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Posts Tagged ‘japanese new year’

The Year in Review – 2016

In Japanese Holidays on January 9, 2017 at 3:18 am

めでてー!めでてー!
Medetē! Medetē! (“Happy happy! Joy joy!” in the Edo Dialect)
Congratulations!mochi

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve update JapanThis!. In fact, the last article was published on August 3rd, 2016. That’s almost a half year ago; that’s the longest time the site’s gone dark in a long, long time. In that time, I’ve heard from more than a few you of asking if everything is OK with my health or if I’d quit doing the site completely or what.

Well, thank you for all your concern, and I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with my health and I’m most definitely not quitting the site. The real cause for my silence was merely a technical issue. My computer died. With it I lost the research for the final articles for the Yamanote Line Series (and a lot of other stuff not JapanThis!-related). As a Christmas present to myself, I got me a new ‘puter and a new version of MS Office and now I’m back in action. Actually, getting MS Word is just as critical to writing as having a computer. I tried writing using Google Docs and some other options, and it’s just not the same[i]. What’s more, buying MS Word in Japan is like twice the cost of buying it in the US for some reason.

Anyhoo, everything is set up and good to go, so expect to see the site updated with new articles regularly.

ny

Happy Nude Year!

What Happened in 2016?

 

Long time readers know that I like to make my first post of the new year a retrospective. I try to round up all the place names we looked at this year and then I give you a few other updates and things to look forward to in the next year. This year is no exception.

First, you may have not noticed yet, but there was a major – yet subtle – change to the site that came this summer. If you look up in the browser address field you may notice that it no longer says markystar.wordpress.com. The site has an official domain name and that’s the way things will be from here on out[ii].

I’ve decided on a few stylistic changes that are very minor – and, honestly, they won’t be noticeable until well into the new year. These are boring things like, how pages are layed out. For example, until now, I’ve just been putting section headers in bold print, but from now on I’m going to format them as actual headers (a difference that mainly only matters when dealing with HTML). There aren’t many of these changes and they don’t really affect the reader, it’s just more silly stuff I hafta do behind the scenes to make the site look pretty and still be usable.

30005-1

Good luck in 2017!

Where Did We Go in 2016?

 

Well, since half the year was silent, we didn’t really have a lot of articles. That said, we still covered a lot of Edo-Tōkyō in a short time.

Early in 2016, we explored Kōnan and Ōsaki (two places we would revisit in our soon-to-be-completed Yamanote Line Series). I always love getting down to this area because it’s really water, both the rivers and the bay, that brought life to Edo-Tōkyō. While we were down here, we took a little time to explore Irugi Shrine – a shrine most would overlook, but actually has a great history. We also looked at Goten’yama, one of Edo’s most famous hanami spots, which is now just a shitamachi town in Shinagawa.

Then, we took an epic look at Shinjuku’s sordid past (and present) as well as Ōme, whose pre-modern highway passed through the area[iii]. It was nice to have the chance to re-do Shinjuku and give it the attention it deserved. And while way out, suburban Tachikawa wasn’t high on everyone’s To Do List, it was a reader request and so we took a quick look out that direction.

We also looked at some  areas that are synonymous with government, Nagata-chō and Kioi-chō. The latter of the two is no doubt of interest to fans of James Bond, as a few scenes from You Only Live Twice were shot in the area.

The last place name we visited in 2016 was Harajuku, one of Tōkyō’s many fashion districts. I was actually surprised I hadn’t covered it yet, but apparently, it was one of the few remaining “big names” in the metropolis that merely got mentioned here and there.

9784805313114__09290.1455208216.1280.1280

We reviewed two excellent books this year. First, there was Terry Bennet’s Photography in Japan: 1853-1912 which was published by Tuttle and is a great look at the evolution of this art and science in Japan. The other was Taschen’s lovely hardbound issue of Hiroshige: One Hundred Views of Edo the artist’s epic series on daily life in the shōgun’s capital.

