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The History of Hanami

In Japanese History on April 4, 2017 at 8:01 am

花見
hanami (cherry blossom viewing, but literally “looking at flowers”)

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I was recently asked to write an article about the history of 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing, which I was happy to look into. Although I had a broad understanding of this uniquely Japanese tradition – and one of my favorite aspects about living in Japan – I’d never really researched the subject in depth. Needless to say, going all JapanThis! on a non-history website or publication isn’t always appropriate[i], but I was super excited when they agreed to publish the stripped down, 650-word version while allowing me to publish the extended 12” remix here for you guys.

So, without further ado, here’s the history of hanami.

china plum blossom

Chinese courtiers enjoying plum blossoms and crappy plum wine. Sorry, I can’t drink plum wine. It’s so nasty.

The Classical Origins of Hanami

If we take the word literally, hanami just means “looking at flowers.” It’s a Japanese word that falls into a broad category of “looking at things” words – two other famous examples might be 月見 tsukimi moon viewing and 富士見 fujimi Mt. Fuji viewing[ii].

In a world without TV or movies, bored humans have always found ways to entertain themselves. And, as is the case in most cultures, while the poor were toiling in the fields, the rich built lush private gardens. In the West, this happened in the Roman Empire. In the East, this happened in Ancient China. The Chinese were particularly enamored with the fragrant plum blossoms – an equally beautiful flower, but much heartier and less vibrant than 桜 sakura cherry blossoms.

gokusui en

Gokusui no En was a typical Heian Period poetry even linked to seasonal changes practiced by the Northern Fujiwara clan. This one is recreated once a year in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. It wasn’t a sakura-centric event but definitely influenced by China and was focused on seasonal events like hanami in the literal sense of “looking at flowers.”

When the imperial court was based in Nara in the 700’s, local aristocrats would read Chinese poems celebrating the transient beauty of plum blossoms. In their gardens, each flower’s location became a new venue for poetry writing events or places to engage in other artistic endeavors, such as calligraphy, flower arrangement, and painting. The most common flowers were wisteria[iii], plum blossoms, peach blossoms, and ultimately cherry blossoms which were treasured for their brief yet brilliant bloom. By the Heian Period, the term hanami had become synonymous with cherry blossom viewing specifically, and not just flower viewing in general.

800px-Sasaki_Toyokichi_-_Nihon_hana_zue_-_Walters_95221.jpg

Toyotomi Hideyoshi at one of his final hanami events in Kyōto before his death.

The Heian Period, as I’m sure you’re aware, essentially ended with the rise of the samurai class. Eventually, in the 1500’s, a warlord named 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified the country. He sought to legitimize the samurai – not just as warriors, but as protectors of aristocratic cultural practices. It’s here that we first find paintings of high ranking samurai, called 大名 daimyō, enjoying hanami – placing themselves on par with the imperial court. Hideyoshi encouraged the warriors to engage in other arts such as poetry, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.

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Hanami in the Premodern Era

Hideyoshi failed to establish a lasting dynasty, but his ideas of promoting cultural practices of the court among the samurai was a success. When Japan’s most stable warrior government was formally established in Edo in 1603 by 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, hanami was an inherent aspect of the elite culture in peace time. But the Tokugawa Shōgunate took things a step further. They began planting cherry blossoms in Ueno, where you could visit the magnificent mausoleums of the shōguns. This vast religious center was open to the public and would become Ueno Park in modern times. Daimyō from other parts of Japan brought the concept of public cherry blossom viewing spaces from Edo back to their respective domains.

shogun harem hanami chiyoda castle edo castle tokugawa

Ladies of the shōgun’s harem enjoying hanami on the expansive grounds of Edo Castle, once the largest castle in the world – a city within a city.

This brought hanami to the commoners. Kabuki and entertainment in the pleasure quarters were looked down upon by the shōgunate as morally questionable, but enjoying cherry blossoms was good clean fun and people of any rank could enjoy it if they had access to the trees. Of course, some of the best groves where behind the high walls of the palaces of the feudal lords in Edo and of shōgun’s castle in particular, but temples, shrines, and common spaces were open to all.

gotenyama hanami.jpg

One of my favorite ukiyo-e of all time, two groups of women doing hanami on Goten’yama. You can see Shinagawa below, the calm waters of Edo Bay below, and the ever present boats on premodern Japan’s busiest harbor. Looking out at the bay must have seemed like looking at the end of the world – and by that I mean the Pacific Ocean and modern Chiba Prefecture.

