Many Western hotels have a Bible in every room. I never quite understood why that was the case, so today I looked it up. Apparently the Bibles in hotel rooms are the work of an American society called ‘Gideons International’. Their main objective is to provide Bibles free of charge. They are best known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms, but they also distribute Bibles to hospitals and jails.
When I was in Japan, I noticed something interesting in our hotel room: it held not one but two religious books. Our Western style room contained a Bible (The New Testament to be exact) and a copy of The Teaching of Buddha.
The New Testament and The Teaching of Buddha side by side in our Japanese hotel room. Also notice the emergency flash light next to the books, in case of an earthquake.
I have no idea if The Gideons are responsible for the Bible in the room. Do they operate outside of the US as well? Or is The New Testament just an attempt of the hotel to emulate an American style and make foreign guests feel welcome? It seems odd that a country where less than 1% of the population is Christian would offer a Bible in hotel rooms. But then again, our hotel was clearly oriented towards foreigners.
I also wonder who placed The Teaching of Buddha in the room. Surely that can’t be the work of The Gideons. Is there a similar society for spreading the word of Buddha? Or is it just an initiative of the hotel business in Japan to make Japanese guests feel equally welcome?
The Teaching of Buddha, in English and Japanese
In any case it felt really typical of Japan that they would offer multiple options, thus attempting to please all guests and to avoid any possible offence. It also felt a bit exotic to see The Teaching of Buddha in our Western style room. It’s little differences like these that make life in Japan so fascinating to me!
When visiting a temple in Japan, you will often see large strings of colored paper shapes, hung up in various places.
In Osu Kannon Temple in Nagoya
In Atsuta Jingu Shrine in Nagoya
Closer inspection reveals that these paper shapes are actually cranes. One thousand of them to be exact. The origami cranes are often arranged by color, fitted one close on top of the other and held together by strings. I love the visual effect of all those colorful strings of folded paper.
Strings of origami cranes in close-up
Zooming in even further
The custom of folding a thousand origami cranes (senbazuru 千羽鶴) originates from an old Japanese legend. It is said that the person who folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish. These days it is mostly used as a way to pray for good health and as a symbol of hope.
The origami cranes became famous through the story of Sadako Sasaki. She was a 12-year-old girl who developed leukemia due to exposure to the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. During her illness, she began the task of folding a thousand origami cranes. Sadly, she died before she could finish the task. Her classmates finished the cranes after her death, as a tribute to their classmate.
I like both the visual aspect of the cranes and the meaning behind the custom. Maybe I should try folding one thousand paper cranes myself. What do you think?
Christmas is not a traditional Japanese holiday. Only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. New Year is a lot more important in Japan and is celebrated with many traditional Japanese rituals.
But Japanese people never turn down an oportunity to have a festivity or festival, so just like Halloween and Valentine’s day, Christmas has been imported into Japanese culture. And just like they do with anything else imported from other cultures, the Japanese have adapted Christmas to their liking and invented their own ways of celebrating it (click here to go to an overview of Japanese Christmas customs by Billy Hammond).
Christmas decorations in Matsuzakaya, Toyota City
But what struck me most so far is the difference in the anticipation leading up to Christmas. In Belgium, people eagerly look forward to Christmas all through the month of December. In Japan, I hardly noticed any anticipation for Christmas. December in Japan is more about forget-the-year-parties (bōnenkai) and preparing for New Year.
In Belgium, as we have long, cold and dark winters, Christmas and the month leading up to it are all about coziness, light and warmth. Some of the anticipation rituals include:
Putting a Christmas tree in the house and decorating it.
Making an advent wreath, either one to put on the front door or an indoor version with four candles. The first Sunday of December one candle is lit, the second Sunday two candles are lit and so on, symbolizing the return of the light after the darkest time of winter.
Every city puts a nativity scene on the central square. A nativity scene is an imitation of the stable where Jesus is said to be born. The nativity scene often contains live animals!
Nativity scene in Belgium - with a real live donkey in the background
There are bonfires and people gather around to drink warm wine or heart-warming liquor (‘jenever’).
Christmas bonfire in Belgium
Even though Christmas has lost its religous meaning to a lot of people in Belgium, it is still deeply embedded in our culture. Even non-religious people consciously or unconsciously keep celebrating Christmas as a means of getting through the darkest time of the year.