The bulk of the year consisted of the series, Explore the Yamanote Line. This was meant to be a companion guide to the Explore the Ōedo Line series and, of course, was meant to be finished quickly. Unfortunately, when my computer died, the last 2-3 articles got put on hold indefinitely. I intended to finish those articles as soon as possible and put that project behind me. One cool thing about the Yamanote Line series, if you go back, there are now short videos for many of the station areas with their corresponding platform chimes produced by my friends over at Digital Hub.

av-kimura-tsuna2-1

Oh, and today is Cumming of Age Day.

Milestones in 2016

 

Despite leaving the blog to lie dormant for the last half of the year, we crossed a couple of amazing thresholds and grew quite a bit.

First, in the beginning of spring, just as the weather started getting nice again, I announced 5 or 6 super-geeky historical walking tours based on the history of Edo-Tōkyō. While people aren’t banging down my door every day to take these tours, quite a few groups and individuals did. We had a lot of fun on all the tours I’ve done so far and I look forward to doing some more in 2017. I’m going to add a few more possible courses to the existing ones and I hope to have those up in time for spring.

A big anniversary came in May of 2016. That was the 300th article posted on JapanThis! – a definite major achievement, if I do say so myself. The big thanks actually go to you the reader because you guys keep me going!

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And while I’m patting myself on the back, I might also add that sometime between Dec. 31st 2016 and Jan. 1st 2017, the number of my Twitter followers passed the 3,000 mark. The reason I bring this up is because I initially joined Twitter just to promote JapanThis!, and I remember very well how lonely it felt tweeting out to only 10 followers – most of whom were just friends and family showing their support[iv]. These days promoting the blog isn’t even 1/10th of what I tweet. I generally just use it to goof around with likeminded people, probably people like you.

Alright, that’s about all I have to wrap up this year. And if anyone’s interested, you can compare 2016 with past years and see how I did:

The Year in Review: 2015
The Year in Review: 2014

And on that note, Happy New Year to all of you. Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and encouraging me to keep on keepin’ on. Here’s to 2017, let it be a year that would make the 11th shōgun Ienari blush[v].

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Do You Even History Geek, Bro?

 

 


[i] For example, I need MS Word to get Word Press to play well with certain features of the JapanThis!, like the footnotes.
[ii] You don’t need to update your bookmarks or anything because the old address will just forward you to the new one.
[iii] That being, of course, the 青梅街道 Ōme Kaidō.
[iv] And probably counting down the days to when they could unfollow without me noticing lol.
[v] Longtime readers will remember that Tokugawa Ienari was my most favoritest shōgun ever.

Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin

In Japanese Holidays, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 6, 2014 at 5:14 pm

深川七福神巡り
Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Meguri (Walking Tour of the Fukugawa 7 Gods of Good Luck)

The Fukagawa 7 Fukujin Course

The Fukagawa 7 Fukujin Course

I hope everyone had a safe and happy (and delicious) winter holiday. I’ve been out of the country and haven’t updated JapanThis! for a few weeks. Did you miss me?[i]

At the beginning of every new year, Mrs. JapanThis and I do a traditional walking tour of the 七福神 shichi fukujin the seven gods of good luck. There are shichi fukujin walks all over Japan. This kind of pilgrimage[ii] seems to have begun in the late Muromachi Period (1333-1573)[iii]. The practice was brought from Kansai to Kantō and grew in popularity during the Edo Period when most of the old temples and shrines associated with the 7 gods of good luck had become settled. Prior to the Edo Period, the exact set of deities wasn’t standardized. This lack of standardization has resulted in some shichi fukujin walks including an 8th deity of varying provenance. Occasionally, you’ll actually see a 八福神巡り hachi fukujin meguri walking tour of the 8 gods of good luck. But more often than not, these are a distinct set of 7 deities and when represented in a group, they should be immediately recognizable by any Japanese person[iv]. Anyways, as most of the shichi fukujin pilgrimages became settled in the Edo Period and the popularity of these walks during the new year holiday increased, it should be no surprise that most of these are found in the heart of Edo. There are more than 20 possible shichi fukujin walks in Tōkyō alone[v].

