Koinobori for the Kids

Happy Children’s Day!

May 5th in Japan is a national holiday dedicated to celebrating the happiness of kids. I love the carp streamers that are displayed for the week leading up to Children’s Day. They are bright and colourful, and peaceful yet powerful. The carp, known as koi in Japanese, symbolise strength as the fish are able to swim upstream.

One of the most famous places around Tokyo to see the koinobori is Sagamihara in Kanagawa prefecture. I made the 1.5 hour train and bus journey on the weekend. There were so many families enjoying the nice weather. It was really great to see kids playing around in the water, skimming (or just throwing) pebbles and generally having a good time. It reminded me of my childhood days playing at a river down the road from our house. Those were the days! I wish all of the school students I teach and have taught, as well all the kids around the world, a healthy and happy life.

Koinobori flying at Hana no Miyako Park near Mt Fuji on Tuesday.

Mt Fuji

 

Turning 3 in Japan

Maybe it’s their chubby faces or the way their mothers dress them in panda outfits and Totoro costumes. Whatever the reason, I’ve always thought that Japanese children are the most adorable, precious little beings.

There are many festivals in Japan to celebrate children and pray for their happiness and wellbeing as they grow up. One of the first traditional celebrations a Japanese person will experience takes place when they are just 3 years old. ‘Shichi-go-san’ is a festival where 7 year old girls, 5 year old boys and 3 year old girls and boys dress up in kimonos – making them even cuter than they already are – and visit a shrine.

At the end of November, I had the privilege of joining a friend’s 3-year-old niece, Amane, and her family as they celebrated the 753 Festival at a local shrine in Tokyo.

We were ushered into the offering hall by the priest at the appointed time, and sat down in front of the altar. In the front row, was Amane, her mother, father, grandmother and baby brother. In the back row, was me, her older brother and aunt. It was an intimate affair! The ceremony began with the priest welcoming us and waving a white paper streamer to cleanse the offerings and bless us. We bowed a few times and clapped our hands, the priest did some chanting, and Amane and her dad placed branches wrapped in white paper on the altar. The priest gave Omiki (ceremonial sake) to the parents, then we all stood and each received a small dish of sake. The ceremony concluded with Amane being given her Chitose-ame, a long envelope that contains candy. It was fairly short – probably long enough for children that young – and was quite formal. It was fascinating for me since it was the first time I’d actually entered a shrine hall and witnessed a 753 ceremony. And of course it was particularly special since I know the family.

We had a lot of fun taking photos after the ceremony. Amane has such a playful, cheerful nature and was constantly running around! Her big brother is the best brother and I loved watching them interact. Such a beautiful, close-knit family.

The kimono Amane was wearing had been passed down through the generations. My friend had also worn it at her 753 ceremony, and we compared the two photos side by side – even though she is my friend’s niece, the resemblance was uncanny!

At the top of the kimono’s sleeve is the family’s crest, while at the bottom of the sleeves and kimono are pictures of temari, colourful, embroidered balls that symbolize friendship and loyalty, and are given to children by their parents for good luck. In Amane’s hair were two hair pieces made from kimono fabric in Kyoto. The strawberries match the hifu vest and the slippers. For many 3-year-olds, this is the very first time they wear a kimono and have to walk in these slippery sandals. Amane did a good job of walking in them, but I have seen a few kids tripping and falling over in the past!

Omedetō gozaimashita, Amane-chan. I wish you a bright and happy future ♡

 

 

Celebrating Saint Nichiren

The train pulled into Ikegami Station, in the southern outskirts of Tokyo, and a flood of people piled onto the platform. We were immediately met with station masters shouting orders at us, as they herded the masses through the ticket gates as smoothly and quickly as possible before the next train arrived. Outside the station, strange shapes loomed from the crowds. With long tentacles bobbing up and down and a bright light shining from within, these curious mythological-looking creatures made their way down the street past thousands of onlookers and off into the night.

