Docile Japanese cats

Are Japanese cats more docile than other cats? Before having lived in Japan, I would have thought this to be a ridiculous question. Surely cats are the same everywhere? Cats are not subject to cultural differences, are they? But living in Japan, surprises are never far off. I have seen Japanese cats tolerate things from their owners that most Belgian cats would never stand for. There was that one time when I saw someone walking a cat on a leash in Okinawa. And then there was the time when I was walking through crowded Asuke village in Toyota City at the start of autumn leaves season and saw a guy having a walk while holding his cat. Can you imagine visiting a festival and bringing your cat along? I am not sure how the cat felt about it, but in any case it wasn’t trying to escape, which is saying something.

docile Japanese cats

Never mind me, just having a walk with my cat during a crowded festival

docile Japanese cats

The cat looks slightly dubious but remains calm nonetheless

docile Japanese cats

If you ask nicely, most people in Japan are more than willing to pose for a picture. Too bad my Japanese wasn’t good enough to ask him why he was carrying this cat around.

I am not sure why these Japanese cats are so docile. Are these just exceptions and are most Japanese cats in fact as ferocious as Belgian ones? Or were these particular cats treated like that from when they were kittens and have grown used to it? Or, the far more interesting possibility, are these cats somehow influenced by the calm personal energy that, in my opinion and compared to Belgium, is typical for Japanese culture? I would love to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments section!

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Let’s dance!

Today is Obon, an important Japanese holiday. Traditionally it is a day for honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. But since the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to have a party, it is also an excellent reason to organise a festival and get together with friends and family.

Apart from delicious festival food and lots of people wearing yukata, the Obon festival is characterized by Obon dances, which are called Bon Odori (盆踊り). The dancers gather around a central stage and perform circular dances while moving around the stage. Compared to some Western dances, the Obon dances seem very slow and subdued. But once you give it a try, it is a wonderful feeling to share in the group atmosphere and to do the dances together.

obon nagoya castle

Obon dancing at Nagoya castle. The central stage houses the musicians and from time to time, different people are invited up on stage to dance there.

obon dancing nagoya castle

The colourful crowd in yukata is so beautiful!

Anyone can join in: there are many elderly ladies, but also lots of young people. Even clumsy gaijin like me are welcome to join. In the video below you can see the cutest little boy doing his best to dance along with the adults. There is also an equally cute, but slightly older girl in yukata.

In this next video you get a better look at the crowd and you can really see the circular motion of the dancers. Sometimes you will see ladies in matching yukata. I think they belong to an Obon dance group where they practice all year long and then go to various Obon festivals in their matching yukata.

There are big Obon events like the one at Nagoya Castle where these videos were made but Obon is also celebrated on a smaller scale in local neighbourhoods. When we were wandering around Muroran, a small city in Hokkaido, on an evening in August, we saw this local Obon gathering on a neighbourhood square:

Obon in Muroran, Hokkaido

This was a small, local community celebration in Muroran, Hokkaido. There weren’t any booths with festival food. Instead there were some tables where people placed their homemade food, sharing between everyone.

Autumn in Japan

The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons. As autumn approaches, the Japanese longingly look forward not only to a relief of the summer heat, but also to the beauty of the autumn leaves. The most popular kind of autumn leaves are (Japanese) maple leaves, that turn bright red in autumn. They are called ‘momiji’, although the term may also be used to denote autumn colours in general.

While Japan is most famous for its cherry blossom tradition, the red leaves of the maple can definitely compete with the cherry blossom in terms of popularity. Maps and forecasts tell you when the autumn leaves are at their most beautiful. In the ‘top weekend’, Japanese and gaijin alike flock to the most famous autumn leaves viewing spots in the country (click here for a brief list), causing severe traffic congestion along the way. I have heard stories of people who set out to view the autumn leaves at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto during the top weekend, but who instead ended up spending seven hours in traffic and didn’t even get into the city at the end of the day. But of course if you do manage to get to a good spot, it is usually worth your trouble. Autumn in Japan is truly beautiful!

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Ginkgo in Takayama, Japan

Beautiful yellow ginkgo leaves in a temple in Japan

Toyota City Tip: The most popular place for viewing autumn leaves in Toyota City is Korankei Gorge, in the town of Asuke (Toyota City). You can walk up the mountain, visit the temple and enjoy various types of food and drinks that are sold at special autumn festival booths.