Furthermore, large scale planting of sakura in Edo in places like 御殿山 Goten’yama[iv], 飛鳥山 Asukayama[v], 道灌山 Dōkan’yama[vi], and other famous spots provided public spaces where anyone could enjoy the beautiful pink blossoms. Even Yoshiwara, the moated and sequestered red light district had streets lined with cherry blossoms. The tradition of 夜桜 yo-zakura, or nighttime sakura viewing, is generally thought to have origins in Yoshiwara and similar Edo Period red light districts because businesses stayed open late and used lanterns to maximum effect to make their shops seems more attractive at night, especially during the short cherry blossom season. While usually men frequented the pleasure quarters, wives and daughters often came to enjoy the illuminated trees and try to catch a glimpse of the courtesans in their flashy kimono. Anyone who has enjoyed yo-zakura knows there’s a dramatic difference between daytime hanami and nighttime hanami.

yoshiwara night hanami

Nighttime hanami in Yoshiwara. You can see the lanterns illuminating the trees. Also, notice the guy covering his head. Men of prominent positions in the community, while allowed to – and often expected to – have concubines, were discouraged by the shōgunate from going to red light districts like the Yoshiwara. They often covered their heads to avoid recognition. But, of course, they went. Because oiran!!! Who wouldn’t?!!💛

With the great Tokugawa Peace came re-branding. The samurai, traditionally warriors, now found themselves with no wars to fight – essentially functioning as bureaucrats. In order to legitimize their function in society, they were expected to be living examples of Japanese morality and behavior for all of society beneath them to admire and emulate. A proverb arose: 花は桜木、人は武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi as for flowers, there are sakura – as for men, there are samurai. On the surface, this simply means the greatest of flowers are cherry blossoms and the greatest of men are samurai. But there’s another meaning; it’s a reference to the warrior tradition and the expectation of samurai to commit 切腹 seppuku hara kiri/ritual disembowelment for failing to live honorably. A samurai’s life may seem noble and poetic – a thing of beauty, if you will – but at any moment he may be cut down in battle or asked to give his life. Therefore, the life of a samurai was likened to the sakura. He is beautiful, but fleeting. Likewise, a strong storm or sudden frost might ruin all the cherry blossoms, ending the season early. The link between samurai and sakura persists to this day, and commonly comes up in historical movies and TV dramas.

seppuku

Seppuku Fun™

After the Meiji Coup in 1868, the new government embarked on a decade’s long modernization initiative. One of the biggest changes to Japanese society was the abolition of the caste system, including the samurai. There were some in the new government who lobbied – unsuccessfully, luckily – for the removal of sakura from places associated with the Tokugawa and the samurai, such as Ueno and Edo Castle because of the strong connection between the samurai and cherry blossoms. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and as the concept of public parks was introduced, hanami was rebranded as a pan-Japanese tradition that dated back to the heyday of the imperial family during the Heian Period. In fact, to many westerners who learned about Japan through postcards and movements like Japonisme and Orientalism, Japan was often reduced to imagery of Mt. Fuji, geisha, and cherry blossoms.

Further Reading:

ueno daibutsu.jpg

The Great Buddha of Edo. It was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and had been a minor spot in Ueno Park until quite recently. Now it’s famous with Asian tourists, even though most Tōkyōites don’t even know it exists.

Modern Hanami

In the 1880’s and early 1900’s, newspapers began announcing famous spots for hanami and recommending the best times to go. The blooming of sakura coincided with the newly established school year, and companies latched on to this cycle to welcome in new hires and reinforce the commitment of existing workers’ dedication to the organization. In this way, the sakura became a symbol of birth and rebirth, rather than the fleeting existence of the samurai.

shinjuku gyoen.gif

As horticulture and the art of garden construction incorporated new scientific discoveries, public parks and botanical gardens soon learned that they could extend the hanami season by planting two to three varieties in the same park. Why only have two weeks of hanami when you can have three or four?

yoshino sakura.jpg

Having a picnic and drinking sake while looking at cherry blossoms is a tradition that goes back to the Heian Period.  Until recently, you could usually only carry a bottle or two with you, so the parties were shorter. Since the 70’s and 80’s, there have been convenience stores on every corner in major cities. This has made it possible for hanami parties to run from 6 AM to 11 PM because you can just refuel at 7-11 whenever you run out of booze. Furthermore, hanami goers in parks these days can even order delivery pizza, sushi, or whatever they need. In the age of instant gratification, an old proverb came to be associated with hanami: 花より団子 hana yori dango – literally, sweets over flowers. The implication is that some people don’t come to enjoy the sakura as much as for the wild partying.

