The art of cat-napping in Japan

The Japanese are masters of cat-napping. They are able to sleep anywhere, anytime. Their ability to squeeze in a quick nap is truly amazing. In Belgium I hardly ever see people sleeping in public, except for the occasional cat-nap on the train. But in Japan, I have seen people taking a nap in restaurants, while standing up on the train and even on the ground in the street!

cat-nap in japanese restaurant

This lady decided to have a quick nap after her lunch in a Toyota City restaurant.

cat-nap in japanese restaurant

Five minutes later, she reached an even more advanced state of relaxation.

If you want to see what the highest possible state of relaxation looks like, have a look at the post I wrote about school kids sleeping on the train.

But the most impressive example I saw of Japanese people being to sleep anywhere, anytime, is someone just taking a nap on the ground. And no, they were clearly not homeless people. Amazing!

 

Signs of spring: Field Horsetail or Tsukushi

Japanese people are a lot more aware of the seasons than Belgian people are. While the first signs of spring are met with joy everywhere, Japanese culture takes it to another level by singling out a great number of tell-tale sings of spring that people can look for and rejoice about. Famous examples are the first cry of the uguisu (a little bird, called the Japanese bush warbler in English) and the first blossoms, which are usually ume (plum blossom). But even the less glamorous signs of spring are noticed and welcomed with open arms. Like the inconspicuous little plant called tsukushi (土筆) or field horsetail.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

The field horsetail by the side of a road. The plant is called tsukushi in Japanese and its scientific name is Equisetum arvense – picture from http://blog.livedoor.jp/ak0503hr0406/archives/51385999.html

This little plant pops up by the side of the road all over Japan in early March. It was first brought to my attention by my lovely English students. They are a group of senior citizens and they still recall the days when people used to eat this plant. It was an inexpensive food source in times when Japan was not yet the land of plenty that it is now.

I also noticed the Field Horsetail on the wonderful Facebook page ‘Seasonal food in Japan’. Apparently the page is owned by a Japanese company that produces the ‘Taste Calendar’ (味のカレンダー). Their website appears to be in Japanese only but their Facebook page sometimes contains information in English. I wonder if the inclusion of the Field Horsetail in such a trendy calendar means that it is gaining in popularity again. In Belgium, there is a trend of bringing ‘forgotten vegetables’, such as parsnip or celeriac, back the daily menu. It would be interesting to see a similar trend in Japan.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

Last year the horsetail was assigned to the 8th of March on the Japanese Taste Calendar.

People watching – Kimono on the train

After living in Japan for a while, you start to experience something that I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’. I have talked about it in previous posts. It means that you have gradually gotten used to all the wonderful Japanese things that excited you so much at first. Life in Japan has started to seem so normal. But even then, from time to time, you will experience something that really makes you feel like you are in Japan. Like that time I ran into a monk in a fabric store. The excitement I feel at such a time, is the reason I call it ‘a face-slap-moment’.

Another good example of a face-slap-moment is seeing ladies in kimono on the train. Even towards the end of my year in Japan, I still felt really excited whenever I saw someone in kimono. Apart from the summer festivals, you really don’t see that many people in kimono anymore (with the possible exception of Kyoto). It is very hard to wear kimono and many young people don’t know how to do it. If you see someone in kimono, it is usually an elderly person.

I managed to snap a photograph of these two ladies on the subway in Nagoya:

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Ladies in kimono on the train in Japan. If you look closely, you will see the slightest hint of a green kimono, to the left of the lady in the yellow kimono.

Lucky for me, these ladies took the same transfer that I did. This gave me the perfect opportunity to follow them throughout Fushimi station in Nagoya and keep taking sneak photographs.

kimono on the train in Japan

Here we have a better view of their complete outfits

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

On the escalator I managed to get a close-up of the obi and the kimono fabric. People probably thought I was crazy taking all these photographs. Or maybe they just thought “*sigh* foreigners…”. Fortunately, Japanese people are too polite to comment on it.

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Escalator close-up of the lady in the green kimono. She was standing a bit farther away from me.

Japanese ladies in kimono waiting for the train

My best photo opportunity came at the end, when they finally stood still, waiting for the next train. Aren’t they lovely? The posture of the lady in yellow is so elegant and the kimono are gorgeous!

The lightest man in sumo

When we think of sumo wrestlers, we usually imagine very big, even fat, men. Like Kotoshogiku for example:

sumo wrestler kotoshogiku

Sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku

Weighing in at 176 kilograms, Kotoshogiku is a formidable man. There is, however, one exception to the rule of big sumo wrestlers. With only 93 kilograms, Czech born Takanoyama doesn’t have a gram of fat on him.

czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama

I am not sure why Takanoyama is so lean. Is he unable to put on the weight? Or is it a deliberate choice? If so, is it because of vanity? Or is it perhaps a way to stand out among all the other wrestlers? One thing is for sure though: it is not helping him in the ring. When I was following sumo, in 2011-2012, he was struggling to stay in the maegashira division (which is the lowest part of the top division). Usually he attempted some judo-like techniques and while they gained him the occasional win, overall he simply couldn’t compete with the heavier wrestlers. Meanwhile he has dropped out of the top division completely and is placed in the middle of jūryō, the second highest division.

