Kimono fashion: Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi) is a Japanese holiday held on the second Monday of January. It is a great day for kimono spotting. In day-to-day life in Japan, it is rare to see people in kimono. On Coming of Age Day, however, you will see them everywhere.

Coming of Age Day celebrates everyone who turned 20 years old (the age of majority in Japan) during the past year. It is customary for these young adults to wear traditional Japanese clothing, especially the women, who wear furisode kimono with long swinging sleeves. Most men seem to opt for smart Western suits, although some of them do wear kimono and hakama.

Coming of age day kimono

A group of youngsters on Coming of Age Day. The girls are dressed in brightly coloured furisode kimono with long sleeves – Image by Dick Johnson

coming of age day proper kimono fashion

Young couple in traditional Coming of Age Day attire

There are some young people, however, who have decided to put a new spin on Coming of Age Day fashion. A few days ago, I read a Japan Times article discussing ‘improper attire’ in the city of Kitakyushu. Apparently men have begun wearing brightly coloured hakama and women are dressing in a style of kimono that was popular with oiran, the high-class prostitutes of the Edo Period, showing lots of cleavage and shoulder.

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Girls trying on oiran costumes for Coming of Age Day

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Oiran costume on Coming of Age Day

If you want to get an impression of Coming of Age Day celebrations in Kitakyushu (the city discussed in the Japan Times article), I recommend the video below. It shows a mix of traditional costumes and the newer styles. The guys in the beginning of the video really remind me of the anime ‘Great Teacher Onizuka‘, which basically means they look and sound like 1980’s gangsters. Also don’t miss the guy in ladies underwear at the end of the video.

Judging from this video, it seems like a pretty raucous affair. Apparently the past few years it has not been not uncommon to have car crashes, fighting and vandalism on Coming of Age Day, although some places seem to be more famous for it than others. To be fair though, I think in most places in Japan people just dress traditionally, go to a temple and have a calm party afterwards with their friends. It’s always the excess that gets the most attention. I would love to have some reader feedback on this though. Please feel free to comment below!

But back to Kitakyushu. Apparently some people were scandalized by this new kimono fashion trend and the city of Kitakyushu has responded by setting up a webpage to educate new 20-year-olds on appropriate attire for the event. Unfortunately I can’t read Japanese, but I watched the video. It shows how a girl is supposed to walk, sit, enter a car and even go to the bathroom (if I am not mistaken) while wearing a furisode kimono. Where are the recommendations for the boys???

I wonder though, if the main problem is the new style of dressing or rather the vandalism and violence that sometimes seems to be associated with Coming of Age Day celebrations. And why do these young people go so crazy, both in fashion and behavior?

Several things come to mind. Firstly, innovations by younger generations are often perceived as shocking by older generations. This is a phenomenon as old as time. Secondly, I have come to understand that for many Japanese people, their early twenties is the only time they truly feel free. During their primary and secondary school years, they are under enormous pressure to pass entrance exams to get into good high schools and universities. After university, they enter the workforce and work long hours under strict behavior and dress codes. Or they start a family and are completely absorbed by their duties as parents (for many women this still holds true). During their university years however, they are free to do as they want. And finally, I do believe that Japan is changing. A new generation is emerging that is discarding the traditional ways and looking for their own way of doing things, much as happened in the West during the sixties. I am curious to see how things will evolve!

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Forest hike and Japanese tea ceremony

Today I wondered: what was I doing in Japan around this time four years ago? The answer did not disappoint me: I was hiking through a virgin forest and attended a field tea ceremony (nodate 野点).

Me and my aunt, who was visiting from Belgium, were invited by my lovely friends Nobuo-san and Motoko-san to go on a hike with them. Being avid hikers, they claimed to know the most beautiful spots for hiking around Toyota City. They took us to a beautiful virgin forest. It was kōyō (autumn leaves 紅葉 ) season and the light was gorgeous that day.

japanese forest

Our guides are leading the way. Seeing bamboo in a forest was very exotic to me.

japanese forest

The autumn light on the coloured leaves was spectacular.

japanese forest

Looking up the trunk of an ancient tree.

