Thursday, 25 January 2018

First Snow in Tokyo: Zao Ski Resort and Kotatsu

Pagoda-like garden lantern covered in snow in Yamagata
Garden Lantern (tōrō)
Tokyo typically doesn't see much snow, but Monday saw the capital's first snowfall of the season and it was the heaviest since 2014. Snow started falling in the afternoon and at around 2:30pm a heavy snow warning (ōyuki keihō =大雪警報) was announced, triggering the cancellation of classes at my university (and lots of happy students). Thereafter, it really started coming down and in the end we had around 20cm in the centre and 30cm out in Western Tokyo. In contrast to Tohoku and Hokkaido, which are used to the snow, people in Tokyo always seem taken by surprise by snow and don't know how to handle it. The rush of people leaving work early coupled with train delays saw entry restrictions (nyūjō kisei =入場規制) at Shibuya and Shinagawa Stations. Moreover, there were over 60 injuries from falls reflecting the fact that Tokyoites simply don't know how to walk in the snow; my Tohoku friend recommends walking like a penguin to prevent slips and falls! Since then, temperatures have dropped as low as minus 8℃, the lowest since the 1970s, causing dangerous patches of black ice. See the video below for a clip of our dog Jaz enjoying the snow on our balcony.

The sound of the snow chains making a shan-shan jangling sound on the tyres of buses and trucks always takes me back to my time in Yamagata, Tohoku, which marked the start of my life in Japan. The snow was unlike anything that I seen before in North-west England and I had to learn quickly how to walk properly! One common activity during the winter was yuki-kaki (雪かき) or snow shovelling, also called josetsu (snow removal=除雪), which saw all the neighbours band together to clear the snow in front of their houses and shops. During my time in Yamagata, one of the things I enjoyed most was taking the bus at weekends to Zao ski resort where I would rent skis and spend the whole day enjoying the web of slopes and courses (and in the process teaching myself to ski - very badly). Mount Zao is actually a volcano on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures with the ski resort and famous hot springs (onsen) on the Yamagata side. One of the biggest tourist attractions are the so-called "snow monsters" (jyuhyō =樹氷), frost covered trees which look amazing especially when illuminated at night. Zao was actually the location for world-cup ski jumping last week and is highly recommended for expert and beginner alike.

As the conclusion to this snowy story let me introduce one of Japan's most well-known and loved children's songs: Yuki (snow) which is popularly called Yuki ya Konko (雪やこんこ) supposedly meaning snow falling though linguistically it doesn't make a lot of sense in modern Japanese. The lyrics and a translation can be seen here. My favourite line is undoubtedly the last, one that perfectly catches a typical indoor Japanese winter scene: neko wa kotatsu de marukunaru (猫はこたつで丸くなる) - "the cat is curled up under the kotatsu." A kotatsu is a low heated table covered with a quilt which, given that most Japanese houses don't have central heating, serves as a cosy refuge during the cold months. Highly recommended!

Friday, 19 January 2018

New Year Decorations going up in Smoke

Mochi sticky rice cakes
January 1st to 3rd may be Hatsumōde, or the first shrine visit, for many Japanese but the second visit is often a week or two later to ritualistically burn the new year decorations known as dondo-yaki (どんど焼き). This is a practice to appease and "release" the gods which they have been housing over the new year period. Fuchu City in Western Tokyo is host to what is said to be the biggest of these bonfires, made with bamboo and straw, on the morning of January 14th. After the fire has burned down, participants roast sticky rice cakes (mochi =餅) - a popular new year food - on the embers, supposedly guaranteeing health for the new year. Dates differ between regions, but decorations are often taken down by January 7th and burned on or around January 15th.

So what new year decorations are usually burned? A previous post mentioned one of the most ubiquitous new year decorations, the kadomatsu (門松), a collection of pine, bamboo, and sometimes plum (ume) branches which are typically placed in a male/female pair either side of a door or gate to welcome the ancestral spirits or kami. Sometimes this is simplified to a pine branch or branch (matsu-kazari =松飾り). Pine and bamboo are both said to symbolise longevity and strength/hardiness.

Another common decoration placed on the dondo-yaki bonfire is the shime-kazari (しめ飾り), a wreathe like adornment typically hung on the door (or even on the grill of a car - see picture) featuring some combination of pine, fern, tangerine (mikan), and berries adorned with rice straw rope (shime-nawa =しめ縄). Note also the white jagged zigzag-shaped strips of paper (shide) which were explained in detail in this earlier post. The calligraphy in the picture reads kinga shin'nen (謹賀新年) a formal written form of "Happy New Year."

A final popular new year decoration but one which is eaten rather than burned after the new year break is the kagami-mochi (鏡餅), with kagami meaning mirror (the copper mirrors used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi). The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the bigger one placed on top of the smaller one (representing the past year and the year to come). It is topped with a tangerine (this time featuring a "lucky" leaf); the tangerine is typically referred to as a "daidai" which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (with the repetition of the syllables supposedly pointing to the continuation of generations). Although traditionally home-made, today most people buy one from the supermarket (pictured) which is actually plastic containing a small mochi inside. The picture left lists a number of suggestions as to where to place this decoration, including the toilet and bathroom! It is usually cut and eaten on January 11th, a practice known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き) or opening. Here's hoping 2018 is a fruitful year for all!

