Haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer

Haramaki is a type of Japanese undergarment. It literally translates as ‘belly wrap’ (腹巻). I first learned about haramaki when shopping at Japanese clothing store Uniqlo. In the underwear section, I saw a tube-like knitted item that seemed perfect for keeping my neck warm at night. Shortly after having bought two ‘neckwarmers’, I saw a tv program where foreigners were being interviewed about life in Japan. The foreigners commented on the peculiar Japanese habit of wearing belly warmers. Hence my introduction to the haramaki. Ever since discovering its intended purpose, I wear haramaki in winter for extra warmth or whenever I have lower back pains.

haramaki

Japanese belly warmer called haramaki

When looking for background on haramaki, I was surprised to find mostly fashion related information. I had thought of the haramaki more as an item that one wears for health purposes but apparently it is making a comeback as a fashion piece. This is remarkable because the haramaki was traditionally considered an out-of-date item worn by old men.

The history of the haramaki goes back to feudal Japan, where it was a type of armour worn by infantry soldiers. According to Wikipedia, haramaki refers to any Japanese armour which is put on from the front and then fastened in the back with cords.

haramaki armour

Haramaki armour – Image from Worldantiques

Later on, during the First Sino-Japanese War and World War II, a soldier going off to fight was often given a senninbari haramaki (“1,000 stitch belt”) by his family. A mother, sister, or wife would stand on the street and ask passing women to contribute a stitch until 1,000 had been collected. The garment was meant to both provide warmth and serve as a talisman to ward away harm.

senninbachi haramaki

Senninbari haramaki for Japanese soldiers

The haramaki then evolved to its current form: a circular tube of fabric worn around the midriff and hips. During the 70’s and 80’s, it was considered an out-of-date type of underwear for old men. Contributing to this image were various characters from popular culture like the manga series Tensai Bakabon, which stars a dim-witted boy and his insane father. The father always wears a haramaki.

tensai bakabon otousan haramaki

The dad from manga Tensai Bakabon, wearing a haramaki

Another example is Tora-san, the main character in a series of movies about a kind-hearted vagabond who is always unlucky in love.

torasan haramaki

Tora-san from the movie series Otoko wa tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”), wearing his signature haramaki

The transition of haramaki from out-of date underwear to fashionable mainstream item is mostly credited to Japanese game designer and entrepreneur Itoi Shigesato. Itoi had been wearing haramaki for years despite their old-fashioned reputation and perception as an unfashionable undergarment when he started selling haramaki in 2001 through his company Hobonichi. Hobonichi reinvented haramaki as fashion items to layer with your clothes. He even worked with Nintendo to make Nintendo-themed haramaki. If you are interested in buying some trendy Hobonichi haramaki, you can go to the English language Hobonichi webshop. You can wear these haramaki directly over your skin, over an undershirt and under your shirt, or completely over your shirt. If you are more into plain haramaki, you might try British shop Nukunuku.

hobonichi haramaki nintendo

Nintendo themed haramaki from Hobonichi

While not everyone may agree about the fashion merit of haramaki, there is no denying that haramaki help to keep you warm. Have a look at the chart below:

haramaki heat chart

fig. 01: low body temperature; fig. 02: slightly warmer with a summer blanket; fig. 03: even better with a winter blanket; fig. 04: high core temperature and therefore overall higher body temperature with haramaki. A haramaki is also supposed to improve circulation.

The Japanese love to talk about how important a warm stomach is to staying well. They attribute all sorts of health benefits to it. In any case the added heat provided by haramaki is very welcome during cold Japanese winters without central heating systems. If you want to know more about keeping warm during winter in Japan, you can read my post 6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter.

What do you think about haramaki? Is it a fashion-do or don’t? Only for grandpa’s or great for young people too? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

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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.

What is so special about Japan anyway?

I absolutely adore Japan. And I am not the only one. More and more foreigners are becoming true Japan-o-holics. But where does this fascination with the land of the rising sun come from? What is so special about Japan anyway?

One of the most interesting things about Japan, at least to me, is that it is just so different. Even the smallest aspect of life becomes an adventure if you have no idea what to expect. The slogan of the Japan Tourism Organization captures this idea perfectly with three simple words: “Japan. Endless Discovery.”

Japan endless discovery

Japan National Tourism Organization slogan

Of course any foreign culture might make for an endless discovery. But in my experience, there is no culture quite as ‘different’ as the Japanese culture. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why Japan feels even more different (to us Westerners) than other foreign cultures .

  • Up until roughly 150 years ago, Japan had very little contact with the outside world. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan. This has given the Japanese culture the opportunity to develop independently of foreign influences for over 200 years, leading to a truly unique culture. I think the influence of feudal Japan can still be felt in today’s modern Japan.
  • Japan is a first world country. Usually when Westerners think about cultures that are very different from their own, they imagine third world countries. And naturally we expect a third world country, that is already so different in terms of infrastructure, economy, etc., to have a very different culture as well. But to experience a severe culture shock in the midst of the comforts of modern-day Japan is quite something else.

Another thing that makes Japanese culture so fascinating is that it is a culture of subtlety and contradictions. In Japan, many things are not what they seem at first sight. That often makes it difficult to accurately describe or understand certain aspects of Japanese culture. But of course it also makes life in Japan very interesting (or frustrating, depending on your viewpoint). Living as a foreigner in Japan, just as you think you have something figured out, you encounter a new piece of information that defies your previous logic.

An additional reason for my fascination with Japan is the sheer amount of cultural expressions there are. There is ancient Japan with its temples, ladies in kimono and the age-old arts of tea ceremony, flower arranging and calligraphy. And then there is the colourful abundance of modern-day Japan filled with game centers, Harajuku girls and karaoke. Even as Japan starts to adopt more and more Western influences, the Japanese always find a way to transform these foreign elements and truly make them their own.

Harajuku girls Tokyo

Harajuku girls in Tokyo – image from blog.theholidaze.com

Perhaps after reading all of this, you are still mystified as to why I love Japan so much. Indeed the reality of life in Japan is difficult to describe. It is something that has to be experienced. This became most apparent when all of my visitors in Japan were baffled by the diversity and complexity of Japanese culture. And they all became fans, vowing to be back for more.