Welcome to the Ikegami Honmonji Oeshiki, a festival that commemorates one of the most important Buddhist monks in Japanese history. Nichiren Shōnin lived in the 13th century and devoted his life to studying and writing about how to save people from suffering and create a stable society that lived in peace. He protested against practices of Buddhism that didn’t follow the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, a scripture which he considered held the answer to all problems. He gave public sermons where he chanted the mantra, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, and predicted events that would occur if people didn’t convert. He was met with a lot of opposition himself and some of his followers were killed trying to protect him during assassination attempts. He was persecuted by the government and exiled from the capital, Kamakura. However, none of these events discouraged him and by the time of his death, he had established temples and handed over his teachings to his disciples who would go on create a recognized school of Buddhism known as Nichiren-shū.

Nichiren died on October 13, 1282 at one of his temples, Ikegami Honmonji, which had been built in the same year. For 733 years and counting, it has served as one of the major centres for Nichiren-shū. Every year on October 12, around 300,000 people come to witness the Oeshiki Festival. Floats are paraded towards the temple down streets lined with food vendors. Security guards control the constant flow of people who are only allowed to walk in one direction. Once they reach the main temple, people gather at the entrance waiting to be let in – they will have just a few seconds to throw a coin into the donation box and say a prayer before exiting. Some devotees choose to sit with the monks who are beating on taiko drums and chanting the same mantra passed down from Nichiren.

As a first timer to this Buddhist festival, I was overwhelmed by the ceremony inside the temple. Rather than being calming, the chanting was loud and intense. And with so many people hustling their way in and out, it felt a bit chaotic. I was definitely relieved as soon as we got out. The entire night was pretty crazy but a lot of fun!

Ikegami Honmonji
The hanging paper flowers represent cherry blossoms
Ikegami Honmonji
Amazing detail
Ikegami Honmonji
Pictures depicting Nichiren Shōnin
Ikegami Honmonji
Floats entering the main temple gate
Ikegami Honmonji
The main temple is 28m high
Ikegami Honmonji
Inside the main temple
Ikegami Honmonji
Followers chanting inside the temple

One of my favourite parts of Japanese festivals… the food!!

 

Tanabata: Legend of the Stars

Long, long ago, there lived a princess named Orihime. She was the daughter of a god of the heavens, and lived by a vast river of stars known to us as the Milky Way. She diligently wove cloth to make clothes for the people in her kingdom.

One day, her father realised Orihime was no longer a little girl, but a young woman who longed to be in love. Wishing to see his daughter happy, he set out to find her a suitable partner.

After searching high and low, he came across a boy tending his cow by the bank of the river. His name was Hikoboshi. He was a noble, hard-working young man. It was inevitable that as soon as he and Orihime met, they would fall in love. Before long, they were married and enjoying life to its fullest.

However, the couple were having so much fun together that they neglected to do their work. Without Orihime, the people’s clothes became ragged. Without Hikoboshi, his cow became weak and sick. The celestial god became very angry at the pair for their recklessness. He decided the best solution would be to have them live apart, on opposite sides of the river. Hikoboshi was sent to the east side, and Orihime was sent to the west. The separation devastated them.

Seeing Orihime so sad was hard for her father. So, the god made one final decision. Once a year, on the night of the 7th day of the 7th month, Orihime was permitted to see her beloved husband. Over the years, Orihime worked tirelessly on her loom and Hikoboshi took great care of his animals. Their love stayed strong and they worked hard knowing they had this one special day to look forward to.

***

This tale of Orihime (Vega star) and Hikoboshi (Altair star) was originally adapted from a Chinese legend. Today, it is celebrated as a traditional festival known as Tanabata.

At Zojo Temple in Tokyo, a special display made up of hundreds of candle-lit paper lanterns was set up last week on July 7th. These lanterns represented the Milky Way ‘river’. It was beautiful with Tokyo Tower in the background! As well as the river, hundreds of lanterns decorated by elementary school children were also displayed. Their drawings depicted what they want to be in the future – bakers, dressmakers, teachers, train drivers, Anpanman! Many of the children came to the temple with their parents. It was so touching seeing them earnestly search for and find their creations!