As if taking us to this precious place wasn’t enough, they surprised us with an impromptu tea ceremony in the forest. When we sat down in a clearing to have a little rest, Motoko-san started unpacking several implements that she had been carrying in her backpack. As I had no knowledge of tea ceremony at the time, we were very curious to see what all those beautiful objects were for.

nodate field tea ceremony

Motoko-san is unpacking her wares.

nodate field tea ceremony

She produced two gorgeous red chawan (tea bowls) out of her backpack, and some wagashi (Japanese sweets). The stop at the sweets shop on our way to the forest suddenly made a lot more sense.

nodate field tea ceremony wagashi

Seasonal wagashi

nodate field tea ceremony

Omnomnom. Wagashi are delicious. The bowl of tea is waiting on the bench to be drunk.

It was one of my first experiences with the Japanese tea ceremony and it made a deep impression on me. The spontaneous enjoyment of tea in that beautiful natural setting was such a special experience. That day I learned about the concepts of wabisabi (わびさび the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, perfectly embodied by the fallen leaves, the rough table and the setting in general) and ichigo ichie (一期一会 litt. ‘one time, one meeting’, indicating the preciousness of meetings with people and emphasizing that every moment and experience is unique).

Thank you Motoko-san and Nobuo-san for that once in a lifetime experience!

How to make Japanese green tea

Green tea is one of the basic elements of life in Japan. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people drink green tea every day, in one form or another. One of the most famous kinds of Japanese green tea is sencha. It is a fairly good quality of tea leaves, served to guests that visit one’s home. For everyday use, many people drink bancha. Similar to sencha, these are green tea leaves, but of a lesser quality. Other common types of Japanese tea are hōjicha, roasted green tea leaves, and genmaicha, green tea leaves with roasted brown rice. For a more complete overview of the most common types of tea in Japan, I refer you to japan-guide.com and japanesegreenteashops.com.

Japanese green tea sencha

Sencha, good quality Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea bancha

Bancha, lower quality Japanese green tea, a bit coarser and with a less delicate taste than sencha

Japanese green tea hojicha

Hōjicha, roasted Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea genmaicha

Genmaicha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice

Today I would like to share with you how to prepare Japanese green tea. More specifically, I will explain how to prepare sencha when receiving a guest at your home. It is possible that there is more than one correct way to do this, but this particular way was taught to me by a Japanese friend from Nagoya.

Start by arranging everything you will need on a tray:

  • A teapot. Most teapots that I have seen at people’s homes were rather small, plain red earthenware teapots. But of course teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
red Japanese teapot kyusu

This type of teapot is called kyusu. Though the Japanese word kyusu itself simply means teapot, it often refers to side-handled clay pots like those made in the Tokoname region of Japan.

Japanese teapot kyusu inside

Japanese teapots include an integrated strainer, allowing the tea to steep freely and thus improving the taste.

  • The tea leaves, in a decorative tea holder.
japanese decorative tea tin

Japanese decorative tea tin

  • Cups for all the guest. Sencha cups are smaller than mugs or even Western teacups.
  • Saucers for the cups. The use of a saucer adds formality. To serve the cup without a saucer could be perceived as a bit rude. Wooden saucers can be used in all seasons. Openwork woven saucers are only for summer. If you serve cold tea, it is also best to use an openwork saucer. Instead of a saucer, you could also use some kind of coaster.
japanese tea saucers

Japanese saucers for sencha tea cups, wooden saucers on the left, openwork woven saucers on the right

  • A small plate with some kind of sweet for each guest, with a small fork or spoon if need be.

The total setup should be something like the image below:

serving sencha final setup

This setup, although not exactly as I described, gives you a general idea of what I mean. Image from everyonestea.blogspot.com.

japanese tea

This is one instance where I was served tea when visiting a friend’s home, on an afternoon in July. What a lovely and welcoming image!