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Nengajō New Year Greeting Cards and Otoshidama

New Year's greeting cards - known as nengajō (年賀状) - are something of an institution in Japan and after coming back from the first shrine visit of the year (hatsumōde) on January 1st it's exciting to open one's mailbox and check the pile of cards that have (hopefully) arrived. Even after this date cards continued to arrive in dribs and drabs; the latest date they are supposed to arrive is January 7th. Much like sending Christmas cards in the West, the custom of sending cards to people who have helped you throughout the previous year - or just people you want to keep in touch with - is a key part of the New Year holiday. It's a tricky business though working out who to send cards to - and anticipating who you might receive cards from - and inevitably you'll receive cards from people you didn't send one to: cue a mad rush to find spare cards and get them sent off post-haste! Apparently, 2,599 million cards were issued for 2018 which works out at about 20 cards for each man, woman, and child in Japan!

Like many Japanese, we usually buy blank postcards specially made for ink-jet printing and create our own customised cards: since this year is the year of the dog, our own dog, Jaz (, was featured on the 2018 card (pictured). This is fairly common, and most people add pictures of family and pets as a way of updating friends on what happened during the previous year. Our cards contained the standard new year greeting in red at the top: akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) followed by the ubiquitous but untranslatable Japanese phrase asking for indulgence in the coming year (kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu =今年もよろしくお願いします). For a great explanation on how and what to write on a nengajō see here.

The excitement of nengajō is not yet over though: each card has a special unique number at the bottom (pictured) and January 14th (today!) is chūsenbi (抽選日) or raffle drawing day. The lucky winners will get a New Year's gift or otoshidama (お年玉) a word which typically refers to money given in small envelopes to children by relatives and visitors. You can see the winning prizes and numbers here: did I get anything?

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Festival of Seven Herbs: Seasonal Food in Japan

Japanese tend to strongly connect certain foods with particular seasons - previously I introduced some foods typically eaten in autumn such as sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo) and chestnuts (kuri). In winter, warming root vegetables are very popular such as the large white Oriental radish known as a daikon (大根). This radish is one of the ingredients used in making seven-herb rice porridge/gruel (おかゆ) pictured. The herbs are actually spring plants, the first green of spring that brings colour to the new year table. This is traditionally eaten on The Festival of Seven Herbs or Nanakusa no Sekku (七草の節句) which is celebrated (unsurprisingly) on January 7th. This festival is one of the five traditional seasonal festivals (go-sekku =五節句) that used to be celebrated at the Japanese imperial court mentioned in a previous post.

Supermarkets usually sell the ingredients in a convenient pack (pictured) to save people buying the herbs separately. The packet even has a recipe for making the gruel together with a pictorial description of the seven ingredients listed under their traditional names: hakobera (chickweed), gogyō (cudweed), suzushiro (white radish), seri (Java waterdropwort), suzuna (turnip), nazuna (Shepherd's Purse), and hotokenoza (Nipplewort). See here for a table. There are all sorts of chants and customs associated with preparing and cutting the herbs, but most Japanese today seem to have forgotten these and simply enjoy it as a simple, plain food after the excesses of the new year period as well as a way to wish for health in the coming year. Itadakimasu!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The first Shrine Visit of the Year: Hatsumode

2018 is now upon us, also known as the year of the dog (inu-doshi =戌年). 2018 is also the penultimate year of Heisei in the Japanese calendar - Heisei 30 - since the abdication of the emperor in May 2019 will bring with it a new (as yet unannounced) era. Most Japanese are now back at work but during the holidays - especially the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of January - many made a point of visiting a shrine to make their prayers and wishes for the new year, a practice known as hatsumōde (初詣) made up of the characters for "first" and "make a pilgrimage". Indeed, although most of the shops were shut during this period, trains were crowded with people and two or three hour queues were not uncommon at some of the most popular shrines.

Personally, I like to avoid spending hours queueing with thousands of others at a popular shrine like Meiji Shrine (=Meiji Jingu) in Shibuya (which reportedly sees three million visitors in the first three days of January!) and instead paid a visit to my local neighbourhood shrine (pictured). There's even a bilingual poster explaining how to pray properly at the shrine captured in three easy steps: two bows or ni-hai (二拝), two hand-claps or ni-hakushu (二拍手), and one bow or ippai (一拝). Typically people throw a coin - 5 yen is supposed to bring luck in romance - into the wooden box (saisen-bako =賽銭箱) before these steps. You can also ring the shrine bell to alert the deity to your presence after making your offering. For a more detailed explanation see here.

After praying, if you choose to buy a lucky charm (omamori) or fortune paper (omikuji) from the shrine shop you'll probably be served by a young woman wearing a white top and red hakama trousers with her hair tied back in a decorative clasp. These women are known as miko (巫女) or "shrine maidens" in English and act as assistants to the priest, often part-timers at busy times, though in the past they were powerful shamans. The video below was taken by a friend at the famous Iwashimizu Hachimangū Shrine (石清水八幡宮) in Yawata City, Kyoto Prefecture (京都府八幡市) and shows a traditional shrine maiden's ceremonial dance (miko-mai =巫女舞) or kagura (神楽) on New Year's Day (see here for an official video).