Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happy Labor Thanksgiving Day from Japan!

A lot of people wonder what we do for Thanksgiving in Japan. Well of course Japanese people do nothing; but by we, I meant the odd gaijin or two.

There are few to none options for turkey dinners here in Japan...UNLESS you know where to look. There happens to be a few specialty stores and a few restaurants who celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey dinners. Or you can visit www.themeatguy.jp who sells turkey and chicken beasts that vary in weight and origin. This guy goes and gets these birds in perhaps early October when you can start purchasing them until mid November when they are either all sold out or is it crunch time to get a bird by the special day.

Here in Japan, this year we had the day off before Thursday. This day is to celebrate hard work ANNNND, get this, the harvest festival. What does this sound like to you!? But of course! Labor Thanksgiving Day!!! Ok so the two are a bit lumped together but the important part is still there, Thanksgiving. The  Japanese holiday is called Kinro Kansha no Hi, 勤労感謝の日. This is a day for congratulating people for their hard work and giving thanks. Traditionally on this day the emperor makes the first offering of current years rice harvest to the gods and then partake in the fresh harvest himself. This tradition goes back hundreds of years, though in recent times, since the end of the second world war, it has come to be known as a labor day combination. This holiday is always celebrated on the 23rd of November, unless the 23 falls on a weekend, in which case the kind Japanese government will observe it on the following Monday, which will then be a day of rest.

One of the major festivals for this day occurs in Nagano and unfortunately I was not able to make it there.

On to Thanksgiving dinner...again...Here is mine!

What we have here is a sincerely molested chicken, adorned with stuffing. It weighs in at perhaps a kilo or two. A small gravy dish. Mashed sweet potatoes. And green bean casserole...and pan.

And that proves you can do Thanksgiving in Japan

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Matsuri! on a Boat!

Only there was no T. Pain on this boat.
In Arashiyama this past weekend there was a special matsuri going on. What makes this matsuri so different is that it takes place on boats! Traditionally, in all of the preceding matsuris I have seen, they have all taken the form of elaborate mikoshi with people carrying them around and making their way to the shrine.

So you might be thinking how on earth does one have a festival on a boat. Well about 13 different shrines from all over Kyoto prefecture sponsor a boat and they put on a performance, such as a dance or tea ceremony in front of the Tokgetsu bridge in Arashiyama. Supposedly there was even a Noh play on one of the boats. The boats move in a circular fashion around the lake to appease their large crowd on both banks.

Clad in elaborate costumes and elegant kimono's the entourage of the boats are as much as of the performance as the dancers. These people sit along the sides and rear of the boat as the performance takes center stage on the boat. Some of these people function as singers, singing traditional songs that are possibly for purification, and are often heard at their respective shrine; others would play various instruments such as the gong seen below. The performers donning the most elaborate costume and often a mask or an object with which they dance (a fan, a hat, these things?...).

The name of this matsuri happens to be Momoji Matsuri. For anyone who does not know, momiji is the term for the beautiful fall foliage that Japan is so known for. Unfortunately, this matsuri was planned a little too early and the leave have yet to fully turn therefore having a very slight but still present mottled effect of green and orange tinged leaves.

In addition to watching the matsuri from the riverside, you can also rent boats and tour around the lake. Even during the matsuri allowing you a very up close opportunity to view the festivities.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Aki Matsuri

I think one of the most associated aspects of the word matsuri is all the food booths and game areas. But one of the greater more massive features of it, is the giant elaborate wooden carts that weigh 4 tons and are mobilized by the shear force of man. Here at the Wakayaman town of Aki, matsuri that is no different.

These wooden carts are called mikoshi and it is believed that the gods temporarily reside in them while they are transported around a city or to new shrines that will serve as their home. These are often seen as portable shrines and are sacred. Every year lots of money is used to furnish and decorate the mikoshi. Since they are so elaborate and so much time and thousands of dollars goes into making them, they get a lot of use out of them; they are used year to year, for possibly up to 20 years or until they acquire enough money to build a new one. You may wonder what happens to some of the decor that falls off in the stunts that they do, they simply pick up the pieces and glue them right back on for the next years festival.
Here in Wakayama you may notice a few rather similar aspects about the three mikoshi here, They all have a heavy golden rope that weighs a fair amount and costs just as much mantled around the cart, called shimenawa, as well as the folded spirit paper called shide.
Up on the cart are the leaders yelling encouragements and waving their fans.
During the matsuri these carts are carried by dozens of men and women, who are decked out in the uniform of their team. The leaders sport fans and towels and support the runners, yelling 'Soyra!' as a chant of encouragement. Occasionally seen at these festivals is the hitting of the runners with these fans. At first I thought this was friendly brutality, but later learned it is an act called 'charging'.
Here are boys and girls decked out in their teams uniform.
White pants, white cloth shoes and a type of (usually) black jacket with their team image.
Girls often do up their hair in cornrows for the event.