Despite his poor ring performance, Takanoyama was (and perhaps still is?) very popular with the fans. I wonder if this is due to his unusual physique. It certainly isn’t due to his sunny personality, as I had the chance to discover one July afternoon in 2012.

Prior to the 2012 Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, we had the chance to attend a sumo practice session and eat some chanko nabe handed out by the wrestlers. As the wrestlers left to retire to their quarters, they were followed by a group of fans, asking them for pictures. Among the group was a very pushy Japanese lady, who seemed intent on touching the wrestlers as much as possible. When she took a picture with kind natured Takayasu, she even held his hand! Unfortunately I don’t have pictures of the pushy lady, but I do have our own pictures with the wrestlers.

japanese sumo wrestler takayasu

This is me and a friend posing with Takayasu. Such a sweet and shy guy!

After having taken her picture with Takayasu, the pushy Japanese lady approached Czech wrestler Takanoyama. As she was posing alongside him for a picture, she tried to cuddle up to him and take his arm. Takanoyama was having none of it though. He barked at her “Chikai!”, which literally translates as ‘(too) close’. In Japanese, just barking out the word is a very rude way to say she was too close. The lady shrieked and jumped at least a meter away.

We were witness to this incident because we were waiting to take our own picture with Takanoyama. In fact, our turn was up right after the pushy lady. Needless to say we were a bit anxious about approaching this ill-tempered wrestler after witnessing such a scene. In the pictures below, you can clearly see that my friend is keeping her distance from Takanoyama, as is my husband. Because I am standing a bit to the front, it looks like I am closer, but I can assure you that I was equally wary.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Posing with scary Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama. Notice how my friend is keeping her distance.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Even my husband is afraid to come too close and I can’t blame him!

People watching – Sexy mom

I never get tired of watching people in Japan. The way people dress and express themselves seems so much more varied than in Belgium. Although on the one hand, Japan is a society governed by rules, on the other hand I have the impression that Japanese people in some cases enjoy more personal freedom than Belgian people. Fashion is one of those instances where I feel there is more freedom in Japan than in Belgium.

Take for example the lady in the picture below. I ran into her in the mall and was impressed by the combination of her sexy outfit and the stroller.

sexy Japanese mom

Sexy Japanese mom. I found the combination of the short dress, the thigh length socks and the high heels quite provocative.

I don’t think there are many young moms in Belgium who would dare to go shopping in such an outfit. I’m sure self-confidence has a lot to do with it, but I also believe young moms would get a lot of negative reactions when wearing such an outfit, especially in combination with the stroller.

My interpretation of this situation is that this lady bravely wears whatever she likes and that Japanese society lets her. Hurray for Japan! But of course I realize that this is just my interpretation, influenced by my Western perspective. I would love to hear what other people (both Japanese and foreign) make of this sexy young mom. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section!

sexy Japanese mom

Here she is, waiting for the elevator. My apologies for the blurry picture. Taking sneak photographs without being noticed is hard!

Japanese New Year’s decorations

Around New Year’s time, you will see special decorations outside shops and in temples all over Japan. For foreigners, these public decorations are very interesting. Since we often don’t have access to Japanese family life, the decorations put up by shops and temples are the best (and often only) way for us to learn about Japanese New Year’s decorations.

The picture below was taken exactly two years ago, on January 7th 2012. It is a small restaurant underneath the train overpass next to our apartment building.

japanese New Year's decorations

Japanese New Year’s decorations outside a small restaurant

The two decorations on the ground are kadomatsu (門松, literally ‘pine gate’). Kadomatsu always come in pairs. Designs vary depending on region but they are typically made of bamboo and pine. Pine is considered lucky because it remains green in winter. Sometimes plum (ume) tree sprigs are also included, which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness.

Kadomatsu are placed at the gate or door of a house, temple or business. They are an invitation for the New Year God (toshigami 年神) to come down from the sky. The kadomatsu are meant to provide temporary housing for the god. The New Year God is believed to bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors’ blessing on everyone.