Tōkyōites walk a lot, but in the Edo Period, people walked everywhere and for much greater distances – even in the dead of winter. An average pilgrimage in Tōkyō will require anywhere from 2 to 3½ hours of walking. Every route is unique, but generally people do it from Jan. 1st to Jan. 6th[vi]. Each route is well-organized and you can buy 七福神色紙 shichi fukujin shikishi stamp board for about 1000 (roughly $10) and at each stop you can get a stamp for 100 or 200 (roughly $1 or $2). Temples and shrines that are not major destinations are usually closed except for special events, so the week or two after the new year is big business for them. That’s why the routes are well-marked with flags and there are maps available everywhere.

Shikishi are decorate pieces of cardboard used to collect signatures for special events. Here you can see the name of each shrine/temple in black and then a red ink stamp pressed over it confirming that you actually visited the temple/shrine. At the bottom, in gold, you can see the 7 gods of good luck riding on the the takarabune "treasure ship."  Awwwww yeah.

Shikishi are decorate pieces of cardboard used to collect signatures for special events.
Here you can see the name of each shrine/temple in black and then a red ink stamp pressed over it confirming that you actually visited the temple/shrine.
At the bottom, in gold, you can see the 7 gods of good luck riding on the the takarabune “treasure ship.”
Awwwww yeah.

Today is the first day that most Japanese companies started work after the holiday, so there were two kinds of people we mostly encountered: salarymen and old people. As it was the first day back at work for most Japanese companies, people are still feeling pretty lazy and any excuse to get out of the office and walk around is welcome and so groups of co-workers tend to be permitted to visit a shrine near the office to pray for success in business. I doubt they’re allowed to do the whole shichi fukujin meguri, but visiting a shrine dedicated to a god of good luck makes much more sense than visiting a shrine for, say, 安産 anzan safe delivery of babies. There are lots of old people because… well, they don’t have to work and Japan is just crawling with old people anyways.

I’m not going to go into detail about each of the 7 gods because you can look them up in Wikipedia or here is a nice description of them. But I am going to list each of the 7 gods and the shrine or temple with which they are affiliated. Now, I say affiliated because many times these gods are not the main deity venerated at a certain temple or shrine – they may be part of a small shrine attached to another larger religious structure[vii]. As it so happens, except for 1 structure, most of the sites of the shichi fukujin in Fukagawa are very minor, simple buildings. They’re probably only open a few days a year to perform certain religious duties and the rest of the year, the family who owns the property is engaged in other work that has nothing to do with the temple/shrine[viii]. Keep in mind that this list is for Fukagawa only, the names of the temples and shrines of another course will be totally different.

Name

Domain

Shrine/Temple Name

Description

寿老人
Jurō-jin
longevity 深川神明宮
Fukagawa

Shinmei-gū
I always think of this guy as the bearded old man with a big head. This shrine participates in the famous Fukagawa Mizukake Festival.
大黒天
Daikokuten
amassing wealth, good harvest 円珠
Enju-in
Daikoku is one of the more famous of the shichi fukujin, but the temple in Fukagawa is TINY. Daikoku is enshrined in what is essentially a round Buddhist style shack.
恵比須神
Ebisu-jin
love & respect; bountiful food 富岡八幡宮
Tomioka

Hachiman-gū
This is one of the most important shrines in Edo-Tōkyō. I mentioned it here. However, the small shrine to Ebisu seems like an add-on. It’s located on the left, back-side of the main hall. Read more about the Tōkyō place name, Ebisu, here and here. Also, if I’m not mistaken, Ebisu is the only of the 7 gods of good luck who is of native Japanese origin.
布袋尊
Hotei-son
selflessness & generosity 深川稲荷神社
Fukagawa

Inari Jinja
This shrine is tiny. I think I’ve mentioned Inari before. Inari is generally an auspicious kami and shrines to this deity are all over Japan. It’s my understanding that the cult of Inari spread under the sankin-kōtai system because this kami was popular with daimyō. In the Edo Period, Inari became popular with the common people too.
毘沙門天
Bishamonten
risk taking; gambling 龍光院
Ryūkō-in
This is a tiny temple in a residential area that almost blends into the background. It looks just like any other modern building on the block.
弁財天
Benzaiten
being rich & famous; the glamorous life 冬木弁天堂
Fuyuki