Now on to the actual instructions for making the tea. It is best to make sencha green tea with less than boiling water. Boiling water burns the leaves, ruining the delicate taste of sencha green tea. To reach the desired water temperature, water is first brought to the boil and then passed into several different vessels (like the tea-pot and the cups) to drop the water temperature. Every time water is transferred into a different vessel, the temperature drops by 10° C. There is also the added advantage of preheating the cups with the hot water. Proceed as follows:

  • In the kitchen, pour the boiling water from the kettle into the tea-pot. At this point, there are no tea leaves in the tea-pot yet. The reason you are doing this in the kitchen, is to hide the kettle from your guests. Since it is very hot, your guests might burn themselves. By hiding the kettle, you show concern for your guests safety. Showing great concern for your guest’s comfort at all times is very important in Japan.
  • Then take the tray, with the teapot and everything else on it, to your guests. In front of your guests, pour the water from the teapot into the cups. This way, the water cools further and the cups are preheated.
  • Put the tea leaves into the teapot, about one tablespoon for each guest.
  • Pour the water from the cups back into the tea-pot.
  • Steep the leaves for a few minutes.
  • Pour the tea from the tea-pot into the cups. Start by pouring a little into each cup, then go back to the first cup and pour some more into each cup. The reason you are doing this, is because the first tea out of the pot is the weakest. The tea at the bottom of the pot is stronger. It is believed that the last drop from the teapot is the best one, so make sure that the last few drops are divided over all the cups and that the tea-pot is completely emptied.
  • Give each guest a cup and saucer, as well as a small plate with a sweet.
japanese tea

Tea served by my calligraphy teacher when I visited her home in April.

It is possible to use the same tea leaves for a second brew. For the second brew, the water should be slightly hotter. Since you can no longer use the tea-pot or the cups to transfer and cool the water, the boiling water is transferred into an extra tea-pot or water container in the kitchen and then brought to the guests, where it is poured into the tea-pot. Steep the leaves a bit longer than on the first brew, then serve the tea in the same way.

If you want to know how to brew bancha, hōjicha and genmaicha as well, this Japanese video explains it:

Ancient arts: Japanese calligraphy

Calligraphy is one of the great Japanese arts. This is exemplified in the Japanese word for calligraphy, shodō 書道. The second kanji of the word, , means road. All the great Japanese arts have this kanji in their name. Examples are:

  • sadō 茶道 the way of tea
  • jū 柔道 the famous martial art, literally the gentle way
  • kadō 華道 the way of flowers, also known as ikebana

The inclusion of ‘road’ in their name implies that the study of these arts takes you on a life-long journey. As you study these arts, you not only learn about the art itself but also about life in general. It takes many years to master these arts, and even the master is never finished with his studies. These arts exemplify Japanese culture at its purest and are often closely linked with Zen Buddhism.

shodou, the japanese word for calligraphy

Shodō, the japanese word for calligraphy

There is however another word to indicate Japanese calligraphy: shūji 習字. It refers more to good penmanship and writing neatly than to sophisticated art and walking ‘the great road’. It is for example used to indicate the calligraphy lessons that are a mandatory subject in elementary school. In high school, Japanese calligraphy is no longer a mandatory subject but one of the choices among art subjects like painting and music. It is also a popular high school club activity. People who are really serious about calligraphy continue (or start again) to study as adults. Over the years, they earn different degrees until ultimately, after ten years or more, are qualified to teach themselves.

Being the eager Japan geek that I am, I tried my hand at calligraphy when I was living in Japan. I was lucky enough to be introduced to a wonderful teacher, Isogai-sensei. Here she is teaching her grandson:

japanese calligraphy teacher teaching her grandson

My Japanese calligraphy teacher, teaching her grandson

Usually Japanese calligraphy is practiced sitting in seiza, the Japanese way of sitting kneeling on one’s heels. But because my teacher had a knee injury, she preferred to teach at a table. This picture also illustrates the necessary tools for a Japanese calligraphy lesson:

  • thin calligraphy paper
  • calligraphy brushes
  • black ink (here in a bottle, but also available in a solid block to be diluted with water, see below)
  • an ink stone to hold the ink
  • orange ink to correct mistakes
  • paperweight
  • soft mats to cover the table
utensils for japanese calligraphy

Here is a closer look at the utensils for japanese calligraphy. You see the items mentioned above. Additionally, the small teapot-like container holds water to dilute the ink. You can see the block of ink resting on the ink stone. To use it, put a bit of water on the ink stone and move the block of ink back and forth over the stone. It can take up to ten minutes to make enough ink. This repetitive action is meant to calm the mind before starting your calligraphy practice. But these days, many people buy ink in bottles that is ready to use.