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Japanese companies often send the youngest or lowest ranking people on their teams or in their departments to go stake out prime hanami spots in busy locations at the crack of dawn. Inevitably, they begin partying, often from 6 AM until the main group arrives. I came across this poor fellow at noon and it seems like… well… I guess hazing is a thing in his company.

Crazy Parties and Secret Spots

If you go to some of the larger parks in Tōkyō, like Ueno, Yoyogi, Inokashira, Meguro, etc., you’ll find a very party-like atmosphere. Ueno Park, in my experience, tends to be the craziest. People used to bring portable karaoke machine – a practice that has long since been banned – but still it’s the rowdiest and booziest. However, Yoyogi Park definitely gives it a run its money. In fact, I’ve seen DJ’s spinning house and techno in that park. Inokashira Park in Kichijōji is still all about the party, but has a much more hippied-out vibe. The Meguro River isn’t as crazy as those three, but it’s pretty noisy because it’s so congested and the sound of generator powering the food stalls forces people to raise their speaking volume just to communicate with one another.

anaba sakura.jpg

All of this is great fun. I love it for sure, but sometimes you just don’t want to deal with all the craziness. As such, a lot of people seek out the best kept secrets, or 穴場 anaba in Japanese (usually shared by word of mouth). This could be anything from a very local shrine to an obscure park. These places tend to have a great hanami experience without the crowds and often don’t have all the drunks shouting and laughing with each other or passing out on wherever on the ground. And while not a secret spot, some places like Shinjuku Gyoen have specific rules banning alcohol – though, that doesn’t actually stop people from bringing it in, but the people who do tend to be low key about it.

So, Edo’s big 5 hanami spots were Goten’yama, Ueno, the banks of the Sumida River, Asukayama, and Koganei. What are your favorite spots in modern Tōkyō? And do you know any cool secret spots?

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

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[i] There’s a little mantra you’ve probably heard: know your audience.
[ii] Both of these words made their way into architectural terminology of the Edo Period. For example, Edo Castle and Kawagoe Castle both had 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turrets and many places in Tōkyō still bear the place name Fujimi since you could see Mt. Fuji from there, for example 中野富士見町 Nakano-Fujimichō. Tsukimi appears everything from teahouses to castles, most notably Matsumoto Castle’s 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turret.
[iii] Wisteria, or 藤 fuji, were closely linked to the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan, a powerful family of the imperial court that was the ancestor of a number of powerful samurai clans which preserved the kanji for wisteria when establishing new branch families with new names
[iv] This was one of the preeminent hanami spots in the Edo Period, but sadly shōgunate destroyed the area to build defensive islands to protect Edo from the threat of a sea based invasion by western powers in the 1850’s.
[v] This is still a popular hanami spot located a short distance from Ōji Station.
[vi] There are famous ukiyo-e of this spot, but today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

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…

Japanese Manners (part 2)

In Japanese Manners on February 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Are you ready for a few more Japanese manner tips that will let you travel in Japan like a pro?

More Manners That Will Make You Look Like a Pro:

Saying Please
Even you can’t speak any other Japanese, when you order or ask for something; you might want to say onegai shimasu (please) to score some “super cool foreigner” points.
If you want to get someone’s attention, say sumimasen (excuse me/I’m sorry).
If you bump someone in the station or realize you made a mistake or did something careless or stupid, you can also say sumimasen.

Pro-tip 1: After your food has arrived, before you start eating say itadakimasu (a humble way to say “thanks for the food”).

yorosiku

A Ramen Shop Is Not a Hangout
After you finish your ramen, get the hell out. Most shops are small, with limited seating so customer turnover is important. Even if the shop is pretty much empty, hanging out there ordering more beers and chatting just looks weird – like you have no idea what you’re doing.

