or prosperity.
Kuromame (black boiled beans) symbolizes being hardworking.
Gomame (small dried sardines) symbolizes a good harvest.
Konbu (a kind of seaweed) symbolizes joy.

On the first three days of the year, families flock to temples and shrines for the first visit of the year called Hatsumode (初詣). Omikuji and Omamori are purchased at this time. The lines leading to the Temple Hall are often long in bigger temples. Famous shrines like Meiji Jingu or Narita-san receive about two million visitors during this time.

While many people still observe the New Year traditions, I’ve found that in my classes, only half of the kids do. A lot prefer to go skiing, shopping or talk about their Otoshidama (お年玉), which is money given to children on New Year’s. A lot watch the New Year Eve Show, Kohaku Uta-gassen, which in its own way has become part of the New Year festivities. Then the next day, many watch the Hakone Ekiden, a long-distance university marathon. Then of course, people rush out to the bargain sales, and to get Fukubukuro (福袋), the surprise shopping bags sold by most stores. Also, only half of the kids spend time with their families, with some of them even attending Juku (塾, cram schools) and Juken (受験) classes, preparation courses for big tests.

According to a friend of mine, the true meaning of the New Year holiday, the chance to spend time with family, is slowly being replaced by consumerism and materialism. 20 years ago, stores closed for the New Year holidays and people stayed home. People looked forward to playing games like Karuta or Hanetsuki, and everyone knew who the Shichifukujin were. But then he’s also a really old guy and his sentiments probably still lean on the more conservative. Some things have to change, right? Hopefully, all change will be for good and wouldn’t it be best for it to come during the New Year?

Happy New Year to All!

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Have you ever heard that Christmas Cake joke: Japanese women are like Christmas cakes, if they surpass the 25th (Christmas day or their birthday), they’ll be difficult to dispose of…

This joke makes me think Japanese women are bred to be wives. Some of the festivals, like the Hina Matsuri (also called Girl’s Day) are celebrated so daughters will grow to be healthy and find good husbands. A few friends have told me that as parents they worry that their daughters won’t marry. One of my older lady friends announced her daughter’s engagement, and let out a big sigh of relief. She said her daughter will finally be married at 24. She is one of the fortunate ones, it seems.

Others who aren’t as lucky, like one of my close friends, was telling me she’s turning 33 soon and must find someone suitable or suffer going through an omiai (お見合い, a type of matchmaking meeting). Another, who is 28, told me she will marry at 34 (an age considered the last chance to get married by most Japanese people).

Whichever female type a Japanese girl is, she seems to want to be married by a certain age, either by her own choice or her parents’ or even by the society’s. Basically, there are four female types in Japan. According to this Time Magazine editorial comic, they are the Career Girls, the Little Princesses, the Desperate Housewives, and the Bad Girls. A common thread is the need to find husbands (maybe except for the Bad Girl…). While more and more women are starting to become more liberated and choose to be single, a lot of women still want to find a partner, settle down and build families. In a developed nation like Japan, it’s quite nice to see that women still prefer to keep to traditional roles (remember the words of a certain Japanese minister?).

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It’s been said many times that Japanese people are not religious. Instead, a lot of them or possibly all of them are superstitious. A good number of superstitions are based on culture and customs. Some are from foreign countries, like for example a black cat crossing your path will bring you bad luck.

I got a question from a reader about yakudoshi (厄年、the unlucky years).

Men and women of certain ages also go to a shrine or temple to make sure they don’t suffer the worst of “yakudoshi”. The term refers to the ages 25 and 42 for men, 19 and 33 for women. The word “yaku” means calamity and it’s thought that failure to ward off the bad luck can lead to disaster. Wearing red is also thought to help. Red is also worn at an event to celebrate a man’s 60th year. Called “kanreki”, it marks the fifth completion of the traditional 12-year cycle and is referred to as a kind of return to childhod or second infancy. (From: Japan Zone)

I’ve heard that bad luck is attracted not only the yakudoshi year, but also on the year before it and the year after it. There are omamori (お守り、lucky charms) that one can buy at shrines and temples that can help ward off the bad luck.

Since I’ve been in Japan, I haven’t been worried about the number 13, my fear has transferred to the number 4. But then since I am not Japanese, I’d like to think I’m a bit exempt from the bad luck of things I know so little of.