At this Wakayama matsuri, the three carts on display at the time run in a small, tight circle dragging the cart to the crowds enjoyment. After an uncertain amount of times or laps they break and ready themselves for the big important event of the festival. They have to drag their 4-5 ton cart up a set of 5 stairs into the shrine center. This is no easy task.They have their long line of runners ready themselves with half of them already up the stairs in order to get the leverage needed to propel the cart up them. It is the task of all three carts to accomplish this. What happens if they fail? Well I don't know!
Here is a picture of the shrine and the sand bags that 
they put before the first step to give them leverage on the way up.

Once up the slope the carts put on a sort of 'dance' if you will, rocking their cart back and forth with a person in the back pounding a rhythm on the drum. After each finally make it, they go out in a bang, producing their banners, popping streamers, and finally go into a sort of boisterous revelry. They drink sake, Japanese holy water, and proceed to anoint their mikoshi with the sake as well as the crowd. Then they proceed to gift the crowd with mochi, or rice cakes, which are thought to bring good luck in health if obtained.

Other notable areas around the celebration are the stalls. Food stalls. Game stalls. Sweet stalls. Fish stalls. All sorts of things can be found here. And rather go into detail describing them all I will just give you the photos for you to make of it what you will!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Got milk?

Chock full of calcium and essential to your everyday diet and can also be found in a vending machine.
Told you so
So you may be familiar with the Japanese beer, Kirin. This is not a post on that. That being said Kirin also produces a plethora of vending machines in their name. For anyone who does not know what Kirin means in Japan, it means giraffe. And with that being said here is what I tend to imagine every time I see a Kirin vending machine.

 How it really is:

The drink machines are typically priced at 100-150 yen per beverage for such things as coffees, teas, juices, colas and energy drinks. But there are special 100 yen machines that sell the off brand or smaller versions of the typical 20 ounce. Just so you know that 100 yen is still over a dollar, but this is seen as reasonably priced in Japan.
bank of a bunch of different machines.
Looks like mostly beverages and cigs
You can pretty much find these guys everywhere...and ANYwhere. I hiked up Atagoyama back in May, and yup there one was...at the top. Of course drinks were 200 yen more at the top for those thirsty hikers who finished off their water supplies. It is said that there is one vending machine for every 23 people in Japan. It is my own theory that there are practically no water fountains in Japan in order for the vending companies to gain a bigger profit. Very opposite from Korea, where there is a free water cooler in every building you enter. The reason why there are so many vending machines is that the land owner gets a cut of the profit that the machine produces. How it works is they just call up their favorite vending machine company and have them install a machine on their property and then they pay for the electricity and get a cut of the profits. It is a simple and easy way to get money without working which is why there are so many of them all over Japan.


In addition to finding them in any place, they vend an extremely large variety of stuff. Now people say that you can find anything in these machines: soda, cigarette, octopus, action figures, women's underwear. Personally I have only ever seen cigarettes and soda come out of most these things, though I have seen an occasional flower or camera film/disposable camera vending machine, ice cream vending machines are easy to find at parks on hot days, and of course the beer ones are common enough. This is not to say that women's panties vending machines do not exist, I would not be surprised to see on the shadier streets of Tokyo ones that vend women's panties.
What I DO find special about these machines is that they vend hot drinks. And sometimes hot and cold drinks, meaning that there is a heating and a cooling system side by side in the same machine. You might be thinking why would I want a hot cola, but don't think along the lines of cola, think more like coffee and hot chocolate. In the winter and your hands are freezing I find these machine invaluable hand warmers as well as a source of delicious beverage.
the top row is the hot beverages in red
everything in blue is cold
one more for you

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

七五三 Shichi-Go-San

or seven-five-three for anyone not currently up on their Japanese. These numbers do not relates to waist sizes for a particular store of jeans, but rather a Japanese holiday held every year on today, November 15th. However, since it is not a national holiday and children must still go to school, it is typically celebrated on the preceding weekend.

It is the day when all of the girls of ages 3 or 7 and boys of ages 3 or 5 make their way to a shrine. Why 7-5-3? That is because in Asian culture odd numbers are often seen as lucky. This is a celebration of the passage into middle childhood as well as a celebration for a long and healthy life. On this day children get elaborately dressed up, little girls dress up in fine kimonos, and boys will often wear haori and hakama. Often times going to photo studios for memorable portraits of the day. In present days, more and more children often wear fancy western styled clothes to visit the shrines.

In earlier years (the Edo period) this passage into middle childhood meant that they no longer had to shave their heads as of age 3. And then boys of age 5 were allowed to hakama for the first time. At age 7 girls graduate to being allowed to wear an obi instead of cords to tie their kimono.
haori are the over coats they are wearing.
hakama are the pants that are belted above the waist.
you can see the bow from her obi in the back
Following the purification ritual, parents will sometimes by chitose-ame for their children. Which is translated to thousand year candy. This is a long candy-cane like candy with its red and white stripes. This candy, typically presented by a turtle and a crane upon the package, represents longevity, so that their children may have a long healthy life and happiness.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Pepero Day!

