A time for goodbyes… and gifts!

Our time in Japan has come to an end. [insert dramatic silence]

Yes, that’s right. After only one short year, it’s back to Belgium for us. Our pleads to Toyota to extend our stay have been to no avail. The project is finished and new projects await in Toyota Motor Europe. Resistance is futile.

That means it is time to say our goodbyes. And goodbyes in Japan involve gifts. Lots of gifts. In fact you are supposed to give a gift to anyone you have some sort of relationship with, or people you are indebted to. And of course you will be showered with goodbye gifts yourself.

While one might consider this gift giving obligation a nuisance, I for one found it to be heartwarming. The Japanese are incredibly generous when it comes to giving gifts. Some of the gifts I have received are incredibly sweet, precious and beautiful. And as for the gifts I am handing out myself – to say it with a cliché for lack of better words – a goodbye gift can only begin to express my gratitude for all the generosity and hospitality I have received from so many people throughout the year.

So what might be an appropriate gift in Japan, you ask? Of course a personal gift is always good. I found that for example a photo album of your time together, with illustrations and some personal notes, usually makes people very happy. But if you can’t think of anything personal to give, food or drinks are always a safe bet. Especially a box of Japanese sweets. And this brings me to our topic for today: the Japanese sweets shop.

Japanese sweets shop

Japanese sweets shop

The Japanese have their very own sweets culture, that has nothing to do with Western sweets. The sweets are sold in department stores or special shops, which are beautifully decorated. There is often a fountain or a small pond inside the shop.

Pond inside the sweets shop

Pond inside a sweets shop

The selection of available sweets depends on the seasons. The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons! In summertime, jellies are very popular. A popular ingredient in all seasons is ‘anko’ or sweet read bean paste. By western standards this is by no means considered sweet, but the Japanese love it.

Red bean paste anko

Red bean paste or ‘anko’

Japanese sweets anko

Winter selection of Japanese sweets

Box of jellies

Box of jellies, typical for summer

Jelly and senbei

A display with giftboxes of jelly and senbei (shrimp and rice crackers)

Whenever in doubt what to give someone, remember you can never go wrong with a box of Japanese sweets, whether it is a goodbye gift or you are visiting someone’s home for the first time.

If you want to know more about the Japanese gift culture, check out the Japan Guide (click here) for some more tips on how and when to give gifts in Japan.

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)

The birds

The rainy season has started in Japan and with it, huge flocks of birds have arrived in Toyota City. These birds gather in groups that easily count several hundreds of birds and make a noise like you wouldn’t believe. Every night around dusk they gather on the power lines or in the trees next to the station. It makes for an impressive sight.

Muku birds

The birds, lined up on the power lines

Birds as far as the eye can see

Birds as far as the eye can see

They never seem to sit still. Individual birds constantly come and go, while whole flocks move through the air at an amazing speed, twisting and turning as if they were one.

Muku birds coming and going

Birds coming and going

In this video you can see them moving about and you can even get an idea of the sound they make (if you manage to mentally filter out the poor sound quality of the video).

The birds have arrived in Toyota City about one or two weeks ago and they stay here all through summer. When the weather gets colder again, around October or November, they disappear. I wonder where they go.

I was told that these birds are called ‘muku’ but I was unable to find any information about such birds on the internet. Does anyone know what their English or their scientific name is? The one thing that I did discover, is that ‘mukubird’ (ムクバード in Japanese) is a Pokemon.

A pokemon

This pokemon is called ‘mukubird’ in Japanese. His English name is Staravia.

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

Spring is in the air

Ever since a week or two, we have had the first hints of spring in the air. The weather is definitely changing, with alternating days of rain and sun; as opposed to winter where almost every day is sunny. The temperature has been notably higher too, although this week there has been a plunge in temperature that has taken us straight back to winter weather.

But nevermind that, because along with the first wafts of spring came the first blossoms of the season: plum blossoms or ‘ume’. The plum trees typically flower in the beginning of March. Due to the cold winter however, the blossoms are a bit late this year. We still have to wait a little while longer for the cherry blossoms, which bloom in April.

First pring blossom in Toyota City, Japan

The first spring day and the first blossom of the season

There is always an unmistakable joy to spotting those first tender flowers, in Belgium as well as in Japan. But somehow I seem to enjoy the blossoms even more here in Japan. Is it the collective excitement that takes hold of the Japanese people as the first blossoms appear? Or are the flowers just more beautiful here? In any case they are more abundant. I see blossoms everywhere I go, even as I was walking through an abandoned industrial site the other day. The rusted up machines and the delicate flowers made for a beautiful contrast.

Ume or plum blossom with industrial background

Plum blossoms with industrial background

The ‘hanami’ or blossom viewing parties are held when the blossoms are at their prime. You can see how they advance in the pictures below.

Ume or plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto

The first of the plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto, February 2012

Plum blossom grove

Plum blossom grove almost in full bloom, March 2012

The plum blossoms come in various shades of white and pink.

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Are Japanese people impervious to cold?

Winter in Japan seems to provide me with endless inspiration for this blog. One of the things that keeps amazing me is how lightly some Japanese people dress, despite a freezing cold outside. It is not uncommon to see people walking around without a coat, without gloves or in open shoes without socks while it is near freezing outside.

In January we visited Hakone. We took a cable car to the top of a mountain, where it was freezing cold. As soon as we left the relative comfort of the cable car, we had to brace ourselves against gusts of icy wind that chilled us to the bone. Despite having donned up in my full winter armour, I still felt like my face was freezing off.

view of mount fuji from hakone

View of Mount Fuji from Hakone - too bad this photograph can't capture how incredibly cold it was

winter armour

My winter armour

It was so cold that even dogs were dressed in warm coats, as you can see in the picture below. But if you glance to the girl in the right of the picture, you might notice that she isn’t wearing a coat, just a sweater. How she manages to brace the cold for even five minutes in that attire is beyond me.

dog in a coat

The dog seems to be dressed warmer than the girl

She was hardly an exception, as the pictures below illustrate:

miniskirt in freezing weather

A miniskirt in this weather. Are you kidding me?!