Kadomatsu are left outside until the 7th of January. After that, they are burned to  appease the gods and release them.

japanese new year's decorations kadomatsu

Two kadomatsu outside a wayside service area on December 30th

If you look back at the first picture – the one of the restaurant – you will also see a decoration above the door. That is a shimekazari (しめ飾り). Again, there are many different designs for shimekazari but most of them include a sacred braided straw rope (shimenawa), fern leaves, white ritual paper strips (shide) and a bitter orange (daidai). Like the kadomatsu, the shimekazari invites the New Year’s God to visit the home. Additionally, it is also meant to keep out bad spirits and thus prevent bad luck.

shimekazari at ryoanji temple in kyoto

Shimekazari at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto

Japanese new years decorations kyoto

Japanese New Year’s decorations in Kyoto, with a shimekazari above the door and kadomatsu at the entrance

japanese new years decorations shimekazari restaurant kyoto

A shimekazari at the entrance of a restaurant in Kyoto

How to send a New Year’s card to Japan

In Japan, it is customary to send out New Year’s cards, or ‘nengajou’. While in the West, traditional Christmas and New Year’s cards are gradually being replaced by electronic versions and e-mails, in Japan cards are still being sent through the mail (which I quite like).

Japanese New Year's cards 2014

A few examples of the New Year’s cards that the Japanese postal services offer for 2014. Since 2014 is the year of the horse, many cards feature horses. Usually one side of a Japanese New Year’s card will have an image and/or a message, and the other side is for the address (featured on the bottom right).

New Year’s cards are big business in Japan. Every year, millions of cards make their way into mailboxes all over Japan. It is not uncommon for one household to receive up to 200 cards. Traditionally you are supposed to send a card to everyone you have some sort of relationship with or social obligation to. That includes all of your coworkers, for example. But these days not all youngsters comply with this rule.

The postal service is of course well aware of this massive card sending habit and organises its service accordingly. All the cards posted before December 26th are guaranteed to be delivered on the 1st of January. That’s right. Not on the 31st, not on the 2nd. No, when the Japanese provide a service, they mean business. Postal workers work on the national holiday to ensure that everyone receives their cards on the 1st.

Every year I gladly join in this Japanese New Year’s card extravaganza. Having lived in Japan for a year, I met many people who really did their best to make me feel welcome and who were very generous towards me. Sending New Year’s cards to my Japanese friends seems like the perfect way to show them that they remain in my thoughts and that I am grateful for everything they have done for me.

At first, writing New Year’s cards in Japanese and figuring out the correct way to post them seemed like a daunting task. Once I finally figured everything out, I decided to write a guide for other people who might like to send cards to Japan as well.

Sending New Year’s cards to Japan: a guide

Make sure to send the card well in advance. It should arrive in Japan before the 26th of December. Another important point to note is that according to Japanese custom, you shouldn’t send a card to someone who has lost a loved one in the past year. But don’t worry if you are not sure about the addressee’s family situation. According to a helpful comment by Ayako Mathies, the original custom is that it is alright so send a card to families who have lost someone, but these families are not expected to send out cards or replies themselves.

Choosing the card

Since it will be difficult to find the typical Japanese New Year’s cards abroad, I recommend sending a card that is typical of your home country. For example, being from Belgium, I opted for cards with Christmas trees or cute little shops covered in snow. I tried to choose cards that invoke the romantic European winter feeling.

Writing the message

If the addressee speaks English or is familiar with foreign cultures, you may of course write whatever you like. If you are going for a traditional Japanese message, here are some things you could write:

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu.
明けましておめでとうございます。
Happy New Year! Unlike letters, Japanese New Year’s cards do not require a ‘dear x’. You can just open with the New Year’s greeting.

You may follow up with:

Honnendomo [addressee’s name + san] ni itte yoi toshi de arimasuyou oinori moushiagemasu.
ほんねんども [addressee’s name + さん] にとって よいとしでありますよう おいのりもうしあげます。
For formal situations (like writing to a teacher or someone who is a lot older than you).
Kono ichinen ga [addressee’s name + san] ni totte sutekina toshi de arimasuyouni!
のいちねんが [addressee’s name + さん] にとって すてきなとしでありように!
For informal situations (like writing to a friend or someone you know quite well).

After this, you can add a personal message or you can add words of thanks, requests for continued favor or wishes for health. Some examples from japanese.about.com:

Sakunen wa taihen osewa ni nari
arigatou gozaimashita.
昨年は大変お世話になり
ありがとうございました。
Thank you for all your kind help
during the past year.
Honnen mo douzo yoroshiku
onegaishimasu.
本年もどうぞよろしくお願いします。
I hope for your continued favor
this year.
Minasama no gokenkou o
oinori moushiagemasu.
皆様のご健康をお祈り申し上げます。
Wishing everyone good health.

Sign with your name at the end.

Addressing the envelope

Japanese addresses can be a bit tricky at first. If you are sending a card from abroad, you will most likely have a horizontal envelope in a standard size. Here’s an example of how to address an envelope to Japan:

nengajou Japanese New Year's card address example

Example of how to address a Japanese New Year’s card

Write ‘NENGA’ in big, red letters in the top left corner (or in kanji: 年賀). It should be clearly visible. This tells the post office that it is a New Year’s card and that they should hold it until the 1st of January. In Japan, it is acceptable for cards to arrive after the 1st of January but not before the 1st. Make sure to never write a person’s name in red ink. This is considered bad luck because names on graves are also red.