Benten-dō
Another small shrine, but this one has an older, traditional feel. The name of the shrine is interesting. It literally means “Fuyuki’s place to venerate Benzaiten.” Fuyuki was the name of a family of lumber workers who supposedly lived here and had a small shrine to Benzaiten. Benzaiten is sometimes depicted as a slutty, music playing, and jealous bitch. It’s often said if couples visit her shrines together, she’ll get jealous and the couple will break up.
福禄寿
Fukurokuju
popularity, happiness & prosperity 心行寺
Shingyō-ji
This temple is doing its own Buddhist thing, but has a small “shack” dedicated to the veneration of Fukurokuju. It seems like they only open it for viewing a few times a year, including the new year holiday.

So, as I said earlier, Mrs. JapanThis and I have done many shichi fukujin walks. This year we decided to do the Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Meguri. Fukagawa is a very shitamachi area and even boasts a fantastic museum called 深川江戸資料館 Fukagawa Edo Shiryōkan Fukagawa Edo Museum which reconstructs a block of Edo Period Fukagawa and brings a little bit of Edo to life – highly recommended. Because the area was in the heart of Edo, it wasn’t surprising to find out that it’s one of the easiest shichi fukujin courses. It took us no more than 2 hours to walk the whole thing. They started us at Monzen Nakachō Station[ix] and marked the entire path with flags so that we didn’t need any maps or any GPS (even if we did get lost, there were groups of old people being led by cute tour guides waving flags – they’re easy enough to follow).

Monzen-Nakacho

“Mon’naka” Station.
Every time I visit an area I’ve written about it’s like seeing an old friend.
Hello, old friend!

Then we entered Tomioka Hachiman-gū. At the entrance was a massive stone lantern. Its size reminded me of the Monster Lantern in Ueno Park – but the Monster Lantern is much bigger. Still, it’s pretty cool to see a stone lantern of this size. We ventured around to the left hand side of the 本殿 honden main hall of Tomioka Hachiman-gū and found a small grove with 3 stalls housing 3 kami, the middlemost kami was Ebisu.

The giant stone lantern at the entrance to Tomioka Hachimangu.

The giant stone lantern at the entrance to Tomioka Hachimangu.

The main hall of Tomioka Hachimangu!

The main hall of Tomioka Hachimangu!
Notice the group of salarymen walking together.

The torii that leads to the shrine dedicated to Ebisu.

The torii that leads to the shrine dedicated to Ebisu.

The actual shrine to Ebisu is basically a wooden shed behind Tomioka Hachimangu.

The actual shrine to Ebisu is basically a wooden shed behind Tomioka Hachimangu.

The next stop on the Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Course is Fuyuki Benten-dō, home of Benzaiten, the only female kami (女神 megami) of the 7 gods of good luck. It’s a very small temple and today it was filled with old people standing around and looking very confused… until the tour guide told everyone to make a single file line and pay their respects. We got our stamp and got out of there as quickly as possible so as to beat all the old people to the next stops on our course.

IMG_3893

The shrine to Benzaiten is so small and the grounds so narrow that it is literally wedged between to small apartment buildings. If it weren’t for the flags announcing the 7 fukujin walk, you might not even notice it!

Next stop was Shingyō-ji where Fukurokuju-son is enshrined. The temple itself isn’t’t much to look at, but the interesting thing is the Buddhist style stall in which Fukurokuju is venerated, it’s a good example of syncretism in Japanese religion (ie; foreign religions like Buddhism naturally mixed with the native Shintōism).

Entrance to Shingyoji. Again, if you didn't know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn't even bat an eye at this temple.

Entrance to Shingyoji.
Again, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn’t even bat an eye at this temple.

This is the shrine to Fukurokuju.  The shape of this structure is distinctly Buddhist.

This is the shrine to Fukurokuju.
The shape of this structure is distinctly Buddhist.

Here's a statue of the little bugger himself.

Here’s a statue of the little bugger himself.

Along the way, we passed a famous 和菓子屋 wagashi-ya Japanese sweets shop called 伊勢屋 Isei-ya. We picked up some 大福 daifuku and went on our merry way.

