My New Year

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明けましておめでとうございます!今年もよろしくお願いします!

Happy New Year! Wishing you health and happiness in the New Year!

My husband is Japanese, I’m American, and we live in America. So we have an interesting mix of traditions for the winter holidays. We usually spend an American-style Christmas with my family, then spend New Year’s with just the two of us.

We try to incorporate a lot of Japanese traditions into New Year’s, although we can’t do some things, like hatsumode 初詣 or the first shrine visit of the New Year, we can do other things like eat (especially eat) traditional foods, and watch the Japanese New Year’s special Kohaku Song Competition 紅白歌合戦 (thanks to TV Japan).

I wanted to introduce some of the things that my husband and I do for our state-side New Year’s celebrations~

New Year’s Cleaning

Before the New Year comes we have to do a big cleaning called o-souji 大掃除, to clean out the old and dust and get ready for the New Year and good luck. We clean the house thoroughly (mostly) and the cars and yard (dead leaves, etc.). When I visited my husband (before we were married) in Japan for New Years a few years ago, we cleaned his apartment and part of his family’s house in the same way.

Apartments in Japan

Now that I’ve been doing this for a few years, I enjoy the sense of emptying out things I don’t need, cleaning out all the dust, and organizing my life before the year turns. Also, I have an excuse to sit around and be lazy on New Year’s Day!

New Year’s Food

My husband and I both enjoy eating, and although we have yet to make osechi ryori お節料理, or the traditional foods that are eaten for luck and health in the new year, we do enjoy making other New Year’s foods.

osechi ryori お節料理On December 31st, we eat toshi-koshi soba 年越しそば or year-crossing soba (buckwheat noodles). The history of toshikoshi soba dates back to the Kamakura period of Japan, where a Buddhist temple gave soba to poor people on New Year’s. During the Edo period, the tradition became a part of mainstream culture. Eating the soba allows you to cut ties with the old year, as the noodles are easily cut with your teeth while eating, and thus gives you a clean start to the new year.

On January 1st we usually make a sweet red bean soup with mochi (glutinous rice) called oshiruko おしるこ. Red and white are lucky colors for the new year, and the red beans and white mochi make oshiruko a lucky dish.

New Year’s TV Special

One thing that I am glad we have access to is Japanese TV, through a service called TV Japan. We get a variety of dramas, news, and special programs here in the states, so we can keep up with a lot of the Japanese programs. Some of the premium dramas don’t come out right away, but most of the NHK dramas come out at the same time as in Japan, so I don’t get behind my friends in Japan.

There are many New Year’s specials, but the first one I saw in Japan (years ago) was the Kohaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦 or the Red & White Song Battle (official title: Red and White Year-end Song Festival). This is aired on December 31st leading up to midnight, and consists of popular Japanese artists competing on the Red team (girls) and White team (guys). It’s a continuous performance, with the popular songs of the year interspersed with commentary by famous actors, announcers, and comedians. Then at the end, everyone votes for the best team (Red or White).

Red & white ema at a shrine

They broadcast it on TV Japan live in Japan time, and then rebroadcast it on American time – so I can watch the whole thing in the morning on December 31st or as a countdown to midnight here in America. I enjoy it because it is a review of the popular songs of the year, and since I can’t go to a New Year’s live (or concert) in Japan, I can have my own in-house concert with all my favorite bands, talented enka singers, and other famous people.

Happy New Year!

The traditional greeting in the New Year is: Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

You can shorten it to: Akemashite omedetou! (for friends)

Or for really close friends: Ake ome! (The first two syllables of the first two words in the greeting, but this is much less polite than the longer version).

You can also add: Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu!

This means, “please take care of me this year too,” and is also a standard and polite greeting.

So, Happy New Year, and please take care of me this year too! ^.^ Ake ome everyone!

December Challenge 11 – Breakfast

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Ok, let’s be honest. This is what I wish I were having for Breakfast today. A matcha (green tea powder) & adzuki (sweet red bean) pancake with soft-serve ice cream at St-Marc Cafe in Ikebukuro. What I’m really having is less glamorous, because it’s a weekday, and I have to go to work. So while I stuff my face with whatever I can find in my scramble to get out of the house, let’s just enjoy the beauty of this dessert-for breakfast.

