Tag Archives: Japan


One of the things that I admire most about Japanese society, is the appreciation of natural beauty that is wired into the culture here. Sure, lots of people in the world appreciate nature. Lots of people like flowers and make a point of going to see them. But, this is the first place I’ve lived where the blooming of a flower is a national event that warrants festivals, parties, and a whole array of limited edition food flavors in stores – not to mention motivating throngs of people to go out and admire the blossoms.

The blooming of the cherry blossom trees is a big effing deal here.

Around the end of March, you begin to see “cherry blossom reports” on the news and on the internet anticipating when the sakura (cherry blossom) trees will be in full bloom, and which days will be the optimal time to see them in which parts of Japan. Stores start to offer various sakura flavored foods as well, which is a unique experience for me, as there aren’t many occasions to eat flowers in the US. Here I’ve tried cherry blossom flavored wine, desserts, iced tea, and even fried rice! (Not sure I will have that again, but it wasn’t terrible). Once the flowers bloom, it is traditional for people to gather a group of friends and family for a picnic (read: drinking party) underneath the trees.

These are called hanami parties (literally flower viewing parties). And when people come out for an event here, let me tell you, they come out in force. Perhaps it is the relative crowded-ness of the city that makes events seem more popular than comparable events in the US, or perhaps Japanese people not only work really hard, but play really hard as well. Or maybe, there is something about the culture that just makes this a nation of do-ers. But when people do something in Tokyo it is not just a passing fancy – they go ALL OUT. So, when I went to a rather popular park in Tokyo to see what hanami is all about, it was MOBBED. There were more people than cherry blossoms, I believe. But, as with any event that draws a big crowd, part of the fun can be the people watching as well.

The hanami tradition goes back many, many hundreds of years. I have heard that the reason the cherry blossoms evoke such a strong response is their fleeting nature. They last perhaps a week, and as such they can be seen as a reminder of the fragile nature of life.

Here are some photos from my hanami experience in Tokyo:


I have a serious Kit Kat problem

Kit Kat is a very familiar candy in America, but I was surprised to learn of its unique popularity in Japan.

I’m told that the words Kit Kat remind people of the Japanese phrase “kitto katsu” which is said among students taking exams and is supposed to mean “I’ll do my best to succeed.” As a result, they have become a convenient gift for graduating students, and usually feature a little space on the back of the package for writing an encouraging note to the receiver.

Apparently Nestle is also playing into the Japanese cultural tradition of giving little gifts – especially edible ones – anytime you travel somewhere or want to thank someone. They have created specialty flavors of Kit Kats that are only available during certain seasons or in particular areas of Japan, making them sort of a collectible item. (Try them all!!!).

I have fallen hook, line, and sinker for this ploy and cannot resist buying them wherever I see them.
Behold: my Kit Kat collection thus far:

Long overdue pics from Sapporo Snow Fest

I haven’t posted to my blog in a solid 2 months, so it probably goes without saying that I’m behind the 8 ball a little bit. But, I have at least still been getting out and seeing things. I like to think that “doing” is a bit more important than “writing about doing” in the grand scheme of things.

In February, I traveled to Hokkaido – the northernmost prefecture/island in Japan – to see the Sapporo Snow Festival. This is an annual event that has been going on since the fifties, featuring huge, intricate sculptures made of snow and ice.

The Dosojin Fire Festival in pictures

The Dosojin Fire Festival (in words…pictures to follow)