Iseya has been in business since 1907 (Meiji 40) and has quite a good reputation in Tokyo for quality Japanese sweets.

Iseya has been in business since 1907 (Meiji 40) and has quite a good reputation in Tokyo for quality Japanese sweets.

Our 4th stop was Enju-in which houses and enshrinement of Daikokuten. As I mentioned before, most of the shichi fukujin are commonly recognized when seen together, but separately, it may be hard to remember who is who. Ebisu, Benzaiten, and Daikokuten are the most recognizable, I think. Daikokuten’s gig is granting wealth – not just wealth, but ever accumulating wealth. There is a famous chain of “pawn shops[x]” called Daikokuya. The one near my house specializes in high end wallets and bags (Hermes, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, etc…), I can’t help but think there is a connection. Anyhoo, the temple itself is non-descript and if it hadn’t been for the flags lining the path, I might have had a hard time finding the place.

A paper lantern with the name "Daikokuten" written on it.

A paper lantern with the name “Daikokuten” written on it.

IMG_3903

Again, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d probably never look twice at this temple.

During my winter vacation, I visited Arizona. Feeling a bit stir crazy one day, I took a 2 hour walk just to see what I could see – and I saw nothing. But walk for 10 minutes through the heart of Edo-Tōkyō and you’ll see lots of things! As we were moseying along, we stumbled across a solitary grave near an intersection. Turns out, this was the grave of Mamiya Rinzō. He was a map maker and a spy for the Tokugawa shōgunate. He made maps of northern Japan and the Kuril Isla— and wait, did you just say “spy?!

Yes, I did.

In 1826, the Dutch doctor and botanist, Phillip von Siebold was caught collecting maps of northern Japan (drawn by a member of the imperial court in Kyōto, no less). But the Tokugawa shōgunate was all about very limited access to the country[xi]. Furthermore, they insisted on keeping the imperial court out of the business of real politics and especially out of the limited international exchanges possible at the time. So this was quite a big deal to the government in Edo. Today, most of us look back at it and laugh but really this was some North Korea-style shit, right? Well, North Korea shit could get you killed but luckily for von Siebold, the shōgunate didn’t want to create an international riff, so they effectively deported him and that’s the end of story.

But who was the douchebag who told on von Siebold like a little bitch? Oh, it was Mamiya Rinzō from 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain[xii]. Make what you will of that.

Grave of Mamiya Rinzo.

Grave of Mamiya Rinzo – Tattletale extraordinaire.

IMG_3906

Plaque in front of Rinzo’s grave.


Then, we moved on to Ryūkō-in. This is where Bishamonten is revered. It’s another less than memorable temple.

Ryūkō-in - yet another non-descript temple.

Ryūkō-in – yet another non-descript temple.

A makeshift sign for the season that says "Bishamonten."

A makeshift sign for the season that says “Bishamonten.”

After that, we headed to Fukagawa Inari Shrine to see Hotei-son. This shine is literally crammed into a tiny corner of a residential intersection. I bet this is the most action this place gets all year.

It's hardly fair to even call this a shrine.

It’s hardly fair to even call this a shrine.

Finally we hit up Shinmei-gū which was larger than the last few places, but not so big. They had their o-mikoshi (portable shrine) on display with pictures indicating that they participate in the mizukake matsuri which is generally spearheaded by Tomioka Hachiman-gū[xiii].

Torii and entrance to Shinmeigū. The premises were quite large, but the architecture and space weren't much to look at.

Torii and entrance to Shinmeigū. The premises were quite large, but the architecture and space weren’t much to look at.

So, having done quite a few shichi fukujin walks, I was really looking forward to the Fukagawa walk because it’s so famous. But it was a bit of a letdown compared to the others. The highlights were definitely Tomioka Hachiman-gū (because of its size and importance to Edo-Tōkyō) and the grave of Mamiya Rinzō (which just pissed me off). But all in all, I got a lot of good exercise, quality time with Mrs. JapanThis, and best of all, I got a future place name to research. Check this shit out:

Bakuroyokoyama FTW!!!

Bakuroyokoyama FTW!!!

