Let’s dance!

Today is Obon, an important Japanese holiday. Traditionally it is a day for honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. But since the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to have a party, it is also an excellent reason to organise a festival and get together with friends and family.

Apart from delicious festival food and lots of people wearing yukata, the Obon festival is characterized by Obon dances, which are called Bon Odori (盆踊り). The dancers gather around a central stage and perform circular dances while moving around the stage. Compared to some Western dances, the Obon dances seem very slow and subdued. But once you give it a try, it is a wonderful feeling to share in the group atmosphere and to do the dances together.

obon nagoya castle

Obon dancing at Nagoya castle. The central stage houses the musicians and from time to time, different people are invited up on stage to dance there.

obon dancing nagoya castle

The colourful crowd in yukata is so beautiful!

Anyone can join in: there are many elderly ladies, but also lots of young people. Even clumsy gaijin like me are welcome to join. In the video below you can see the cutest little boy doing his best to dance along with the adults. There is also an equally cute, but slightly older girl in yukata.

In this next video you get a better look at the crowd and you can really see the circular motion of the dancers. Sometimes you will see ladies in matching yukata. I think they belong to an Obon dance group where they practice all year long and then go to various Obon festivals in their matching yukata.

There are big Obon events like the one at Nagoya Castle where these videos were made but Obon is also celebrated on a smaller scale in local neighbourhoods. When we were wandering around Muroran, a small city in Hokkaido, on an evening in August, we saw this local Obon gathering on a neighbourhood square:

Obon in Muroran, Hokkaido

This was a small, local community celebration in Muroran, Hokkaido. There weren’t any booths with festival food. Instead there were some tables where people placed their homemade food, sharing between everyone.

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My first bowl of matcha green tea

After having lived in Japan for over a year, a bowl of matcha green tea seems like the most normal thing in the world to me. But I can still vividly remember the first time I came into contact with this magical substance.

Matcha tea is produced by drying and grinding green tea leaves into a powder. This powder is then placed into a bowl, hot water is added and the tea is whisked to a uniform consistency with a bamboo whisk. The end result is a bowl of bright green, foamy tea with a soft, slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste. Matcha is most famous for its use in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, but in Japan it is also enjoyed on more informal occasions like a touristic temple visit or as an afternoon treat.

making matcha

Making matcha: the tea powder has been scooped into the bowl. Hot water is ready to be added. Then the tea is whisked. You can see the bamboo whisk in the bottom right.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Japan. I had never even heard of matcha. My first introduction to matcha was at a small lunch restaurant (Mamean 豆庵 in Toyota City), popular with elderly Japanese ladies. I noticed all the ladies were consuming some bright green beverage after lunch, which fascinated me tremendously. In my beginner’s Japanese, I tried to ask one of the waiters about it. In reply to my halting “are wa nan desu ka” (lit. “what is that over there?”), the waiter provided me with a very elaborate explanation, of which I of course understood absolutely nothing. I just practiced my smile and nod technique, which is my go-to solution for such situations, and was rewarded with a steaming bowl of matcha tea.

my first matcha

This is the result, my first bowl of matcha tea

I think ‘interesting’ would be the best way to describe my first taste of matcha. It is somewhat of an acquired taste. Some foreigners just plainly dislike it, but I have grown very fond of the taste. In Japan you will encounter it frequently, since it is also used as an additive for sweets, cakes and ice cream. Starbucks Japan even serves matcha flavoured latte and frappuccino.

Starbucks Japan matcha

Azuki Matcha Latte at a Starbucks in Japan… while one could argue about the taste, it is certainly very Japanese.

matcha ice cream

My first taste of matcha ice cream (the green scoop on the top) wasn’t really a big hit. I later discovered that the taste can differ greatly from place to place and occasionally it can be very good. Therefore my advice is: avoid the Baskin and Robbins matcha ice cream, try it somewhere where it is homemade.

Sumo fashion

It’s no secret that I love sumo. As with all things Japanese, the visual aspect of the whole thing is part of its appeal. I would therefore like to dedicate this post to sumo attire.