In a world where hot coffee lawsuits have led to ubiquitous disclaimers, warning signs and laws against most acts of stupidity, It is a rare and entertaining treat when you see ordinary people getting to do something that is actually dangerous for once.  As I overheard someone say in the crowd, “if the fire festival weren’t thousands of years old, they would never let it happen.”
I’ve heard the Dosojin Fire Festival explained a few different ways.  The idea behind it is to offer a symbolic prayer for a good harvest, and also for good health and successful marriages for the first born sons that families in the village of Nozawa Onsen have welcomed this year.  The participants in the fest are the 25 and 42 year olds of the village, because both are unlucky ages for men.  Where the stories differ, is on the role each age group played in the fest, so I will relay the version that I like best.  Apparently the 42 year olds sit on top of the shrine, about one story in the air, drinking and singing songs, while the 25 year olds defend the bad of the shrine from attacks from the rest of the villagers.  The best story I heard was that the 25 year olds were holding the older men captive and that the villagers were truing to free them.  This jives with the fact that the older men frequently tossed torches into the crowd for the villagers to light and fight with, but not with their chants of “give up the fight” (in English for the  benefit of the many Western tourists, I suppose).  However, I also read that the 42 year olds were “defending” the top of the shrine from the villagers.  (Were they expecting an air raid?  A catapult?  Rappelling ninjas? All of those seem unlikely)
After about an hour of fireworks, singing, and carrying on, a large bonfire was set, uncomfortably close to where i was standing, actually, and villagers began lighting bunches of reeds to create torches, and making their way to the shrine. For the main event, villagers take these LIGHTED TORCHES and beat the 25 year olds viciously about the face and hands in an effort to get them away from the base of the shrine so they can try to light it on fire.  The brave youg’uns just stood there and took it, over and over again and used their weapon-less arms and hands to push away, grab, or even put out the torches and keep holding on for dear life to the ropes at the base of the shrine.  This started rather tamely at first, and I was astonished to see young children and adults with babies strapped to their backs being given handfuls of reeds to light at the bonfire and attempt to ignite the shrine with.  Naturally, the 25 year olds didn’t put up much of a fight against 9 year olds and dads wearing baby bjorns, but still the shrine remained intact.
As the fight intensified, more of the base got torn away, and it became clear that the shrine was actually really hard to set on fire.  Each time someone managed to knock away enough quarter-centarians to hold their torch against the wood of the shrine for a good long while, the flame wouldn’t actually catch, or it would be easily put out when the defenders recovered their post.  So, the villagers gradually pushed the whole bonfire closer and closer to the shrine.  Eventually it was close enough that it appeared a decision was made to just stop fighting and burn the thing.  All the young defenders disappeared and the older townsmen climbed down from their perch, but one or two could still be seen up there even as the base began to burn.  
It made for a massive, gorgeous  bonfire.  I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I’d imagine that is the only other bonfire that surpasses this one in terms of size.  After appreciating the flames for a bit, the festival participants next took the giant umbrella-like posts decorated for first born sons and tipped them into the fire.
After 3 hours in the cold, there was a apoint where what my eyes wanted to do (watch) and what my feet wanted to do (be warm and have circulation again) diverged widely and I decided not to stay to see the structure collapse.  I have read that once the shrine is reduced to embers, townspeople take some home, light their fire with it, and use it to roast three beans for good luck in the coming year.  Embers from that fire then set afloat in a river to symbolize the end of the whole ceremony.  The next morning I went back to check out the site and found it still smoldering, with people having climbed down in the pit to grill mochi over the heat.

As written on my ipod during one of many bus rides in Nagano

Have made it to Nagano. Crooked eye be damned.
After sitting around for almost two whole weeks of vacation seeing none of Japan beyond the interior of my apartment which happens to be located there, I decided I should not let this vision problem cancel any more of my travel plans. Though I needed that long rest, I’m sure, and I thoroughly enjoy doing absolutely nothing every chance I get, I did in fact have plans to get out and do some things (a ski trip, mainly) over New Years which did not get got out and done.
This weekend, I had intended to travel to a ski resort as well. Not to ski this time, but to witness a really wacky bit of Japanese culture called the Dosojin Fire Festival. I’m a bit foggy on the exact details and purposes of this festival, but basically all of the 25 and 42 year old men from the small ski resort town of Nozawa Onsen gather together every Jan 15th and wage an epic battle against the rest of their village using tree branches. 25 and 42 are both unlucky ages in Japan. I don’t know who is defending what or why, but at the end they light a giant wooden structure on fire that they have spent weeks building with trees brought down from the mountain. Oh, and there are people giving out free hot sake as well. Clearly this is a truly unique spectacle that is not to be missed.

I briefly considered putting it off until next year, but I looked at the calendar and found that next year the festival would fall on a Tues or something. Not convenient at all (this year it’s on Sun, and I get Sun and Mon off). So, it’s now or never. Me and my one good eye will just have to see what we can because it might be the only chance. Oh, and there is also a snow monkey hot spring! Def not missing this

So, I booked myself a nice cheap bus at the JTB travel agency, and reserved the only hotel room I could get online without a credit card (reasonably priced and looks decent) and headed out to Nozawa Onsen.

I’ve had really good luck so far. I exited on precisely the right side of the mammoth Shinjuku train station to most quickly reach the bus station where I would depart for Nagano. Found the correct bus with my minimal Japanese and a sprinkling of English. Upon reaching Nagano, I was able to find the not clearly marked train station, and subsequently the handy tourist info office by practically just bumping into them, and conveniently arrived just in time to catch the next bus to NO (had I missed it, the next one wasn’t for an hour and a half. Now I am on that bus trying fairly futilely to find the stops the driver is calling out on my map, but worst case I know where the last stop is, and I hear that the town is small enough to walk to anywhere – even if it IS almost the furthest possible point on the map from my hotel. It looks like a gentle blizzard here. The roads are all bordered by a snow wall about 4 to 5 feet high. It is piled on all of the rooftops like sloppy layer cakes. There are fat snowflakes sifting through the air, and people everywhere in ridiculous looking ski getups. It’s kind of nice to get out of the city and see a cute little ski village like this one this winter.