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[i] It’s a rhetorical question; I don’t need my inboxes flooded with “no” e-mails.

[ii] For lack of a better word.

[iii] This is the most liberal reckoning I can think of for this era. Various scholars will assign different dates for the beginning of the Muromachi Period depending on how they are trying to frame certain topics. I probably won’t even mention the Muromachi Period again in this article, so let’s leave it at that for now.

[iv] And I reckon most foreigners who have spent a few years in Japan would recognize them too.

[v] And according to Wikipedia, there are at least 10 more in the Kantō area.

[vi] Some routes are officially open as late as Jan. 15th.

[vii] Not unlike in Europe where a church may be dedicated to a certain saint, but the relics or bodies of various other saints and holy people may be also be located on the premises.

[viii] That is too say, they have a real 9-5 most of the time.

[ix] Again, if you’re interested in the etymology of the place name Monzen Nakachō, I recommend you read my article here.

[x] Again, for lack of a better word.

[xi] Some say it was 開国 sakoku a closed country, others say it was under 海禁 kaikin a policy of limited access by sea.

[xii] The same Mito Domain that produced Mito Gaku and the grand douche daimyō extraordinaire, Tokugawa Nariaki. Oh yes, Mito Han. JapanThis! loves to hate on Mito Han almost as much as Satsuma and Chōshū.

[xiii] More about this next summer…

What does Nishiarai mean?

In Japanese History on July 17, 2013 at 2:04 am

西新井
Nishiarai (West New Well)

Main street leading to Nishi-Arai Daishi. In the Edo Period and earlier, this would have been a typical monzen-cho.

Main street leading to Nishi-Arai Daishi.
In the Edo Period and earlier, this would have been a typical monzen-cho.
Now it’s just shitamachi (the lower city).

I have no idea why this name is officially written in rōmaji as one word. It seems to me, one would write it Nishi Arai or at least as Nishi-Arai[i].

But no one ever consults with me.

Oh well.

Let’s jump way back to the Heian Period (of which I know very little) to talk a bit about the spread of Buddhism in Japan (of which I know even less). At that time there was this supermonk named 空海 Kūkai. All sorts of amazing shit is attributed to him, including the invention of 仮名 kana the Japanese syllabary. Of course, since he was a supermonk, we can believe this at face value. C’mon, religious people never make shit up, right?

Anyways, after homeboy died, he was referred to as 弘法大師 Kōbō Daishi Great Teacher Who Spreads Buddhism, which sounds generic in English, but it’s pretty specific in Japanese.

So he came to this area when it was in the middle of a massive epidemic and people were dying all over the place. Instead of helping the people, he did what religious people love to do. Nothing. So he commissioned a temple with a statue of an 11-faced Kan’non[ii] and he knelt down and prayed in front of the statue for 21 days.

11-faced Kan'non. Note all the spooky heads on her head.

11-faced Kan’non.
Note all the spooky heads on her head.
(yes, kan’non is female)

Luckily for him, by chance (or more likely because someone started digging), a well magically appeared and water started bubbling up and gushed forth and the people had drinking water. Even more magical was that fact that when the sick people drank Kūkai’s magic well water they were instantly cured (praise jeebus!) and they all lived happily ever after.

The magic well was located on the west side of the temple[iii], so it was called 西新井 Nishi-Arai West New Well. The temple took its name from the well. (Or so they say…)

Main prayer hall of Nishi-Arai Daishi

Main prayer hall of Nishi-Arai Daishi

The temple still stands today. In fact, it’s a very famous place in Tōkyō for 初詣 hatsumōde the first temple or shrine visit of the year, so it’s very crowded during the New Year holiday. The temple is called 西新井大師 Nishi-Arai Daishi Nishi-Arai Great Teacher. I’ve never been myself, but it seems to be a pretty cool place. They have ponds and gardens in the precincts and the surrounding 門前町 monzen-chō[iv] looks pretty interesting.

Main gate of the temple

Main gate of the temple

.

.

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[i] I prefer the hyphen, so for here on out, I’m using Nishi-Arai as the name.