The wrestlers, or rikishi, are best known for their typical ring fighting outfit consisting of a colourful, silk, thick-waisted loincloth, called mawashi. But they also have a more elaborate ceremonial dress. It consists of an ornate apron that is inserted into the mawashi. The apron, or keshō-mawashi, is worn at the ring entering ceremony.

Two wrestlers fighting in their silk mawashi

Two wrestlers fighting in their silk mawashi – image from Wikipedia

Sumo_ring_entering_ceremony

Sumo wrestlers, or rikishi wearing their ornate aprons, or keshō-mawashi, at a ring entering ceremony – image from Wikipedia

These gorgeous embroidered aprons are very expensive. They are usually paid for by a sponsor or one of the rikishi’s support groups. I had expected that all the aprons would depict traditional Japanese scenes, but that is not always the case. Sometimes the sponsor’s product will be featured and foreign rikishi sometimes wear a keshō-mawashi with their national flag. Some aprons even show funny pictures or scenes inspired by modern popular culture. Others refer to the wrestler’s ring name.

The keshō-mawashi with a more ‘typical Japanese’ feel to them seemed the most difficult to find. Ironically it is Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama who provides us with a traditional Japanese scene based on a woodblock print.

aoiyama keshō-mawashi

Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama

Below is another keshō-mawashi based on a woodblock print by Hokusai, worn by Okinoumi. The choice of design might refer to his ring name, which means ‘the sea of Oki’. Oki-shotō or Oki islands is the island group where he was born.

okinoumi keshō-mawashi

Okinoumi

Also very Japanese but not quite what one would expect from a tough sumo wrestler: a design with cherry blossom, worn by Osaka-born rikishi Goeido.

goeido keshō-mawashi

Goeido

Some designs draw inspiration from a very different aspect of Japanese culture: manga. Have a look at this funny design worn by Ikioi.

ikioi keshō-mawashi

Ikioi

Estonian rikishi Baruto pokes fun at himself with a cute caricature. He also has an inception thing going on, where his image on the keshō-mawashi is wearing a keshō-mawashi with his image (it looks less confusing than it sounds).

baruto keshō-mawashi

Baruto

The most surprising reference to popular culture that I saw was on Takayasu’s keshō-mawashi. It features an image of Charlie Chaplin. I wonder what the story behind it is. I am terrible at reading kanji so the only thing I can make out on the apron is the word ‘clinic’.

Takayasu

Takayasu

Some other interesting keshō-mawashi:

yoshikaze

Some rikishi just have writing on their keshō-mawashi, like Yoshikaze.

Kaisei

Brazilian rikishi Kaisei proudly wears his national flag on his apron

Chiyotairyu

Beautiful dragon motif, worn by Chiyotairyu

Toyonoshima

A Japanese mask on Toyonoshima’s apron. Is it perhaps a demon in a kabuki play?

Tochiozan

A personal favourite of mine: Tochiozan’s keshō-mawashi features a dog dressed as a yokozuna (sumo grand champion). My only question is, why?!

All images of rikishi in keshō-mawashi are from the Nihon Sumo Kyokai website. If you would like to have a look at some more keshō-mawashi, you can find them on this page by clicking on the wrestler’s names.

Traditional Japanese breakfast

If you ever spend the night in a Japanese hotel or traditional ryokan, it is highly likely that you will be confronted with what I like to call ‘the Japanese breakfast experience’. While most Westerners will already consider a bowl of cereal a heartening breakfast, the Japanese are a bit more thorough when it comes to eating breakfast.

The simple version will usually include a bowl of miso soup, rice or rice porridge (called okayu), a piece of cooked fish and some pickled vegetables. Additionally bread, eggs, vegetables, natto or meat may also be included. And of course a cup of green tea.

japanese breakfast

Traditional Japanese breakfast from a breakfast buffet at a youth hostel. From left to right: bowl of miso soup, cup for green tea, glass of water, plate with fried egg, baked fish, various vegetables and salad, pickled vegetables and squid salad, bowl of rice, container with natto

japanese breakfast

Japanese breakfast in a hotel. From left to right: pickled vegetables, cup of tea, daikon and tofu boiled in broth (oden), bowl with various vegetables, bowl of rice porridge (okayu) with a pickled plum (umeboshi) on top, fried eggs, glass of water, miso soup.

modern japanese breakfast

Due to Western influences, bread and meat may also appear in a modern Japanese breakfast. From left to right: cup of green tea, delicious home-made bread, miso soup, yoghurt with raisins, a plate with vegetables, bacon and fried egg.