The very first exercise that a calligraphy student practices includes drawing a horizontal line (the kanji for ‘one’) and a cross (the kanji for ‘ten’). Many of the basic techniques are already included in this simple exercise. At the start of each class, my teacher usually tried the first few exercises together with me, noting points of interest and correcting mistakes. She then gave me an example in orange ink and left me copy this a dozen times.

japanese calligraphy student practicing the basics

A japanese calligraphy student practices the basics

We would then line up my work on the table or on the floor and my teacher would correct the work with orange ink. She also choose the one she liked best at the end of every lesson and indicated it with an orange spiral over the calligraphy.

 japanese calligraphy practice sheets lined up

My work from the first lesson lined up. Top left shows the first basic exercise. The other ones spell niji in hiragana (Japanese phonetic, syllabic writing system), which means rainbow.

a japanese calligraphy teacer makes corrections in orange ink

My teacher corrects my work with orange ink

japanese calligraphy the two best examples of the day

These are the two she liked best

My classes lasted for about 45 minutes to one hour. Afterwards I always felt both calm and tired. If you are doing it right, you are very focused on every exercise you do, so it takes quite a bit of energy. But it is so much fun! And to get one even remotely right is so rewarding. I was always amazed at the ease with which my teacher writes her calligraphy. Once you have tried it yourself, you realize the years of practice it must have taken to write so beautifully and fluently.

I only studied calligraphy for a few months but even during that time, I got a glimpse of the broader lessons it can teach you. During class, I was doing my very best to write as correctly as possible, paying attention to every detail. But due to my emphasis on form, my writing was lacking in energy. It turns out that I had to learn to let go a little and add some more vigour and joy to the strokes. A good lesson for life!

japanese calligraphy lesson with my teacher's grandson

It helped me a lot to study together with my teacher’s grandson, whose personality embodied just the things my calligraphy was lacking: spontaneity and energy, which of course showed in his writing as well.

How to take a bath in Japan

One of the many things that I love about Japan is the bathing culture. Of course the onsen (volcanic hot water baths) are famous, but I also love the way Japanese people bathe at home. The key difference with bathing in the West is that Japanese people wash themselves at a faucet before getting in the bath. When Western people take a bath, they wash themselves in the bath and then soak in the soapy, dirty water. Even before travelling to Japan, I had never been a fan of Western baths. It goes without saying that I was delighted to discover the Japanese way of bathing.

Japanese bathrooms have a particular layout to facilitate the Japanese style of bathing. In a typical Japanese bathroom, the sink area and the shower/ bath area are completely separated. Usually the bath area is in a small, separate room with a bath tub and a low faucet next to the tub. The faucet has a shower head attached to it, which also provides the option of taking a shower for those who prefer it.

traditional japanese bathroom

A typical Japanese bathroom, with the (covered) tub on the left and a faucet with shower head on the right

If you travel in Japan, you will see this style of (communal) bathroom in many small hotels and ryokan. How to take a bath in such a typical Japanese bathroom? You undress in the dressing area right outside the bathroom. Leave your slippers outside as well. Then you enter the bathroom and sit on the stool in front of the faucet. The hotel usually provides soap, shampoo and conditioner, or you can use your own. Use the shower head to hose yourself down and then clean your body thoroughly with a wash cloth and soap, while sitting on the stool. Wash your hair if you like. Make sure to rinse off all the soap when you are done. Sometimes you also get a small plastic wash basin. This is used to hold water to soak your wash cloth, and it is used to pour water over one’s head. But the introduction of shower heads has made the wash basin mostly obsolete.

Now it is time to soak in the warm water and relax. Because everyone enters the water after a thorough wash, all the guests share the same water. There are a few etiquette rules when it comes to the bath water:

  • No soap should enter the bath water. Rinse thoroughly before entering the bath.
  • Don’t soak your wash cloth in the bath water. The cloth is considered dirty since you have used it to wash yourself. You may rest the cloth on your head if you like.
  • Don’t immerse your head in the bath water (not 100% sure on this rule though).
  • In hotels, most baths will have a cover to keep the water warm. You are of course allowed to remove the cover by yourself when you want to enter the bath. Make sure to put the cover back on the bath after you are done. It is considered very rude towards the other guests to let the water cool off.
typical japanese bathroom

Communal bathroom in a Japanese low-budget hostel. Faucets for washing on the right, a bath tub for soaking on the left.

typical japanese bathroom

Put the covers back on the bath when you are done!

