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

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?

Autumn in Japan

The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons. As autumn approaches, the Japanese longingly look forward not only to a relief of the summer heat, but also to the beauty of the autumn leaves. The most popular kind of autumn leaves are (Japanese) maple leaves, that turn bright red in autumn. They are called ‘momiji’, although the term may also be used to denote autumn colours in general.

While Japan is most famous for its cherry blossom tradition, the red leaves of the maple can definitely compete with the cherry blossom in terms of popularity. Maps and forecasts tell you when the autumn leaves are at their most beautiful. In the ‘top weekend’, Japanese and gaijin alike flock to the most famous autumn leaves viewing spots in the country (click here for a brief list), causing severe traffic congestion along the way. I have heard stories of people who set out to view the autumn leaves at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto during the top weekend, but who instead ended up spending seven hours in traffic and didn’t even get into the city at the end of the day. But of course if you do manage to get to a good spot, it is usually worth your trouble. Autumn in Japan is truly beautiful!

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Ginkgo in Takayama, Japan

Beautiful yellow ginkgo leaves in a temple in Japan

Toyota City Tip: The most popular place for viewing autumn leaves in Toyota City is Korankei Gorge, in the town of Asuke (Toyota City). You can walk up the mountain, visit the temple and enjoy various types of food and drinks that are sold at special autumn festival booths.

Korankei gorge in toyota city

Korankei gorge in Toyota City

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).

It’s a real-life geisha! Right?

When walking around in Kyoto, foreign tourists will often be very excited when they spot ‘a real-life Japanese geisha’! Indeed when walking around the area near Kiyomizu-dera temple, one often sees groups of young girls dressed in bright kimonos.

Maiko group in Kyoto, Japan

A group of girls dressed in beautiful kimonos

Maiko-san tourists in front of temple

Tourists dressed as maiko-san posing in front of temple

What most tourists probably don’t know is that these girls are not geisha, but dressed-up tourists themselves. There are many studios in Kyoto where one can undergo the transformation into an apprentice geisha, called maiko. Maiko are young girls, usually aged 15 to 20 years old, who are training to become geisha. Their hairstyle and kimono differ from geisha. Typical elements are the long ‘obi’ (sash) and the hairstyle where red fabric is showing in between the hair (which traditionally was considered to be very erotic).

The ‘maiko-experience’ is very popular with young and not so young girls. For the ‘small price’ of roughly 15000 yen (about 150 euro), a professional team sets to work: applying make-up, doing your hair (a wig is used) and dressing you in colourful kimono. The experience usually also includes a photo shoot by a professional photographer.

maikosan professional photographer

A group of maiko-san with a professional photographer

To see a real geisha, several conditions have to be met. One has to a) go to Gion or Pontocho, which are the geisha districts in Kyoto, b) wait until nightfall, c) be very lucky.

Maikosan posing for a picture

Maiko-san posing for a picture

Let’s go Japan!

ganbarou nippon flags at a temole in toyota cityIt’s over a year ago since the big earthquake and the ensuing tsunami took place in Japan. But even now I regularly keep seeing ‘Ganbarou Nippon’ flags en logo’s everywhere.

‘Ganbarou Nippon’ (がんばろう日本) means ‘Do your best, Japan’ or ‘Let’s go, Japan’. Following the March 11th quake and tsunami, the ‘ganbarou nippon’ campaign was launched. Abroad it is more commonly known as ‘Pray for Japan’. I’m not entirely sure on the details but I imagine the campaign was meant to encourage the victims of the disaster and to rally the rest of the nation to donate and volunteer where they could.

ganbarou nippon flags near temple, toyota city

Ganbarou Nippon flags at a temple in Toyota City

Now, one year later, the Japan National Tourism Organization has started a ‘Japan. Thank you.’ campaign. It consists of posters and banners ‘aimed at thanking overseas organizations for their support after the March 11th disaster. It also means to thank tourists who visited Japan and contributed to its economic health following the disaster.’ (Quoting Japan Today).

'Japan. Thank you.' Campaign

'Japan. Thank you.' campaign image

I came across one of the ‘thank you’ posters in  Nagoya Castle. I was elated to recognize artwork by Kimura Hideki, a Japanese artist that I had discovered recently and was proudly considering ‘my secret find’. But maybe he is more famous than I realized.

'Japan. Thank you.' Campaign poster

'Japan, rising again' poster with artwork by Kimura Hideki

Kimura Hideki is based in Gion, the geisha area of Kyoto. He has a shop with textiles, paintings and other items, and he paints murals all over Kyoto. His artwork is a mix of Asian and Western design. I love his graphic style!