Pro-tip: Slurp your noodles to show how much you like them. This applies to all noodles in Japan. Slurp away.

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Don’t Stop In Front Of The Ticket Gate in Train Stations
This is just freaking common sense, people. And I see Japanese people do it too. When a Japanese person does it, they’re just a dumbass. When a foreigner does, you’re a fucking gaijin and we all look bad.
If you have to stop to put away your train pass or look around for something, walk to an out of the way spot and do what you gotta do, don’t block the ticket gate and scratch your balls.

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Sneezing, Coughing and Generally Being Sick
Most Japanese are kireizuki (clean freaks), so if you’re on a train or something, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. This should be common sense… unless your mom was born in a barn.

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Pro-tip: Wear a mask to keep your nasty germs away from other people.

If you liked this, please visit the much more important Japanese Manners Part One!

UPDATE: There’s more!  So if you want to learn more Japanese manners, check out Japanese Manners Part Three.

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Christmas In Japan!

In Japanese Holidays on December 26, 2009 at 11:18 am
So a lot of people have asked me about Christmas in Japan. Well, the Japanese are masters at appropriating elements or foreign cultures and then thoroughly Japanizing them to fit the the needs of their own culture.

Christmas is no exception.

The Basics

How do you say “Merry Christmas” in Japanese?

メリークリスマス!
merii kurisumasu

it’s the Japanized version of the English phrase.

Young people shorten it to メリクリ (meri kuri).

Christmas Eve is called:

クリスマスイブ kurisumasu ibu
or just イブ ibu for short.

The Religious Stuff

One of the most notable differences is the apparent lack of the Jesus-related trappings of Christmas. It seems ol’ JC got lost in translation. Japan is a very secular society. In fact, only about 1% of the country claims Christianity as their faith. Although roughly 80% of the population claims to adhere to Shintoism or Buddhism (or both), the reality is most Japanese just aren’t very religious or downright atheist, occasionally practicing certain religious rites to keep in touch with the old traditions. So, it’s not surprising that the particularly uninteresting story of a poor baby born in a desert in bronze age Palestine wouldn’t appeal to the sensibilities of modern Japanese. Occasionally, you will see angels or some other religious trappings, particularly on imported goods. But for the most part, all the boring religious stuff gets skipped over in favor of the flashy pagan stuff that even most westerners will agree makes it most fun.

an actual Christmas Card from about 20 years ago


Santa-san is Coming to Town

Of course, Santa is big here. While everybody knows his name is Santa Claus, he is affectionately referred to with the honorific suffix “-san” (this suffix is fairly well known outside of Japan and somewhat similar to “Mr./Mrs” in English). So Santa Claus becomes Santa-san.

Japanese houses don’t have chimneys, so I’ve always wondered how he delivers toys to the little boys and girls here. I don’t know if this is a widespread story or not, but my girlfriend’s father told her that Santa-san is like a ghost and can walk through walls. Pretty spooky.

Japanese friends who don’t know all the Christmas traditions, have asked me what the elves are all about. I tried to explain that they build toys for Santa. But I usually get a stunned look and サンタさんの奴隷??マジで? (Santa-san no dorei?? maji de? They’re Santa’s slaves??? Seriously??)
santa-san can be a girl too…


Christmas Cake and KFC

“Christmas Cake” just refers to any kind of cake decorated in some wintery, semi-Christmassy style. I don’t think there is a particular flavor. The ones I have had are quite delicious and beautifully decorated (the Japanese are masters of cakes and sweets, particularly in the European traditions). Often the convenience stores put makeshift stands on the streets and peddle cakes to pedestrians heading home after work. While I don’t recall ever seeing a “Christmas Cake” in any of the Christmas celebrations of my home town, it doesn’t seem like a particularly strange practice.

The thing that sort of caught me by surprise during my first celebration in Tokyo, was how everyone was looking forward to chicken from KFC. This year was the first year I actually indulged in the Colonel’s fine victuals. There was a loooooooong line outside of the shop (seemed longer on Christmas Eve than Christmas Day).

If you order in advance, you can procure a whole roasted chicken and some very large family sized buckets of roasted chicken legs and breasts and thighs. At the shop I visited in Nakano, the fried menu had been limited to original recipe. Crispy strips (my fave) and chicken sandwiches, wraps and the like were unavailable until the 26th.

