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

Flowers and manhole covers

I adore Japanese manhole covers. They are just so beautiful! Here’s the one for Toyota City:

toyota city manhole cover

Toyota City manhole cover

It features the symbol of Aichi prefecture in the middle, surrounded by sun flowers. Toyota City has adopted the sunflower as its symbol flower. Likewise, the manhole cover for Takayama features rhododendron flowers, which are symbolic for the city of Takayama.

takayama manhole cover

Takayama manhole cover with rhododendron flowers

In fact, I think almost every Japanese city has a symbol flower and a symbol tree. Additionally, each province has a symbol flower and even each month of the year has its own typical flower (see hanafuda card game).

hanafuda_cards

Hanafuda card set by Kelsey Cretcher

The importance that the Japanese attach to flowers is further illustrated by the following anecdotes: During my stay in Japan, I have often been asked what the symbol flower of Belgium is. Japanese people seemed quite surprised when I said there is none (as far as I know). I have also heard that during trips abroad, Japanese people will often ask their tour guide about a particular flower. Usually the tour guide doesn’t know anything about flowers and the response will be ‘that’s just a flower’, causing great disappointment to the Japanese tourists.

At first I was quite surprised by the Japanese fascination with flowers. But if you think about it, it shouldn’t be surprising at all, considering that the Japanese elevated flower arrangement to a true art form (ikebana 生け花) and have developed an entire symbolic flower language in which words and codes are assigned to flowers (hanakotoba 花言葉). I guess I can only conclude that the Japanese sure do love their flowers!

Ikebana

Ikebana – image from Wikipedia

People watching – The Golden Clock in Nagoya Station

The best place for people watching in Nagoya might be The Golden Clock in Nagoya station. It is a favoured meeting place and around every full hour (e.g. 18:00h) the area is positively teeming with people. It is remarkable how much calmer it gets at around the ten minute mark (e.g. 18:10h), when all the meeting up is concluded and people leave to go do whatever they were meeting up to do.

Nagoya Station Golden Clock

The Golden Clock at Nagoya Station, a very popular meeting place – image from Wikipedia Commons

In the above picture, it looks uncharacteristically calm. The video below gives a better impression of what it is usually like to wait for someone at the Golden Clock. For us gaijin, it is fairly easy to find the person we are meeting, or rather it is easy for them to find us, since most gaijin are at least a head taller than most Japanese people. If you have blond hair to boot, like me, it makes you virtually impossible to miss. But how Japanese people manage to find anyone in the crowd around the Golden Clock is beyond me.

As I already mentioned, it is one of my favourite places for people watching. Have a look at this beautiful young lady in kimono.

girl in kimono

Girl in kimono – a mobile phone might help to locate one’s friends in that crowd

girl in kimono 2

Notice the long sleeves and exuberant design, typical for a kimono worn by unmarried, young women. I think she was meeting up with friends to attend a wedding.

Manhole covers: Ise in Mie prefecture

One of the things that I love most about Japanese culture, is the sense of aesthetics. Beauty in its broadest sense is greatly appreciated in Japan. This emphasis on beauty is apparent in many aspects of daily life. While in the West, emphasis often lies on functionality only, in Japan an effort is made to combine functionality and beauty when designing mundane items of all kinds.

A perfect example of beauty in mundane items, is the design of manhole covers in Japan. Anywhere you turn in Japan, you can find gorgeous manhole covers. The variety is endless. Over time, I made a sport of photographing as many of them as I could. I hope to share some of them with you from to time.

sewer pit cover ise

A beautiful manhole cover in the city of Ise, Mie prefecture

sewer pit cover ise coloured

Sometimes the manhole covers are even painted

For comparison purposes: below you will find a Belgian manhole cover.

Belgian manhole cover

A typical Belgian manhole cover, very unimaginative as you can see. Although I have heard that Germany and Denmark do have nice covers.

Poor Nyan Cat

Never have I seen tamer cats than during my stay in Japan. I have seen Japanese cats submissively undergo treatments that would have sent any Belgian cat into a hissing, clawing and biting frenzy.

You can imagine my surprise when I came across the following scene in a shopping street in Okinawa:

Cat on a leash in Japan

How often do you see a grown man walk around with a cat dressed in a pink cape decorated with bows, flowers and what have you not? In most cases, the answer to that question will be “not very often”. Unless of course you live in Japan, in which case you will be forced to respond with “occasionally”.

My amazement increased when I saw that the cat would lie down and get up again on command. As the man walked off, the cat meekly followed at his side. Although obedient, the cat looked far from happy. My initial tendency to laugh at the scene soon changed into a feeling of pity for the cat.

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Let’s have a closer look at the cat. Don’t you think it looks a little bit like Nyan Cat? Only Nyan Cat looks a lot happier.

Poor Nyan Cat

Poor Nyan Cat

 

The mask

A typical image that Westerners have of Japan, is a subway car filled with business men and school girls, all wearing white surgical masks.

Mouthmask on the train in Japan

Someone wearing a mouth mask on the train in Japan

In the West it is considered a bit suspicious to cover your face in public. Masks are usually reserved for bank robbers and superheroes. We think that those Japanese people with their white masks look a bit silly and a bit dodgy.

In Japan, the wearing of such masks is completely normal. They are worn for various reasons: for example when the flu is in town or to avoid catching a cold. People with allergies wear them to avoid ingesting pollen.

Mask on the train in Japan

Salaryman wearing a mouth mask

When I had just arrived in Japan, those masks took a bit of getting used to. Especially when I was talking to someone who still had their mask on. It is a bit difficult communicating with someone if you can’t really see their face. But of course I got used to it and after a while I didn’t even notice the masks anymore.

I even went as far as wearing one myself at some point. There was a big cloud of yellow dust, pollution from China, travelling over Japan. I had already been coughing for a few days and I also started getting chest pains from an irritated trachea. “That does it”, I said to myself, “it is time for a mask”. And indeed the mask made a big difference. The irritation to my throat and trachea were greatly reduced.

The first time venturing out in public with the mask I felt quite self-conscious. Don’t I look very silly with this thing on my face? But no Japanese looked any different at me. Even my husband didn’t poke fun at me. Wearing such a mask is just very normal in Japan, and I am beginning to understand why!

Mask on the train in Japan

Cute mask with pink bows on it. Sorry for the blurry picture. It was a sneak photograph on the train.

Funny car

When walking down the street in Japan, you never know what you’re going to see next. Like this oddly shaped car for example. I have never seen this shape in Europe. Although the design is striking, it hardly seems efficient (in terms of luggage space). Does anyone know what kind of car it is and if it is sold only in Japan?

Oddly shaped Japanese car

Oddly shaped Japanese car

Thanks to a comment by ‘RDS’ (see below), I found out that this model is called ‘Toyota WiLL Vi’. It was only produced for one year, from 2000 to 2001 and was only sold in Japan (as far as I know). It was targeted at young women in their 20’s and 30’s. In addition to this car, WiLL-branded computers, phones, and perfumes were sold on the internet. Toyota experimented with this new branding strategy to attract a new generation of buyers. It was a huge success; the demand exceeded the supply.

Click here to read more about the WiLL-Vi.