Bare legs, just looking at them makes me cold!

Bare legs, just looking at them makes me feel cold!

And last but not least, a scene from the train on one particularly cold February evening, showing two schoolgirls with bare legs and another girl dressed in an outfit that I myself might wear in May.

summer outfit in February

Summer outfit in February

Why don’t these people dress warmer? Is it that they just couldn’t be bothered to put on a coat? It can’t just be about being fashionable because salarymen in plain suits do it as well.  Are they just as cold as me but ignore it? Or are they actually built differently and therefore less susceptible to the cold?

I have seen some evidence to that last option in the onsen. Japanese ladies often enter both steaming hot or icy cold water without so much as flinching, while I am forced to retreat from the same water because it is physically hurting me. It could be I am just a big sissy, but consider this next fact: Japanese people (and I think Asian people in general) have a lower body temperature than Caucasians. While the average temperature for a Caucasian is around 37° C, for Japanese people it is around 36° C. I have heard stories about Caucasian kids being sent home from a Japanese kindergarten because the teacher thought they had a fever, while in fact they were perfectly healthy.

So many questions… Anyone care to share their experiences on the subject?

6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter

Winter is in full swing in Japan and it is cold! While the average daily maximum temperature for the Nagoya region in January is 9°C (according to the Japan Meteorological Agency), this year has been particularly cold with many days where the temperature doesn’t go above 3 or 4° C.

Japanese homes, unlike Belgian ones, are not equipped with proper heating systems. While every Japanese home has a state of the art air conditioning system to get through the hot and humid summers, nobody in Japan seems to have ever heard of a ‘central heating system’.

Central heating radiator

This is a central heating radiator. In Belgium, every room in the house has one or more of these radiators attached to the wall. Warm water is circulated through all of them. They emit a constant and comfortable kind of heat, a lot more agreeable than for example warm air heaters.

How odd for such a highly developed country to not have a proper heating system for homes. Does anyone know why that is? In addition to that, Japanese homes are often quite drafty due to lack of proper insulation. Most windows, for example, only have single glass.

So how do we make it through this cold Japanese winter? There are several ways one can hope to keep warm:

  1. Japanese people often use kerosene burners to heat their homes. These however give off a slight to rather strong kerosene smell, depending on how modern the heater is. An alternative to that is a small electric or ceramic heating unit. These usually only suffice to heat one room, not a whole house. Fortunately, Japanese homes are quite small.

    Traditional Japanese room with kerosene burner on the left

    kerosene burner

    kerosene burner

  2. By far my favourite way to keep warm is the ‘kotatsu’. It’s a coffee table with a blanket coming out from under the table top. On the bottom of the table is a heating element. People who love their kotatsu so much that they hardly ever get out from under it are called ‘kotatsu mushi’ which means ‘kotatsu bug’. Guilty as charged.
    kotatsu mushi

    Kotatsu mushi

    kotatsu bottom

    Bottom of the kotatsu with heating element

  3. If after all of this you are still cold, you can adorn yourself with what I like to call ‘heat stickers’. You apply these rectangular stickers to your undergarments. Upon coming into contact with the air, the stickers emit a comfortable heat for several hours, until the material inside the sticker crystallizes. I later found out that they are called ‘hokkairo’ in Japanese. You can buy them in the supermarket and drugstore.

    heat stickers

    Heat stickers

  4. A good way to warm yourself through and through is going to the onsen. Onsen are typical Japanese bathing facilities where you can soak in hot baths for hours. The entrance is usually fairly cheap (about 600 yen) so a weekly visit is feasible if you have the time.

    onsen

    Onsen (picture from http://blog.asiahotels.com)

  5. Nothing is as uncomfortable as a cold bed. Since our bedroom is the coldest room in the house, a mere hot-water bottle to warm the feet does not suffice. Luckily a friend of mine recommended using an electric blanket. The blanket is placed under the mattress cover and can either be used to just preheat the bed or provide a steady heat supply all night long, depending on how cold it is.
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  6. The best winter food to warm you from the inside out is ‘nabe’. Nabe is a one pot dish with meat, tofu and vegetables cooked in a shallow soup. It is usually prepared at the table with a portable gas burner, while the whole family gathers around.

These are my tips and tricks. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section!

Check out one more way to keep warm during Japanese winter: haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer.

 

Winter flowers

When returning to Japan after our two-week holiday in Belgium, we got our first taste of winter in Japan. It has gotten cold (maximum 5° C at midday) and it even snows occasionally. But I was very surprised to see flowers blooming even in this weather.

While I normally associate autumn and winter with barren trees and the withering of nature, I have encountered blooming flowers in Japan all throughout autumn and now also during wintertime. How wonderful to see those specks of colour in an otherwise gray winterworld.

Hedge blooming in December, Toyota City, Japan

Hedge blooming in December in Toyota City (December 26th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Takayama, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms in Takayama (November 14th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Kōshō-ji temple, Nagoya, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms at Kozoji Temple, Nagoya (November 11th)

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City, Japan

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City (November 13th)

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City, Japan

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City (November 17th)

Christmas in Japan and Belgium

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

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:

Advent wreath

Advent wreath

  • 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

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

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.

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This article was submitted to the J-Festa blogging festival December edition, themed ‘Christmas in Japan’.

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