One more thing about Christmas Cake.

On Dec. 26, nobody wants to buy Christmas Cake anymore. So a Japanese girl who turns 26 before getting married is derogatorily referred to as “Christmas Cake” – because obviously nobody will want her anymore. Ouch!
KFC Christmas Menu


Short & Sweet

Christmas is not a national holiday so if you’re not a foreigner working for a foreign company, chances are you’ll be working on Christmas. You won’t be meeting up with all of your family from all over the country and sitting around a traditional feast with wine and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Although these days a lot of families with small children will set up a small tree and some decorations and may even go through the whole Santa-san charade, the kids just get one present or two. They may receive it on イブ (“ibu”, Christmas Eve) or first thing in the morning before going to school. Family celebrations are short and sweet. There are still a lot of families who don’t celebrate at all – in fact, they might not even know which day is Christmas, though they know it’s Christmas season because you can’t get away from the ubiquitous Christmas music and lights.

Merry XXXmas!!!
So who is Christmas mainly celebrated by? The truth is Japanese Christmas is basically a holiday for couples, and young couples at that. Perhaps they’ll enjoy a romantic dinner (chicken, of course) washed down with some expensive wine or champagne. イブ (“ibu” – “eve,” as in Christmas Eve) is a pretty big business day for intimate restaurants. If they can get the day off, many couples like to make a quick getaway to an elegant hotel. Some hotels offer a Christmas package which would include a dinner and Christmas Cake. From my own experience, I’ve gone to 旅館 (“ryokan,” traditional japanese style inn). The room is a classic Japanese room with tatami floors and a futon. A yukata (a kind of kimono) is also provided. We like to choose rooms with a private hot spring bath attached to the veranda, so you can kick it in the steaming hot bath and look at the mountains and sea and snow. It’s a pretty awesome way to spend Christmas! The food at a ryokan will be traditional Japanese fare. Sashimi, rice, miso soup and whatever local vegetables and meats are in season. Of course, they provide you with a complimentary Christmas Cake.
A lot of couples opt for a cheaper and more practical kind of hotel. Japan is famous for love hotels, gaudy erotic playgrounds with massive beds and a jacuzzi (sometimes karaoke and video games, too) that can be rented overnight or by the hour for the sole purpose of sex. In Uguisudani, an area of Tokyo famous for its many love hotels, a lot of the hotels get so much business on XXXmas that they put a 3 hour max time limit on each room and a line of couples will be wrapped around the building waiting in the cold for their turn to get a room.

one love hotel’s special christmas rates!

Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am!
The shops start playing Christmas music and putting up decorations 2 months or so before the actual day. Some of the most extravagant and high-tech illuminations in the world are right here in Tokyo. I don’t want to think about how expensive the electricity bill is for these projects or who’s paying for them… but they are really beautiful. In the US, it seems like Christmas decorations stay up until at least New Years, and some people keep them up until January 6th (The Epiphany still being part of the religious observance of the Christmas Season).But in Japan it’s all over on the 26th.

Literally erased from view.

You’ll wake up the next day and won’t see a single light, wreath, or Santa-san. The clean up is so efficient and thorough that if you hadn’t actually seen the stuff up, you’d think there was no such thing as Christmas in Japan at all.I used to think that this was just the silliest thing ever – an example of Japanese over-efficiency. But recently, I have another theory. The biggest holiday in Japan – the big family holiday which brings everyone from all over the country back to their home towns – is お正月 (o-shōgatsu, New Year’s Day). It’s not a very consumer driven holiday, but it is a rather solemn holiday and it IS a real Japanese holiday, deeply connected to the culture and history and language. I’ve come to think now, that while Christmas is all fun and all, they clean it all up quickly to get people into the mind set of o-shōgatsu and remove all the distractions of this foreign practice. And if that’s the case, fair enough. It’s their damn culture, they can do what they want with it.

the trappings of o-shogatsu are much more formal

Since this is my first blog post, I’m in need of feed back. If I’ve left anything out or been unclear, point it out and I’ll add it to this when I expand it for next year’s Christmas post!!

awwwwwwww yeah!
mαrky( -_-)凸 Read the rest of this entry »

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