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.

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.

Return of the mukade

There are few Japanese animals as fabled and feared among expats in Japan as the poisonous Japanese centipede (called mukade in Japanese). Proof of this widespread fascination is the number of people who find their way to this blog on a daily basis, looking for mukade information.

Having been a Japan geek long before moving to Japan, I had of course heard of mukade. Some of you might remember my elation when I saw my first mukade only a few days into my stay in Japan. I can assure you that I felt equally elated about never meeting a mukade since that day. Until a few months ago, that is.

It is a beautiful day in May. My parents and I are having a walk in the forest, in the lovely town of Asuke (Toyota City).

forest in Asuke

Forest walk in Asuke

Suddenly my mother calls out. “Look at this interesting animal I have found”. What could it be? A butterfly? A squirrel perhaps? I rush over to see what it is. I catch a glimpse of a shining brown exoskeleton and bright orange legs. It’s the dreaded mukade! And a big one too. “Stay back!” I shout. “It’s a mukade”.


The mukade, who almost appears to be posing for the photograph

But there is no need for fear. The mukade completely ignores us. He’s just scrambling about the leaves, probably looking for a good place to hide from us. This provided me with some wonderful photo opportunities. The previous mukade I met (in the supermarket) ran straight towards me when I tried taking a picture.

After a year of living in Japan, I think it is safe to say that at least in the Toyota City and Nagoya area, there is no need to fear the mukade. I don’t know anyone who has had problems with mukade (apart from one horror story about ‘the mukade mountain’, an overgrown mountain that is apparently teeming with mukade and is causing some problems for the nearby apartment building).

So why are expats so afraid of this animal? Speaking from my own Belgian point of view, we are not used to giant, poisonous bugs. The most dangerous bugs we have around here are mosquitoes. In hot and humid Japan, the sheer size of the bugs is a trigger for expat imagination. And then we find out they are poisonous as well! That is one advantage to being back in Belgium: no more scary bugs!

My never-ending bad hair day

Summer in Japan is in full swing and that means at least two months of extreme heat and humidity. Before moving to Japan I had been warned about the hot and humid Japanese summers. But somehow I wasn’t able to fully grasp the meaning of those words until after actually having lived through the experience myself for the first time.

Allow me to elaborate for all of you ‘Japanese summer virgins’ out there. Here are the numbers: Nagoya has temperatures of about 30° C and an air humidity of around 80% in July. The combination of heat and humidity makes for weather that descends on you like a stifling blanket. In this weather, breathing is enough to make you break out in a sweat. But by far the worst of it, as far as I’m concerned, is what the humidity does to my hair.

Frizzy doesn’t even begin to describe it. No matter what amount of styling products I use, as soon as I leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of our apartment, my hair looks as if several small birds have been nesting in it. Even plastering all my hair to my head and tying it up in a bun is no use. I still look like I have been recently electrocuted.

But hey, if there is nothing to be done about it, I might as well laugh about it, right? That is why I was particularly pleased when I came across this picture of a fluffy animal (possibly a rabbit) that gives a good idea of how I feel about my Japanese summer hair.

Humidity in Nagoya leads to a never-ending bad hair day

It is reassuring to see that things could always be worse (image from 9GAG, click on the picture to go to the original image)

It’s sumo time!

Sumo flags, Naruto beya, Nagoya, Japan, July 2012

Flags advertising the presence of the wrestlers. Each flag portrays the name of a wrestler.

Today, July 8th, is the start of the Sumo Grand Tournament in Nagoya. There are six tournaments throughout the year, three of which take place in Tokyo. But come July, everyone in the sumo world travels to Nagoya for the July basho.

The wrestlers arrive in Nagoya about two weeks prior to the start of the tournament. They traditionally stay at a temple, since in the olden days those were the only buildings large enough to house an entire sumo stable (a stable is a group of sumo wrestlers who live and train together, called a ‘beya’ or sometimes ‘heya’ in Japanese).