Kimura Hideki shop in Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Kimura Hideki shop in Kyoto. Picture taken from his website (click on the picture to go to his website).

Mural by Kimura Hideki in Kyoto

Mural by Kimura Hideki in Kyoto. If you go to his shop in Kyoto, you can get a map with the locations of the murals.

Autumn leaves

Autumn has arrived in Toyota City. It has for quite some time actually. Every since the beginning of October, there has been a drastic drop in temperature and humidity. The scorching heat has subsided to make way for a very pleasant climate with a humidity level that leaves my hair allmost frizz-free.

We are now happily awaiting ‘Kōyō’, the red autumn leaves. When we visited the popular Kōyō viewing spot Korankei Gorge in the town of Asuke (part of Toyota City) last weekend, they weren’t quite there yet.

Autumn leaves, Asuke in Toyota City

Asuke in Toyota City - just a little longer until the autumn leaves

But in Takayama, in the mountains where it’s colder, the leaves were already beautiful.

Red maple leaves in a temple in Takayama

Red maple leaves in a temple in Takayama

Ginkgo tree

Ginkgo tree at a temple in Takayama

The changing of the leaves is an event that is followed with close attention troughout Japan. When the red leaves are at their prime, the queues to the popular viewing spots are endless. I’ve heard stories of people who tried to enter Kyoto in the most popular Kōyō weekend but instead were stuck in traffic for 7 hours only to return without having seen the leaves.

Red leaves in Takayama

Red leaves in Takayama






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.

Japanese wedding

We were fortunate enough to run into a Japanese wedding party yesterday.

traditional japanese wedding 2

Japanese wedding

The lady in white and the man in the gray hakama in the middle of the picture are of course the bride and groom. They are posing in front of the temple entrance.

I was surprised to see so many people dressed in black. In Belgium people wear bright colours to go to a wedding, black is for funerals. But in Japan it is customary, at least for the parents of the bride and groom, to dress in black.

This kind of traditional Shinto wedding ceremony is losing popularity in Japan. These days young Japanese people prefer to get married in a wedding hall or in a church (although I’m not sure that also involves the Christian ceremony, I think it’s more about the venue).

japanese wedding hall 1

Wedding hall

In this kind of Western-style wedding, the bride wears a completely over-the-top colourful dress, that is usually rented instead of bought.

japanese wedding dress 3

Wedding dress rental shop

japanese wedding dress 1

Japanese Western style wedding attire

japanese wedding dress 2

Some more over-the-top dresses

Japanese wedding kimono

I'm not sure if this is traditional style or not (perhaps to wear after the ceremony?), but it looks beautiful

Nagoya style eel – Hitsumabushi

Eel is a popular dish in Japan, especially in summer. It is believed to give you stamina so as to better endure the summer heat. Moreover, grilled eel is a Nagoya speciality.

Needless to say I was excited when my friend Mari-san proposed to go to the most famous eel restaurant in Nagoya: Hōraiken. It’s so popular that we had to wait for almost an hour before being seated, while it was just a regular Tuesday at lunchtime. In the weekend there is supposed to be a 2 or 3 hour wait.

Horaiken eel restaurant entrance

The entrance of the restaurant

I ordered the most popular dish on the menu, which is the Nagoya speciality: Hitsumabushi. It’s a special kind of unadon. Unadon is a bowl of rice topped off with grilled eel covered in sweet soy sauce. What makes hitsumabushi different from regular unadon is the seasoning.

Hitsumabushi grilled eel

Hitsumabushi (a kind of grilled eel), a Nagoya speciality

On the picture above you can see the seasoning in the three squares on the top of the tray and in the red flask. The bowl of rice with the eel on top is on the bottom right and in the middle there’s some soup and pickled vegetables.

There’s a special procedure involved in eating hitsumabushi:

1) First you take about 1/4th of the rice and eel, put it in the little white and blue bowl and eat it just like that.

2) Next you take another serving of eel and rice and season it with nori strips, wasabi and green onion.

hitsumabushi second type

The second way to eat the eel

3) For the third serving you use the same seasoning but you also pour hot tea on top of it.

4) The fourth and final serving is meant to repeat the style you liked best.

Four servings of rice with eel, that’s a lot of food. Good thing it’s delicious!

The restaurant is very close to the Temma-cho station on the Meijo Line, the purple line of Nagoya’s subway system. Some advice: put your name on the list at the restaurant, ask how long the wait will be and take advantage of the spare time to visit nearby Atsuta Jinja, the largest shrine in Nagoya.