[ii] Kan’non-sama is a Buddha. I see her explained as a goddess of mercy. But my understanding is that technically Buddhism doesn’t have gods per se, but examples of enlightened souls upon which to reflect. It’s a question of semantics in my opinion, but maybe “goddess” isn’t really the most accurate word.

[iii] Very convenient, since the temple could control the well.

[iv] C’mon, you guys remember what a monzen-chō is, right?

Japanese New Year

In Japan, Japanese Holidays, Travel in Japan on January 6, 2010 at 1:07 pm

OK. This is gonna be loooooooooooooooooooooong. I promise to try my best to be concise, but I’m also trying to include as much as possible for people interested in life in Japan.

Japanese New Year is the most important holiday of the year. It’s a big family holiday, much like Christmas, but a bit more solemn. All the companies and schools shut down and people return to their hometowns for a week and kick it old school with the fam.


(I included a list New Year’s related vocab at the bottom if you want to see the kanji for any words used in this article.)

an assortment of new year’s decorations

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The Basics

In Japanese this holiday is called o-shōgatstu, which was the name of “January” in the old Japanese calendar. Now this term just refers to the first 3 days of the new year, or to the season in general. The first day of the new year is called ganjitsu.

There are 2 related terms ōshōgatsu (“Big January”) and koshōgatsu (“Little January”). From my understanding, koshōgatsu refers to the lunar new year, celebrated in old Japan. This is synonymous with Chinese Near Year. Ōshōgatsu refers to the actual first day of the new year.

On a side note, if a death has occurred, there is a Buddhist proscription against celebrating o-shōgatstu for one year as the family is still considered to be in mourning.

 

the first sunrise of the new year behind mount fuji

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Preparation for the New Year

To prepare for the new year, most Japanese start writing nengajō (New Year’s post cards). Some people write literally hundreds of these. It’s considered tacky to write them by computer, so usually each post card is accompanied by a short message made of set phrases wishing good health and prosperity in the coming year and to continue offering their kindness. The American tradition of sending long Christmas notes describing the family’s experiences in the ending year won’t fly in Japan as it would be seen as too egotistical (“me, me, me!”). Anyone who’s spent some time in Japan knows that kind of behavior doesn’t fly too well with traditional folk here. New Year’s decorations will also be bought or made in advance. I’ll go into these in more detail later.

Another tradition is ōsōji, or the big clean up. The entire house, office, etc will be cleaned thoroughly. This is like spring cleaning in America. The idea is to get everything in order for the new year.

some examples of nengajo

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New Year’s Eve

Leading up to the countdown, activities will vary from family to family. But chances are the family will eat toshi koshi sobafor dinner. Toshi koshi means “year crossing” and soba are Japanese buckwheat noodles – one of my absolute favorites! Because the noodles are long, they are said to represent long life (all the food eaten on New Year’s Day have special meanings). Because the noodles represent long life, it’s considered inauspicious to leave leftover noodles – so prepare to eat a lot! And while this is a meal easily made at home in minutes, I’ve been at one household where toshi koshi soba and massive trays of sushi were ordered and delivered right to the door at dinner time. Awwww yeah.

Inevitably, the TV will be tuned in to NHK. A musical competition called Kōhaku Uta Gassen, or just Kōhaku for short, has been running for years. This is even more of a tradition than “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” – even if it is derivative – or at least similar in some sense. Kōhaku means “red & white” – which are festive colors often associated with o-shōgatstu. The show divides popular singers of all genres into 2 teams, Red Team and White Team. The singers try to outdo each other with dramatic performances. The show runs right up until the countdown.

5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Happy New Year!!!

The countdown is usually followed by musical performances by various artists popular in the closing year. I think most of the stations play music. However, one station shows various major shrines across the country ringing bells 108 times. This is another tradition which I’ll mention briefly in the list of related terms at the end of this article. Right after midnight, some families might go to the butsudan in their tatami room. A butsudan is a small household altar (Buddhism) where there may be pictures of deceased family members. A bell will be rung and incense will be lit and a little prayer will be said silently.

toshikoshi soba — yummy!!!