Sumo wrestlers temple

Inside the temple grounds

Sometimes the training sessions at those temples are open to the public. And guess what? Thanks to a Japanese friend of mine who kindly looked up all the necessary information, we were able to witness one of those training sessions!

Imagine our excitement at being able to watch the titans from close-by, rather than on a tv-screen or from the other side of a giant venue; to get an inside look into the life of a sumo wrestler and watch their daily routine … If you like sumo, it’s exciting to say the least.

Watching sumo training

Watching sumo training

Beforehand, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t recognize any of the wrestlers (we’re relatively new at this whole sumo thing). But there was no need to worry. Immediately upon arrival we spotted an ozeki (second highest ranking wrestler). I’m not one to get starstruck easily but this made me jump up and down like a little girl on her birthday. “OMG, OMG, it’s Kisenosato!” And there even were two other guys that we recognized. One of them was a wrestler from the Czech Republic called Takanoyama and the other one was rising star Takayasu. They are all members of the Narutobeya.

After the training everyone was invited to a bowl of ‘chankonabe’, the traditional sumo wrestlers’ food. It is a thick soup with lots of protein and vegetables. Ingredients include chicken, tofu, eggs, cabbage, onion, daikon … Sumo wrestlers are able to gain a lot of weight quickly by eating vast amounts of chankonabe and rice at lunch time, followed by taking a nap in the afternoon.

Chankonabe uncooked

Chankonabe ingredients before cooking. The uncooked ingredients might not look like much but the finished chankonabe was delicious!

To our surprise, the wrestlers themselves were handing out the nabe. I would never have imagined an ozeki to carry out such a lowly task. But there he was, Kisenosato himself, handing out bowls of nabe to the fans.

Sumo wrestlers handing out chankonabe

Sumo wrestlers handing out chankonabe. From left to right: Takayasu, Takanoyama, Wakanosato and Kisenosato.

Chankonabe from kisenosato

Dennis gets his bowl of chankonabe from Kisenosato himself. Lucky!

Chankonabe changing hands

Chankonabe changing hands

We were able to get very close to the wrestlers. When watching them on tv, you don’t fully realize how big these guys really are. Sure, they look fat, but they are also very tall (for a Japanese that is) and very broad. I imagine they must be incredibly strong as well. What an experience to meet them face to face!

If you’re in the Nagoya area, don’t miss your chance to see live sumo. The basho is held every day from now until July 22nd. Follow the links below for more information.

Japan Sumo Association homepage (in English)

Ticket information. Click through to the Chunichi Shinbun web site. They have a page in English that seems to work well.

Current banzuke (ranking of all the top-players, with links to their profiles).

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

A day in paradise

Around the middle of April it was cherry blossom time in Japan. Needless to say I had been looking forward to this for a while. When foreigners think of Japan and typical Japanese things, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Sakura beauty

Beautiful cherry blossoms

My anticipation was only increased by the excitement that takes hold of the entire Japanese nation as the blossom time approaches. The news report even gives daily reports on the advancement of the ‘cherry blossom front’.

Cherry blossom front for 2008. The flowers open first in the south and then the front makes its way north. The blossoms were a bit late this year due to the cold weather. (picture taken from http://stlelsewhere.blogspot.jp)

Why do the Japanese people love cherry blossoms, or ‘sakura’, so much? Apart from the simple fact that the sight of a street lined with blooming cherry trees is just gorgeous, the Japanese feel touched by the transient beauty of the blossoms. The sakura are at their most beautiful for only a few days. One day of rain may destroy the fragile flowers. This short-lived beauty is often taken as a metaphor for life: so beautiful and yet so short and sad. Indeed when watching the blossoms, one may be touched by an intense joy and a sweet melancholy all at the same time.

Sakura detail beauty, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms against the bright blue sky

Sakura detail

The delicate beauty of a cherry blossom

Apart from these rather poetic feelings, of course the Japanese also love to celebrate the seasons and never pass up an excuse to gather with friends and enjoy some typical festival food.