As a custom of Tanabata, people write their wishes and prayers on colourful strips of paper and tie them to bamboo tree branches. Ceremonies are conducted at many shrines and temples, like Kanda-Myojin Shrine, where musicians play traditional instruments, girls perform a traditional dance, and priests pray for all of our wishes to come true.

Serious about Sakura

Can you feel the change in the air? Spring has returned!! The mercury has hit the 20s and the cherry blossoms have started to show their pretty faces!

It’s a great time to be in Japan. The whole country seems to be buzzing with excitement. In Tokyo, the sakura (cherry blossom tree) season officially began on March 23rd, and the flowers should be in full bloom in a couple of days time. I’ve already been to 3 sakura viewing spots in Tokyo, and will hit up lots more places over the next week! It’s a good thing I’m on spring holidays right now – no work, all play!

As you can imagine, the sakura are kind of a big deal in Japan. Of course, there are many people who actually take the time to appreciate their beauty and delicate nature, but I feel like the flowers are becoming increasingly over-commercialised (as much as is possible for a flower, anyway!). Businesses sure know how to capitalise on the popularity of something. From sakura-flavoured ice cream, to special sakura packaging, to whole station entrances being covered in images of sakura, for about 2 months of the year it is pink pink pink everywhere! It reminds me of Christmas time when everything turns red and green, the department stores become packed with Christmas trees and decorations, and Christmas jingles are played 24/7. The novelty factor can be a bit too much sometimes, but I think it’s fun to change things up with these limited edition products. It definitely keeps things interesting!

While the nation becomes sakura-ized, meteorologists have the very serious and extremely high-pressure job of predicting when the sakura will actually bloom. The whole country relies on the information they give! The sakura forecast maps start to appear around early to mid-March, and people immediately start planning their hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties! This year, the predicted season start date (when the buds begin to open) was March 24th, with the best viewing period happening between April 1st-8th. It’s literally a show that lasts less than 3 weeks. Is there any other flower that has this short of a lifespan??

Sakura

If you thought that was insanely precise, wait to you see what happens next. In the week before the forecasted season, things get even more serious. We start to see live maps that show what stage of blooming the flowers are at. At my favourite event website, Walkerplus, we can see the progress through 7 stages. It starts with つぼみ (buds), then comes 咲き始め (starting to bloom), 5分咲き (50% bloomed), 7分咲き (70% bloomed), 満開 (full bloom), 散り始め (starting to fall), and lastly 青葉 (green leaves).

SakuraSpring is a fun time to be in Japan. I will never get sick of it! If you want to visit Japan and see the cherry blossoms, it’s really a gamble as to when they’ll be fully bloomed, but being here before/after April 1st is usually a safe bet. There are early and late blooming varieties anyway, so even if you miss the peak period you’ll still be able to enjoy this spectacle!

 

Shichi-Go-San

In Japanese, shichi is seven, go is five, and san is three. Shichi-go-san is a rite of passage for children who turn 7, 5, and 3 years old. It’s been celebrated in Japan for about 700-800 years! The festival is officially on November 15, but families visit the shrine to pay their respects on the weekends before and after. The children get dressed up in exquisite, colourful kimono, complete with beautiful hairstyles and other accessories. They really look like living dolls – both the boys and girls. Not only do the kids dress up, but the parents and grandparents do too. You could be forgiven for thinking they were all going to a wedding!

On the weekend, I visited Zenkoji Shrine in Nagano city. I had no idea there would be children celebrating 7-5-3, but as soon as I saw the first couple of kids wearing kimono, I figured it out straight away. I, as well as everyone else, couldn’t help but ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at all the little ones. My favourites were one cheeky 5 year old boy with a mohawk, dressed in a kimono with a fierce tiger image on the back! (I didn’t get a photo unfortunately); a tiny boy who looked just like a doll, and was definitely younger than three!; and the sweetest little girl eating her ice-cream. But they were all so precious! I think it’s one of the sweetest customs in Japan.

Shichi-go-san
Parents become paparazzi!

If you’re in Japan, keep your eyes peeled at shrines over the next few weekends!