Sake: Japan’s Liquid of Choice

Sake is such an integral part of Japanese culture. There are so many different types of sake, different brands, different ways to drink it, different occasions to drink it on. Having gone out with my Japanese colleagues (surprise, surprise, teachers love to drink!) on many occasions, I feel like I’ve learnt a little about this complex alcoholic liquid. Continue reading “Sake: Japan’s Liquid of Choice”

Visiting Graves for Obon

It’s currently Obon in Japan, a few days dedicated to honouring your ancestors. People often go back to their hometowns to visit cemeteries and pray for relatives who have passed away. They bring flowers, wash the grave stones and burn incense. For many salarymen in Japan, Obon and New Years is the only time of the year they have off work.

This weekend, I went along with some friends for their ‘grave visit’ at Tamareien, the largest cemetery in Tokyo. At 128 hectares, it is insanely massive, and you need a car and a map and possibly a compass to get around. It is literally a village full of thousands of tiny, very expensive houses. Grave sites cost between $20,000 and $60,000. There are many famous historical figures buried here, like war commanders, politicians, writers, company presidents and sportsmen, as well as regular folk. And with a road lined with 1,600 cherry blossoms trees, it’s actually a pretty popular place to visit!

At the entrance of Tamareien is a hall called Mitama-dō which houses the spirits of all the dead as well as the actual ashes of thousands of bodies. The ashes are stored in cases that resemble fancy school lockers. In the centre, a cone-shaped water feature points up to a big chandelier-like skylight. The space is very minimal but peaceful. Around the walls, beautiful tile mosaics hide a spiral path where the cases are stored. Access to this area is limited to when family members first store the ashes. Each year after that, they have to stand at the base and pray facing the direction of the relative.

Tamareien

Obon isn’t just a solemn affair, but many towns hold lively festivals. Some famous events are the Tokushima Awa Odori, Kyoto Daimonji, Nagasaki Spirit Boat Parade and Okinawan Eisa. Maybe next year I’ll plan a little better and go to one of these!

Summer in Japan

A few days ago, I came back to Japan after a business trip and holiday to Australia. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, it was coming to the end of winter. Winter in Oz is fairly mild, especially in the north where I’m from. It gets a bit chilly at night, but the days are beautiful and the sun-rays are still surprisingly strong; you can feel your skin burning after just a couple of seconds outside! I definitely turned a few shades darker over my trip! The amazing weather made it perfect for days at the beach, driving in the mountains, eating alfresco and relaxing outside at home. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, because I knew once I got back to Tokyo, it’d be a completely different story…

It was 7 at night when we landed. As I got off the plane at Narita Airport and stepped onto the tarmac, I was hit with a wall of humidity. It was an abrupt welcome back to summer. Hot, sticky and uncomfortable summer. Quickly realising how humid it was, the other passengers were ripping off their jackets like there was no tomorrow! Granted, I did miss the worst of the heat wave while overseas, so I can’t complain as much as the rest of the folk who had to endure the mid-summer heat, but it felt like we had got off the plane and walked in a concrete box with no air.

During my first night back, I was really not thinking straight and didn’t bother to turn the fan on, just left the windows open. Silly me. I woke up in a panic at some ridiculous hour feeling like I was suffocating inside a sauna. I don’t like sleeping with the air-con on, but sometimes it’s just unavoidable.

Japan can be painfully hot in the summer time, reaching temps of 37°C most days and even up to 40°C on really hot days. The concrete buildings and roads seems to trap the humidity and turn the city in a sweltering hot house. Luckily, aside from sitting in front of the fan at home and carrying around a little portable fan outside, there are plenty of other ways to make the heat more bearable.

These are some of the ways that the Japanese get through the hottest time of the year, to stay cool and enjoy yourself at the same time!

1. Eating kakigori (shaved ice)

Kanna is one of the most popular shaved ice cafes in Setagaya, if not the whole of Tokyo. Apart from serving a delicious selection of flavours like mocha pudding, tiramisu, azuki beans and grapefruit, their claim to fame is that they get their ice from the mountains of Nikko. The naturally formed ice is transported to the restaurant rather than being artificially chilled, which results in the softest, lightest cool treat!

Kakigori

2. Eating matcha ice cream

Ice cream is a standard any time of the year, but it is especially good when it’s hot outside and you have to battle to lick it up before it melts all over your hand. Matcha (green tea) is by far the most popular flavour in Japan. Delish!

Matcha ice cream

3. Eating hiyashi chuka

As the same suggests — chuka means Chinese (ramen is from China) and hiyashi means chilled — this is a cold ramen dish eaten only in summer. The toppings usually include a soft-boiled egg and thin slices of omelette, cucumber, ham, seaweed and radish. Sometimes it’s even served with ice to keep it extra cool. It’s the perfect meal for a hot day.

Hiyashi chuka

4. Walking under mist sprays

I’d only ever seen mist sprays at Disneyland before coming across this one in Kagurazaka. It’s a nice treat for shoppers as they stroll the streets in the heat!

Mist spray

5. Having fun at water parks

I’ve only been to two water parks in Japan. One was in Nagoya, the other was this one at Showa Kinen Park in Tokyo’s west. Entry will set you back about 2,000+ yen, but the facilities are amazing. This one had waterfalls, fountains, water slides, a wave pool and a river (floating pool). Just make sure you bring your sunnies and lather on SPF30!

Water park

6. Eating chilled cucumber

At every summer festival in Japan, you’ll see these kyuri (cucumber) sticks. I’m not a fan of cucumber, but people seem to love munching on them straight out of ice buckets!

chilled cucumber
Image courtesy of: Hiro – Kokoro☆Photo (Flickr)

7. Hanging out at beer gardens

Beer gardens and rooftop bars are a popular place to be on balmy summer nights in Japan. Getting together with a group of friends and sweating it out together is definitely a bonding experience. There are loads of beer gardens, you just have to find them! Usually, department stores with a rooftop terrace will convert it into a bar during summer. A lot of beer gardens have cheap all-you-can-drink options, so you can just drink drink drink. Kanpai!

Beer garden

8. Wearing a yukata

Yukutas are summer kimonos. You’ll see loads of men and women wearing yukatas at summer festivals, as well as just casually during the day. Lots of people choose to wear them because they are a cooler alternative to regular clothes. They are made from thin cotton fabric, with loose, breathable sleeves. The collar is worn pulled back, and hair worn up so that your neck is left airy and cool.

yukata

9. Visiting an ice house

If you’re really dying of the heat, there are always ice houses you can dash through! Ice World in Yokohama is -30ºC and is supposed to be like a trip to the North Pole. I didn’t last a minute before I was ready to get out! Though I definitely felt much cooler afterwards.

Ice world

10. Listening to furin (wind chimes)

Lastly, this one is not so much about cooling down your body, but rather cooling down your mind. Fu means wind, and rin means bell. These glass wind chimes have been hung up every summer for hundreds of years. Their soft, soothing sound could relax anyone battling the heat!

Wind chime

What reminds you of summer? What are some things you do/eat/see to help you get through the hot months in your country?

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.