A Japanese Wedding

Went to a “wedding party” last month.  As you can imagine, I was really excited to see the cultural differences between Japan and America in such a fundamental ceremony as a wedding.  I was not able to attend the ceremony itself (I am not that close of a friend with the couple), but was invited to attend what was referred to as the “second party” – more or less a second reception. Apparently this is fairly common.  Many people here must be acknowledged with an invite of some kind and some face time with the bride and groom on their big day.  Bosses, and coworkers are often included in addition to family and close friends.  For example, the branch managers and area manager of our company, as well as our area teaching trainer attended the main ceremony for this wedding, while the attendees of the second party were myself and my other American co-worker (who had only worked with the bride for 4-6 months), some former co-workers from previous schools the bride had worked at, and several high-school and college friends of the groom.  With that many people involved, additional, separate parties may be held in order to accommodate everyone.  In my friend’s case, the wedding itself and both parties were held at a nice hotel, but tradition is to have your ceremony at a shinto shrine.

Though I did not attend the wedding portion of my friend’s big day, I have learned a few facts about how Japanese weddings differ from those in the US.  One striking difference is that guests at a Japanese wedding do not bring presents, but instead give a hefty cash gift.  Usually this is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 yen (close to $400), but can vary somewhat based on how close you are to the bride and/or groom.  Also, you are to give only brand-new bills, and you give them in a special envelope.  These envelopes just look like pretty gift cards and are easily found at any department store.  Also, though some brides wear traditional kimonos, and often parents and special guests will wear them as well, it is popular these days for brides to wear western style gowns, which my co-worker chose to do for her ceremony.  The groom in this case wore a shiny Western-style tux, though there is traditional dress for men as well.  Another traditional element of the ceremony is a letter of thanks that the bride reads to her mother.  Apparently there are portions of the ceremony that are always dedicated to acknowledging and appreciating the families of the betrothed couple, and in general the ceremony here is thought of more as the joining of two families than just the marriage of two individuals.
There is apparently no rule against wearing black to a Japanese wedding.  In fact, It’s not only okay to wear black, it’s actually what most people wear.  The appropriate attire for men seems to be a black suit with a white shirt and light, shiny, pastel colored tie.  At the second party I attended, women seemed to be wearing cocktail dresses – but again – mostly in black!  There was too little variation of colors to tell whether white was actually frowned upon in any way, for any reason, the way it is in the US.  I have also seen pictures of Japanese wedding parties, and it seems to be traditional for the mothers of the bride and groom to wear a specific kind of black kimono that has an ornate decorative pattern on the skirt portion.

Here is a picture of a Japanese couple in traditional wedding dress, along with what appears to be the mother of the bride. Picture borrowed from japaneselifestyle.com.au

At the second party I attended, there were still no gifts, except from a few people, and they seemed to be hand-selected.  There is no registry.  However, WE, the guests were given gifts.  In a sense, this is only fair, because there was an admission fee of 8,000 yen (roughly $100) for attending.  I mistakenly thought this was a “gift” that required a special envelope and brand-new bills, but in actuality it was treated as a door charge much like you would pay for a public event.  In addition to catered hors d’eouvres and free drinks, every guest received a little box of cookies as a small token, but it was a bit larger and nicer than the bookmark, or candle, or mini trinket that people receive at American weddings.

Also, we played party games much like you would at a bridal or baby shower (although these were dual-gender appropriate and there was no lingerie or baby stuff of course).  We played bingo for some great prizes.  There was an iPod nano, a package of Kobe beef, and two tickets to Disneyland given away as the top prizes.  Smaller prizes were Starbucks giftcards.  Someone won a deluxe coffee maker just for randomly picking the right bingo card upon entering.  We also played a guessing game where we were told interesting facts about the lovely couple and had to choose true or false by standing on one side of the room or the other.  Instead of true or false, the Japanese use Maru and Batsu – which literally mean circle and X.  (This goes all the way down to quiz shows, school quizzes, etc.  for example, when correcting a quiz, teachers at my school will circle the correct answers in red.  I found this confusing at first, because an American teacher would use a check mark for correct answers most likely, and either cross off OR circle the errors, but probably never circle the right answers).  Besides party games, we mostly just ate, talked with other guests, and took pictures with the bride and groom (who were now wearing their 3rd party outfits of the day – a western style tux and party dress).
The event ended promptly at 9pm, the start and end time having been announced on the email we were initially sent as an invitation.  Most functions here end fairly early in the evening, as it turns out.  The train stops running rather inconveniently around 12:30 or 1am, which means that if you travel much distance you must time your departure carefully.  Your last train from that area may be as early as 10:30pm, and if you miss it, you will find yourself stuck there until they start again at 4:30am.  Hence the popularity of capsule hotels here for businessmen who stayed out too late working or drinking with coworkers.

Apologies for the lack of pictures, but I felt it inappropriate to post pics of a personal event like a wedding reception without permission from everyone involved.  Friends and family who are curious can email me to see pics 🙂