Today is a special day! It November 11th! or 11-11-2011
It's Pepero Day in Korea!

So I don't live in Korea any more but I still remember this day very well. Its the day that all my precious students game me Pepero. And for anyone who does not know what Pepero is, think of it like Korean Pocky. No it does not taste any different. And for those of you who do not know what Pocky is...there may be no hope...Pocky is a cookie stick dipped in chocolate, and or various sorts of sweet flavors.
This day acts like the Korean version of Valentines day, though they celebrate that too. The choice gift of this day is, unsurprisingly, sticks and boxes of Pepero especially among children and close friends and couples. Though more recently the candy companies and Koreans alike are using this holiday as an excuse to give larger chocolate gifts to one another much like the heart shaped boxes you see in stores on valentines day. You see this especially among couples.

This day is prefaced by monumental structures in all the grocery stores with stacks of Pepero and other chocolate goodies. The prime benefactor, Lotte. They are the maker of Pepero and a vast amount of other Korean products.

Why today? Well it is said that 11/11 looks like 4 long Pepero sticks. And as Korea lore has it, several middle schools girls began this tradition of giving Pepero sticks to one another saying 'May you grow as tall and slender as a Pepero stick.' Though more recently people have been more health conscious about the holiday and have tried to influence giving healthier snacks.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

To call a girl

might mean that she is a call-girl

In Japan these are immensely advertised, if not popular. Prostitution is not exactly legal in Japan; however, there is no defined penalty if caught. Nevertheless, to avoid the prying eyes and ears of the law, people have coined alternate phrases, putting a silver lining to their services. Thus, to be a call girl is to do what is called enjo kosai, or "compensated dating." It can also be called "delivery health" services, or shutcho. I am sure you can guess what health might mean. On a similar note, if something says "fashion health" or "soapland," I would also steer clear of these locations too. They are not as innocent as their names might lead you to believe and are typically more similar to the Korea an-ma massage parlors and special bath houses.

Call girls are not typically found on the street ( though there are plenty of those too), and do not have a specific premises. Instead they function more like and escort agency and will typically have a pimp and/or driver as well. Advertisements for these girls are easily found via the internet where most girls and agencies will have their own webpage, or oftentimes, flyers. These flyers can be found anywhere: being handed out at busy intersections, entrances to certain izakayas, restrooms, or even slipped under your door. To make an appointment with one of these girls, you would do as the name suggests - call them and make a booking. These ladies are willing to either driver or be driven to a callers' residence, or have an appointment made at their own residence, and I doubt it is too far fetched to rendez-vous at a chosen love hotel either.

This post was prompted by receiving this flyer in my mail slot in the dead of night.

Afternote: I learned recently that when these are distributed in the dead of night that means that someone very close to you (physically) is getting lucky. The driver, while waiting on his/her charge, goes to the nearby houses and apartments and sticks these things around to boost business.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In America we have "Indoor Voices," in Japan we have

Indoor shoes.
Japanese slippers are called uwabaki. These are indoor shoes and are often made of a light, flexible material with rubber soles.

In Japan, you must take off your shoes upon entering a house and often don on a set of these. This same rule applies to some restaurants, work places, and schools. All of my students have a regulation slipper that they all wear inside the school. Additionally there is a different slipper, located at the bathroom slipper entrance,  to be used when going to the bathroom. This practice is also popular in restaurants and homes. By having special slippers for only bathroom use, contaminants that might be on the bathroom floor are kept out of the rest of the establishment or home. This practice is also upheld in Korean schools and residences and, from personal experience, is also much more common to see in Korean restaurants as well.
these are my home slippers
At the schools, there are individual lockers for everyone's shoes. These lockers will occasionally have a dividing shelf to separate the indoor from outdoor shoes. In addition to indoor, outdoor, and bathroom shoes, my students also have indoor gym shoes. This helps stop the floor from being marred by outside elements and maintain its polish for longer.
the shoe boxes,
seen upon entrance to the school grounds.
every student has their own shoe box.
it is separated by grade level and classes

school slippers

On a side note. I severely dislike the uwabaki provided for me by the schools. There is a small lip to them on the front and I am constantly tripping on the stairs. Additionally there is no back to them so they function more like clogs; essentially, I am dragging my feet around all day. Anyone in the building can hear me coming from a few floors away thanks to the shhhhp shhhhp shhhhp of my slippers dragging on the groung, unable to lift my feet off the cement lest my slippers fall off!
Luckily, it is perfectly acceptable and often encouraged to bring your own shoes for work, which for many of the teachers here is sneakers or Crocs.

As far as I can tell, the reason for wearing uwabaki is a way of maintaining a cleanly interior to minimize said cleaning. It is also efficient in minimalizing the introduction of bacteria around the home, specifically the bathroom.