Korankei gorge in toyota city

Korankei gorge in Toyota City

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto

While attending Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) last week, I came across an endearing scene. A huge black butterfly had decided to have a rest in the sun, right on top of someone’s head.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto sitting on someone's head

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto sitting on someone’s head

The person in question was keeping very calm, quietly posing for photographs.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto

Calmly posing for pictures with a butterfly on his head

After a few minutes the butterfly took off and made for a new spot in the sun, this time on the head of a lady.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 2

This lady has no idea that her head is the new resting spot for the crazy butterfly

At first this lady had no idea that she was the new ‘chosen one’ but as amateur photographers flocked to her, she took a few moments to pose for pictures and then calmly resumed walking, completely ignoring the butterfly on her head.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 2 posing for pictures

Lady nr. 2 poses for pictures with the butterfly on her head

I was able to follow the butterfly to a third person. This time it was someone holding a white vest. This person responded in exactly the same way as the previous two people: he just stood there calmly, without moving or even smiling, while people where taking pictures of him.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 3

The butterfly having a rest on the sleeve of person nr. 3

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 3 photographers

Posing for photographs with the butterfly on his sleeve

In this whole situation, I was actually more intrigued by the Japanese people’s behaviour than by the butterfly. European people in the same situation would either make frantic movements to chase the butterfly away (possibly accompanied by loud screaming) or they would make a show of themselves and pose conspicuously for the photographs. The modest behaviour of the Japanese and their simple acceptance of the situation impressed me.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto close up

Crazy butterfly close up

Belgian Beer Weekend

Belgium is not a famous country. Whenever I travel abroad and people ask me where I am from, I am usually given a puzzled stare when I answer ‘Belgium’. I usually try to clarify, saying ‘Europe’. That usually rings a bell: ‘Ah Europe! That’s where France is, right?’. Right.

But not so in Japan. In Japan I am usually treated to a big smile and the exclamation ‘choco’. Everyone in Japan knows about the delicious Belgian chocolate. Some people even know about Belgian beer. And that brings me to the topic for today: the Belgian Beer Weekend in Nagoya.

belgian beer weekend japan logo

You may or may not already know it, but the small country of Belgium has over 800 different kinds of beer, brewed at 140 different breweries. Seventy-seven of those beers are served at the Belgian Beer Weekend, which not only takes place in Nagoya but also in Osaka (June 2012) and Tokyo (September 2012).

Unfortunately I did not have a chance to attend the event myself, but thanks to Kristine Lee I can present you with a photograph that shows a wonderful synergy between Belgian and Japanese culture. Only in Japan will you encounter a walking Hoegaarden making the peace sign.

belgian beer weekend nagoya, japan

Walking Hoegaarden at the Belgian Beer Weekend in Nagoya

Girl’s Doll Festival – Hina Matsuri

March 3rd was ‘Hina Matsuri’ or ‘Girl’s Day’. On this day, all families with a daughter display a set of traditional Japanese dolls in their house. But apparently the habit isn’t limited to people with daughters. Ever since early February, I have encountered these ‘hina dolls’ (‘hina’ is the japanese word for doll) everywhere I went: in malls, community centers, restaurants, etc. I had heard about Hina Matsuri before coming to Japan but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is still so widely practiced.

The traditional doll display is hughe. It has seven storeys and portrays an imperial household, compete with furniture, servants and musicians.

hina matsuri emperor and empress

The first two levels contain an emperor and empress with three court ladies below them

hina matsuri minister of the left

A member of the imperial household. My best guess would be that he is 'the minister of the left'.

hina doll display

A few elaborate hina doll displays

Imagine having such a contraption in your living room, especially in a small Japanese apartment. No wonder that these days there are many modern and more minimalist options available as well.

hina matsuri minimalist

Minimalist hina dolls. Notice the 12 layers of fabric in the doll's clothing, which represent the 12 layer kimono's from the Heian period (called jūnihitoe).

hina matsuri mouse

And last but not least, my favourite: a hina doll mouse, wearing a kimono. Kawaii!

People watching – guys in kimono

During the summer festivals it is customary to wear a summer kimono, called ‘yukata’. The past few years this old custom has regained popularity among young people. Oftentimes they give their own twist to the look. Like these four guys, doing their best to look badass:

4 guys in yukata

Guys in yukata - working hard to look cool