Families also use a cover to keep the water warm, as different family members take their turn in the bath. So in terms of water and energy usage, the Japanese way makes a lot of sense. In the West, everyone who takes a bath has to fill an entire tub just for themselves.

In traditional Japanese culture, the order in which people of the same family or household use the bath is determined by their social status, with higher ranking individuals entering the bath first and thus having the freshest water. For example, if a guest is visiting the house, the guest usually gets first dibs on the bath.

Another thing that I love about Japanese baths, is the dimensions of the tub. In the West, bathtubs are lower and longer. But if a tall person like me tries to lie down in a Western bath, either my knees or my feet will stick out and be cold. I also tend to get a sore neck in Western baths, because you have to rest your neck on the porcelain edge of the bath if you want to lie down (sitting up, your torso sticks out above the water line and again, gets cold).

typical western bath

A typical western bath

Japanese baths are shorter and higher, so that you sit upright in the bath with your legs pulled in. This way, the whole body is under water and I also find this posture more comfortable.

typical japanese bath

Our typical Japanese bath at home. It is a lot deeper than a Western bath. The size is perfect for me!

One final advantage of Japanese baths, is that they are, like so many things in Japan, high-tech. Look at the control panel for our bath at home: so many buttons! I especially love that it is possible to keep the bath water at a constant temperature. The ‘auto bath water fill up’ function is also very convenient. You don’t have to keep an eye on your bath while it is filling up. Convenient really is a good word to describe Japan!

control panel for a japanese bath

Control panel for our Japanese bath at home

People watching – Kimono on the train

After living in Japan for a while, you start to experience something that I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’. I have talked about it in previous posts. It means that you have gradually gotten used to all the wonderful Japanese things that excited you so much at first. Life in Japan has started to seem so normal. But even then, from time to time, you will experience something that really makes you feel like you are in Japan. Like that time I ran into a monk in a fabric store. The excitement I feel at such a time, is the reason I call it ‘a face-slap-moment’.

Another good example of a face-slap-moment is seeing ladies in kimono on the train. Even towards the end of my year in Japan, I still felt really excited whenever I saw someone in kimono. Apart from the summer festivals, you really don’t see that many people in kimono anymore (with the possible exception of Kyoto). It is very hard to wear kimono and many young people don’t know how to do it. If you see someone in kimono, it is usually an elderly person.

I managed to snap a photograph of these two ladies on the subway in Nagoya:

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Ladies in kimono on the train in Japan. If you look closely, you will see the slightest hint of a green kimono, to the left of the lady in the yellow kimono.

Lucky for me, these ladies took the same transfer that I did. This gave me the perfect opportunity to follow them throughout Fushimi station in Nagoya and keep taking sneak photographs.

kimono on the train in Japan

Here we have a better view of their complete outfits

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

On the escalator I managed to get a close-up of the obi and the kimono fabric. People probably thought I was crazy taking all these photographs. Or maybe they just thought “*sigh* foreigners…”. Fortunately, Japanese people are too polite to comment on it.

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Escalator close-up of the lady in the green kimono. She was standing a bit farther away from me.

Japanese ladies in kimono waiting for the train

My best photo opportunity came at the end, when they finally stood still, waiting for the next train. Aren’t they lovely? The posture of the lady in yellow is so elegant and the kimono are gorgeous!

People watching – Japanese monk

After living in Japan for a while, you kind of get used to all the things that used to excite you so much at first. But every once in a while, you get what I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’.

Today I will tell you about one of those faceslap moments that stand out in my memory. It happened when I was browsing a local fabric store with a friend. A visit to the fabric store is an event already exciting in itself, because of the multitude of gorgeous Japanese fabrics everywhere. But suddenly, in the midst of the housewives and rolls of fabric, we saw a Zen monk in traditional robes.

The monk was just going about his business, looking at different fabrics. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be ambushed by an overly excited gaijin, asking him if she could please be allowed to take his picture because she never saw a monk in a fabric store before. But true to his zen background, he remained unfazed and kindly posed for a picture. The result is one of my favourite images from Japan!

japanese monk in a fabric store

Look how calmly he is standing there amid the colourful fabric. For me, this image says more than a thousand words.