Oshogatsu: the Beginning of a New Year

Hello, 2018!

This was the first time since I moved to Tokyo that I have stayed in Japan over the winter break. It was so nice to spend time just catching up with friends, relaxing and getting up without an alarm, rather than packing suitcases and catching planes. Another great thing is that I was able to fully experience Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year period, from beginning to end. Continue reading “Oshogatsu: the Beginning of a New Year”

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!

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!

One for the Gals

There are loads of holidays in Japan that celebrate everything from the Emperor to sports to the ocean! There’s a day for the oldies, called keiro no hi; a day for the lads, called Kodomo no hi; and a day for the gals, called Hinamatsuri. Strangely, there’s no “parents’ day” and mothers’ day and fathers’ day are not really recognized.

If you hadn’t guessed already, it just so happens that today is Girls’ Day (also known as Doll’s Day)! **Cue music: Beyoncé “Who run the world? Girls!”** Every year on March 3, girls are given a special day to thank them for being the most amazing, wonderful creatures! (just kidding). No, the day is actually to pray for the growth and well-being of young girls. The main feature of the celebration is a doll display. There are lots of different sizes of displays, but all have the Emperor and Empress on the top tier. Below them, you can see the court ladies, musicians, ministers, lots of sake and sweets, and at the very bottom is furniture belonging to the royal family. When a girl is born in Japan, it is tradition for the grandparents to give the family a doll display, which will be put up in their home every year. It gets set up some time in February, and MUST be taken down on March 3 otherwise it is bad luck, and consequently the daughters will get married late!

It’s a very sweet tradition, and over the years has become more and more commercialized. These days you can even see bakeries with hinamatsuri cakes. They are so delicious! The hina dolls have been reproduced through Hello Kitty, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and many other popular characters, too!

Here are some photos I’ve taken in the past few years, at friends’ houses and at public venues.

Celebration Time!

Wow, it’s March tomorrow! It is crazy how fast time flies! This month signifies the end of many things in Japan, such as the fiscal year and school year. In March, the weather starts to get warmer, and people become more relaxed as the year winds down and they can start to look forward to the new working year.

Tomorrow, the graduation ceremony for the high school seniors will be held. 2014 also marks 10 years since I graduated high school. Pretty insane! I can still remember the feeling of excitement of finishing school and moving out of home! Although it’s not common for Japanese teenagers to move out of home after high school or even university, unless they get married, I know the students must be feeling such a sense of relief and accomplishment right now. Kids in Japan do an incredible amount of study so that they can pass the arduous university entrance tests. Their future paths have been decided for now, but the world truly is their oyster!  I wish them all the best of luck!! If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past 10 years, it’s that you should never give up on your dreams – ‘hope’ drives us and pushes us to do our best. You might have hope that you’ll get a certain opportunity, find a better job, meet a special someone; whatever it is, so long as you keep the dream alive, it will come to fruition, albeit not always when you want it to happen! 

As is tradition in Japan, parents often show their appreciation for teachers through gifts. These pictures are of some special ‘thank you’ presents that the graduates’ parents organized for all the teachers. Rosé wine and manju (red bean paste sweets) with the school emblem. So lovely! The manju are red (pink) and white for a reason… These are the colours of celebration in Japan. Both at the graduation and opening ceremony, big red and white banners are put up in the school. Other places you can see red and white are at weddings, the New Year’s Eve TV music show called Kohaku (lit. red and white), and of course the Japanese flag!