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New Year’s Day

Hungover family members may sleep in late, but not too late, as the next day’s main event is an elaborate brunch of traditional foods called o-sechi ryōri. (Take a look at the picture because I can’t describe it in words.)

Each o-sechi has a special meaning. There are so many different kinds that you can easily avoid the ones you don’t like and stick with the ones you do like. Sake or beer may be served too. One type of sake that is popular is called nigorizake. This is unfiltered sake, so it’s a foamy and creamy white rice alcohol. O-toso, or spiced sake may also be served. Another popular dish is o-zōni, a kind of soup which varies from region to region in Japan. I’ve only eaten it twice so I can’t say much about it. Mochi, or rice cakes are also eaten. In fact, throughout the rest of the holiday many store fronts may customers come up and help make mochi the old fashioned way (beating rice until it becomes mochi), after which you can eat it. Yummy.

Often families will do hatsumōde, or the first shrine visit of a new year. This might occur the night before or sometime the following week. Here in Tokyo, many families will do a pilgrimage of the Shichi Fukujin, or the 7 Gods of Good Luck, visiting all 7 shrines over the course of 2-3 hours. Most of the major shrines across the country are packed and there are long lines to get your turn to pray or get o-mikuji (a kind of horoscope for the year).

Another popular thing to do is to stay up until the first sunset, which is considered good luck.

For the kids, the best part is receiving o-toshidama from their parents and grandparents. O-toshidama is gift money. They might receive anywhere from 5000 yen and up from each person.

o-sechi ryori – check wiki for an explanation!

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Lots of Firsts

The Japanese are into doing things “for the first time” in the new year so there are tons of things that people do during the o-shōgatsu season. I’ve already mentioned a few of these.

Hatsumōde – first shrine visit of the year

Hatsu hi no de – first sunrise of the new year

Hatsuyume – first dream of the new year

As you can probably guess, hatsu means “first” or “start” in Japanese.

 

this is the kanji for

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Auspicious Decorations

There are many auspicious decorations you can see all over Japan. I have pictures of these below in the related words list.

 

some new year’s decorations, again…

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Vocab List

年賀状

ねんがじょう

nengajō


門松
かどまつ
kadomatsu

pine gate”


注連飾り

しめかざり

shime kazari


鏡餅

かぎりもち

kagiri mochi

mirror mochi”


お屠蘇

おとそ

o-toso

New Year’s spiced sake”


お年玉

おとしだま

o-toshidama

money given to kids on New Year’s Day”


仏壇

ぶつだん

butsudan

Buddhist altar kept in the home


除夜の鐘

じょやのかね

joya no kane

bell rung 108 times”

this is a buddhist practice (not shinto). It’s based on the belief that human beings are cursed by 108 earthly desires. Each time the bell rings one curse is dispelled.


初詣

はつもうで

hatsumode

first shrine visit of the year”


初夢

はつゆめ

hatsuyume

first dream of the new year”


書き初め

かきはじめ

New Year’s Resolution; literally, first writing”

although my dictionary says this is a new year’s resolution, I think this actually refers to the first calligraphy a person does – usually choosing an auspicious character. Ii seem to have forgotten the actual word for a real new year’s resolution. some stores may have a calligraphy table set up and customers can take turns writing.


七福神

しちふくじん

shichi fukujin
“the 7 gods of good luck”
this is a kind of pilgrimage, whereby you visit the shrines of all 7 gods. you can get a collector’s stamp page and receive a stamp at each shrine so your friends believe you when you say that you did it.


姫初
ひめはじめ
first sex of the new year; a girl’s loss of virginity


大掃除

おおそうじ

ōsōji

the big cleaning”

大正月

おおしょうがつ

ōshōgatsu

big january”

小正

こしょうがつ

koshōgatsu

little january” (chinese new year)

元日

がんじつ

ganjitsu

new year’s day

紅白歌合戦

こうはくうたがっせん

kōhaku uta gassen

red & white singing battle”
(red & white are auspicious festival colors in Japan)


初日の出

はつひので

hatsu hi no de

first sunrise of the new year”

初レズ

はつれず

hatsu-lez

first lesbian experience; first lesbian experience of the new year”

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