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Two of my Japanese friends just came back from a three-month stay in Australia. The moment they got back, they had natto and tofu. They lived in a small town out of Sydney, and thus were a little deprived of things Japanese. One thing they found really weird they said was the weird tofu in the supermarkets. I was asking them, what do you mean weird? The wife explained that the tofu had a use-by-date of almost two weeks. They said, tofu can only last 2 to 3 days.

It was about the preservatives. It seems anything containing preservatives here is some kind of poison. I’ve had really long discussions about the use of food coloring (yes, the reason why all their cakes are white is because they refuse to use food coloring). I always say, it’s not like you’re going to drink the bottle! It’s just a few drops…

With all their issues with use-by dates: a confectionery store using expired milk and now McDonalds with their expired salads; you’d think long-lasting tofu would have been a little more welcome…

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I was once in a bus in a small town somewhere in rural Japan. The bus was filled with elderly people and it stopped to pick one more up at the bus stop. As the old lady was struggling to get on, the driver started cursing saying “Get on, old woman! You’re delaying the bus schedule!” or something to that effect, with more colorful words. I was seriously shocked! Who talks like that to older people? But the lady just laughed it off and said “Yes, yes. I’m going as fast as I can.”

Over the years, I’ve seen, experienced and heard about other similar treatment of the elderly. A lot of younger people, especially ladies, list “Oji shuu” (old man’s odor) as their biggest pet peeve. Also, kids refuse to give up their seats to older people in trains. I keep wondering why the younger generation doesn’t appreciate the people who survived a very difficult war, who helped shape Japan and bring it to the status it enjoys now as one of the most developed countries in the world, and who embody the core of the Real Japan…

I’ve heard how changing values and foreign influence have contributed to this. It’s really sad to see how the older generation have fought hard to keep their national identity, traditions and common practices intact only to be disregarded later on by their hamburger-loving grandchildren.

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For people in Tokyo looking to enjoy the autumn foliage, visit Mt. Takao this weekend. I was there last week with friends, and we felt this weekend would have been better.Takao-san is one of the closest nature recreation spots to Central Tokyo. The nearest station, Takaosanguchi, is 47 minutes from Shinjuku (one way fare is ¥370). Try to get there early (we got there at about 9:30a.m.), as it is a very popular destination this time of year.

There are six trails leading to the top of the mountain, so you can choose one that matches your hiking ability. There is also a cable car, and a chair lift that will take you half-way to the top. The cable car is the most popular way to go up, the tracks were built to give visitors the best view of the maple trees. We took the chair lift up this time, and it is not recommended for the faint hearted. You can get one-way (¥470) or round trip (¥900) tickets. Taking either the cable car or chair lift up, then walking down would be the easiest and most practical thing to do, maybe.

We walked from the station to the Monkey Park, where we learned a few facts about Japanese monkeys (ticket price ¥400). From the Monkey Park, we walked through Trail No. 1 to Yakuou-in Temple. The Temple was said to have been founded in 744 by Buddhist saint Gyoki in 744, upon the order of Emperor Shomu, to show reverence to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing. Mountain worshippers have come here over the centuries to venerate nature, and even today a number of esoteric exercises, like meditating under cascading water, are practiced throughout the year. It is said that people who show reverence here will have good luck and avoid serious adversity. It is well worth a visit.

It took about 25 minutes from there to the summit, which was as beautiful as it was crowded. People were picnicking and enjoying the kouyou (紅葉, red maple leaves). From there, you can see Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and a few other mountains. Typical of Japanese mountains, there were also several tea houses, small snack houses and vending machines at the top, and on the way there, too. The culinary specialty of Takao-san is Tororo Soba, noodles made from a mixture of Japanese yam and buckwheat.

Mt. Takao has long been a sacred mountain. There is an ancient legend that Tengu the long-nosed goblin lives on Mt. Takao. Even today his presence is highlighted at Takaosan Yaku-ou-in Temple, and at a number of spots on the pilgrims’ trail to the temple. Visitors can also avail of various omikuji (おみくじ, fortune readings) and omamori (お守り, good luck charms). Also, while we were at Takao-san, we had the chance to witness a ceremony of mountain worshipers, we were not sure, but they might have been yamabushi (山伏, basically Japanese mountain ascetic hermits).

See the Japan-Guide’s Takao-san Page

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