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

Advertisements

A thousand paper cranes

When visiting a temple in Japan, you will often see large strings of colored paper shapes, hung up in various places.

a thousand paper cranes in osu kannon temple in nagoya

In Osu Kannon Temple in Nagoya

a thousand paper cranes in Atsuta jingu 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.

one thousand origami cranes

Strings of origami cranes in close-up

one thousand origami cranes

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?

Attack of the killer mosquitoes

A few days ago I had another encounter with Japanese bugs: mosquitoes this time. We were strolling down the historic town of Arimatsu when we encountered a beautiful grove with stairs leading up to a temple.

temple in Japan

the grove

Little did we know that the grove contained a giant swarm of mosquitoes. At first it seemed like there were just a few mosquitoes. We felt that we could easily fend them off with a few handgestures. It turns out we were mistaken.

the stairs leading to a temple in Japan

the stairs with an at that time still unsuspecting gaijin

When we reached the temple at the top of the stairs, the gravity of the situation slowly became clear to us. By then the swarm had fully descended on us and we were being stung left and right, while frantically waving our arms about in futile attempts to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

temple in Japan

mosquito infested temple

We rushed back to the safety of concrete – where there are no pools of still water for mosquitoes to thrive in – but by then it was too late. Behold the result:

D.’s arm shorty after leaving the grove

D.’s arm a few hours later. Some kind of allergic reaction we think. For the next two days, his arm was swollen and numb.

My leg. And that’s just the back of one leg. Both legs are like this, back and front. It seems like some horrible disease, or perhaps a bodypart of Frankenstein’s. But it’s just itchy-as-hell mosquito bites.