Sakura selling sweet potato or yakiimo

A small cart selling grilled sweet potato (called 'yaki-imo' in Japanese)

Sakura sweet potato salesman

A happy salesman, also selling sweet potato

Sakura selling takoyaki or octopus balls

A stand selling 'takoyaki': baked balls of dough stuffed with vegetables and pieces of octopus

In my efforts to see as much of the cherry blossoms as possible, I prepared for a ‘hanami’ (the viewing of the blossoms) on a sunny afternoon in April at one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots: the Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya.

Sakura Yamazakigawa riverside, Nagoya, Japan

The Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya

Cherry walk in Nagoya, Japan

Walking alongside the river Yamazaki in Nagoya

Having been to a few other cherry blossom viewing spots earlier that week and being slightly underwhelmed, I was not prepared for the beauty of this place. Not only was it simply gorgeous, all other conditions were perfect as well: the weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, it was not too crowded since it was a weekday, and everyone I met was just as happy as I was. Even the animals I met were in a good mood. It truly seemed like a paradise on earth; some place as yet untouched by the rest of the world. A magic spell, just for one day.

Sakura and fish, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms and sunlight on the water. Even the fish seem happy.

Sakura rabu rabu, Nagoya, Japan

A young couple, enjoying a romantic moment under the cherry blossoms

Sleeping under the cherry blossoms

It doesn't get any more relaxed than this: having a picnic and a nap on a sunny afternoon

Sakura and children playing in Japan

Children playing in the river

Sakura salaryman escaping modern life

An office worker escaping from modern life just for a moment

Pimp My Ride Japan

When walking around in Japan, you never know what you will see next. Like a pimped out turquoise car for example.

pimp my ride Japan

Pimped out turquoise car in the Nagoya City streets

The rims on the turqoise car

The rims on the turquoise car

Detail on the rims

Detail on the rims

 The car just stood there by the roadside, blasting Japanese hip hop music while the owner was casually making a phone call a little bit further off.

Pimped out car owner acting casual

Pimped out car owner acting casual

Generosity from a stranger

When wandering around the Osu Kannon neighbourhood in Nagoya one summer afternoon, we were lucky enough to stumble unto a ‘mochi making ceremony’ at a temple (mochitsuki in Japanese). Mochi are sweet rice cakes.

The rice is first steamed and then placed into a mortar. One or two people with mallets pound the rice until it becomes a sticky and solid mass. During the pounding, the mass is turned over by someone moving his hand in and out in between the rhythmic pounds.

mochi making in osu kannon 1

Mochi making in Osu Kannon. On the right you can see the rice being steamed in wooden containers.

When the mass is finished, deft hands divide it into smaller pieces and dust it with soybean flour.

mochi making in osu kannon 2

Dividing the mass into smaller pieces and handing the mochi out.

This apparently is a popular treat because the queue was endless.

cueing for mochi 1

Queuing inside the temple - the queue goes on outside the temple as far as the eye can see.

As we were watching the mochi making and considering whether or not to join the queue, a man came up to me and selflessly offered me his recently acquired and very coveted mochi. He just walked up to me, offered the mochi with both hands, mumbled ‘for you’ and dashed off. He disappeared so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to thank him. I was quite moved by this selfless act of generosity.

mochi making in osu kannon 3

Elated gaijin-chan holding her mochi

Since then, I have had the good fortune of enjoying other similar tokens of selfless generosity from strangers. Just the other day I was offered a ticket to an ikebana exhibit by two ladies who saw me giving my only ticket to my sister-in-law who was visiting Japan.

I wonder if I’m blessed with particularly good karma or if the act of giving just for the sake of it is something inherent to Japanese society. Such things have certainly not happened to me in Belgium. But then again, maybe standing out as a blond-haired gaijin helps a little too.