The Japanese breakfast experience can be quite a hurdle for Westerners. We are not used to eating fish, rice or soup for breakfast. Most of those items are considered dinner foods in Western cultures. While some gaijin seem to have trouble suppressing their gag reflex while just looking at a Japanese breakfast, personally I am a big fan. The hearty Japanese breakfast provides energy all through morning, without getting the 10 a.m. faintness I usually experience after a Western breakfast. And I love the taste of the salty rice porridge.

But even a fan like me has her limits. I had a bit of trouble downing this breakfast provided to me in a traditional ryokan:

japanese breakfast ryokan

Elaborate Japanese breakfast at a ryokan

grilled fish for breakfast

I had some trouble with the fish especially

The fact that the breakfast was served at 7 a.m. didn’t help. I was even more surprised that the gentleman at the table next to us felt the need to combine this healthy, early morning breakfast with a large beer.

beer for breakfast

A Japanese man enjoying a beer for breakfast. Notice the 1 liter (!) bottle on his table.

In fact, it seems quite normal to have alcohol at breakfast in Japanese hotels. Look at this menu we found on our breakfast table at a hotel in Nagano:

beer for breakfast in Japan

A menu advertising beer or sparkling wine for breakfast. Don’t even get me started on the Engrish, that’s for another blog post.

Japanese hands

The other day I was watching the Japanese movie ‘Okuribito’ (usually titled ‘Departures’ abroad). I absolutely love that movie and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

Japanese movie Okuribito

The Japanese movie Okuribito. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

The movie is about a man who moves back from Tokyo to his hometown in the mountains. He gets involved in the funeral business, a profession that was despised in feudal Japan and was only carried out by the lowest social class, the eta. Even in modern-day Japan, some people still look down on the profession of undertaker. At first, the main character in the movie also has some misgivings about his new job, but gradually he learns to see the beauty in the tender ritual of preparing the dead for their departure. This ritual is called ‘nōkan’, and you can see it performed in the video below.

While watching the movie, it struck me again how beautiful and elegant Japanese hands are. One of my cherished images of Japan is the way most Japanese people perform even the simplest of daily tasks; their gestures expressing a mixture of elegance, precision and understated strength. The elegance of Japanese hands and gestures is even more apparent during the stylized movements of Japanese rituals, such as the burial ritual in the movie above or the ritual movements of the tea ceremony.

tea ceremony elegant hands

Taking hot water to pour into a tea bowl. All movements during the tea ceremony are elegant and delicate, yet precise and deliberate. Not an easy thing to accomplish!

tea ceremony elegant hands

Admiring one of the utensils that are used during the ceremony. The utensils have to be treated with the utmost care since they are very precious. Her hands look so elegant!

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

Girl’s Doll Festival – Hina Matsuri

March 3rd was ‘Hina Matsuri’ or ‘Girl’s Day’. On this day, all families with a daughter display a set of traditional Japanese dolls in their house. But apparently the habit isn’t limited to people with daughters. Ever since early February, I have encountered these ‘hina dolls’ (‘hina’ is the japanese word for doll) everywhere I went: in malls, community centers, restaurants, etc. I had heard about Hina Matsuri before coming to Japan but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is still so widely practiced.

The traditional doll display is hughe. It has seven storeys and portrays an imperial household, compete with furniture, servants and musicians.

hina matsuri emperor and empress

The first two levels contain an emperor and empress with three court ladies below them

hina matsuri minister of the left

A member of the imperial household. My best guess would be that he is 'the minister of the left'.

hina doll display

A few elaborate hina doll displays

Imagine having such a contraption in your living room, especially in a small Japanese apartment. No wonder that these days there are many modern and more minimalist options available as well.

hina matsuri minimalist

Minimalist hina dolls. Notice the 12 layers of fabric in the doll's clothing, which represent the 12 layer kimono's from the Heian period (called jūnihitoe).

hina matsuri mouse

And last but not least, my favourite: a hina doll mouse, wearing a kimono. Kawaii!