If you write the address in romaji (our Western, romanized letters), make sure to write very clearly. It is difficult for Japanese people to read our handwriting. If you can write Japanese, try to write the address in hiragana or even in kanji. If you opt for kanji, double-check that you write the addressee’s name correctly.

Write your own address on the back of the envelope. And of course don’t forget to put a stamp on it.

All finished! Your card should be good to go!

Strange kitchen contraption

When we first moved into our Japanese home, I noticed a strange contraption on the inside of one of our kitchen cupboard doors.

japanese kitchen

Our tiny Japanese kitchen, which I adored nonetheless. Everything was organised very efficiently. A dream come true for a home-organizing-geek like me.

strange kitchen contraption

The strange kitchen contraption beneath the sink.

I was puzzled by this strange, plastic attachment to our kitchen cupboard doors. I tried using it to hold the kitchen towels (by jamming a corner of the towel in the openings) but I soon gave this up. This was clearly not the intended use of this strange device.

Until one day, the epiphany came. I was visiting a Japanese friend’s house and we were cooking together. She asked me to take a knife and pointed to the cupboard under the sink. I opened the cupboard door and behold, she too had a similar device attached to the door, and in it were all her kitchen knives. So that’s what this thing is for! How convenient! It’s a safe place to store your knives and it saves a lot of space as well. I should have known that if something is pre-installed in a Japanese home, it is bound to be something very useful. No one does convenient like the Japanese!

japanese knife holder

Our japanese knife holder

Why ‘The Japans’ as a blog name?

When I first decided to start this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking of a good name. One thing that kept popping up in my head was ‘The Japans’.

The term comes from the novel ‘Shogun’ by James Clavell. ‘Shogun’ is the story of an English pilot, John Blackthorne, who washes up on the coast of Japan and is confronted with feudal Japan around 1600 AD. He is forced to adapt to Japanese ways and even becomes involved in the power struggle between daimyo’s Ishido and Toranaga (based on Tokugawa Ieyasu).

Shogun by James Clavell Cover

Shogun cover design

Blackthorne and his crew consistently refer to Japan as ‘The Japans’. It is a fabled island kingdom where no Englishman or Dutchman has ever set foot before. In the beginning of the book, the crew even expresses some doubts as to the existence of these mythical Japans. But soon enough they discover that The Japans are very real indeed.

I remember watching the TV mini-series as a child. When I grew older, I read the book and have reread it multiple times since. Both the TV series and the book made a big impression of me. Although the book is perhaps not 100% historically accurate, it really helped me to get a better understanding of Japanese culture and history. I was fascinated by the culture shock that Blackthorne went through. Although the book deals with feudal Japanese culture, I found that it helped deepen my understanding of modern Japanese culture as well. ‘Shogun’ played a big part in my fascination with Japan. I would therefore like to dedicate this post to the late Mr. James Clavell. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book!

Different kinds of Pocky

Yesterday was Pocky Day. It is a Japanese ‘holiday’ that celebrates the snack Pocky. The reason that the 11th of November was chosen as Pocky Day, is because the date consists of lots of 1’s, which are of course shaped like Pocky.

What is Pocky? It’s a crunchy biscuit stick covered with chocolate. This is the classic Pocky with milk chocolate:

The classic Pocky in its characteristic red package

The classic Pocky in its characteristic red package.

Pocky was first sold in 1966. As the popularity of the snack increased, new varieties were added. By now there is such an enormous assortment of Pocky available that it is hard to know where to begin. Below is a picture of the Pocky aisle in a standard supermarket. You can see that other brands have also tried to benefit from the success of Pocky, by making their own Pocky clone.

different kinds of pocky in japan

This is my very inexpert attempt at merging two different photos to show you all the different kinds Pocky in a Japanese supermarket.

There is a Pocky for every demographic. Strawberry Pocky for the ladies, extra thin Pocky in a simple package for the men, and some very interesting varieties with almonds and with salty chocolate that I unfortunately did not get a chance to try yet. Next time I’m in Japan, I will do my best to further explore the world of Pocky!

Happy belated Pocky Day everyone!

strawberry Pocky in Japan

Strawberry Pocky. The hiragana reads ‘tsubatsuba ichigo’, which means strawberry with seeds. This is a classic, first offered on the Japanese market in 1977.

almond crush Pocky in Japan

Almond crush Pocky. Looks yummy! According to Wikipedia, this is another classic. It was the first new variety after classic Pocky, developed in 1971.

salty milk chocolate Pocky in Japan

Salty milk chocolate Pocky. I’m really curious about this one.