Are you hungry yet? I am! I actually did eat this for breakfast in Japan, about 3 years ago when I was on a month-long trip visiting my then-fiance (now husband). Hopefully I will get to try it again on my next trip to Japan!

There really is just so much good food in Japan, and I want to try everything, that some dishes don’t make it into my regular rotation. I haven’t found a bakery or coffee shop that does quite this kind of pancake, but there are several good Chinese or Taiwanese bakeries that have similar creations.

What did you have for breakfast today? Was it closer to this gourmet creation of my fantasies, or a grab-n-go like my actual breakfast? Let me know in the comments!

December Challenge 09 – Snack

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For the Snack theme for the December Challenge, I turn to a favorite of mine that isn’t necessarily suited to cold weather, but that I love to eat in the winter anyways. Anmitsu – a Japanese dessert that includes cubes of clear agar jelly, sweet adzuki bean paste, mochi bits, and fruits (like mikan or peach), which is topped by black syrup and sometimes soft-serve ice cream.

AnmitsuThis dessert can be eaten any time of the year, but since it is especially cold in the winter I enjoy ice cream more. However, if you accompany the anmitsu with a nice hot green tea, the slightly bitter green tea offsets the sweet and the cold quite nicely. So my choice for a winter snack is anmitsu!

What is your favorite winter snack? What is the most unusual winter snack you’ve tried? Let me know in the comments!

December Challenge – 07 Best Part of the Season

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In response to the theme of Best Part of the Day for the December Challenge, I chose my favorite part of the Season instead. I wanted to celebrate my favorite part of the holidays: illumination. Illumination is the Japanese word for holiday lights. All over Japan you can find special Christmas light displays, projection mapping, and elaborate crafts relating to the season.

In America you can find similar displays, including miles of road that are decorated with lights that you can drive along and view from your car or entire neighborhoods decked with lights. Even the zoos join in with light displays and extended hours.

In Japan, you can view illumination almost anywhere, but I think my favorite place to stroll and check out the Christmas and illumination displays are in Ginza. The first photo below is at Tokyo Station, but the rest are in the high-class shopping area of Ginza. Each store does its own illumination and window display. Many people are out on December nights to stroll down the streets with you.

What is your favorite place to view holiday lights? Tell me about your favorite part of the season in the comments!

Tokyo Station

Ginza - Louis Vuitton

Ginza - Mikimoto

Ginza - Bulgari

Ginza - 4 C Bridal

December Challenge – 06 Favorite Meal

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For today’s December Challenge, the theme is Favorite Meal. While I have a lot of favorite foods during the holidays (turkey, ham, etc.), in recent years I have begun to enjoy a different kind of holiday food.

When I first visited my husband’s family in Japan (he was my fiance then), his parents treated us to yakiniku, or Japanese BBQ. The meat is cooked on a grill in the middle of a table, and you can order by the plate. There are also onions, parsley, and butter that come along with the meat to season the grill.

The photo I selected to represent my favorite meal shows beautifully marbled meat that was served at my in-laws’ favorite restaurant, Tokyo Hanten. It’s also now my favorite yakiniku restaurant, and every time we visit they take us to eat there because they know how much we love the food.

Favorite Meal

When I think of holiday food, after turkey and pie and Christmas cakes, I also think of yakinikuWhat kind of holiday foods do you eat during December? Let me know in the comments, so if I get a chance I can try it, too!

December Challenge – 03 Morning

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Today’s theme for the December 31-day challenge is Morning and so I am sharing my favorite winter morning view – Mt. Fuji! I lived at the base of Mt. Fuji during my study abroad in Japan, and went back again over Christmas three years ago. I woke up early to get some shots of the stratovolcano at sunrise, and I wasn’t disappointed. In the quiet morning hours at the shores of Lake Kawaguchiko, the photos of the peaceful (but really cold!) scene still bring back good memories.

MorningWhat is your winter morning like? Tell me about it in the comments! 

Bilingual Problems – Friday Afternoons & Monday Mornings

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It’s Friday (yay!) and for me, that means the start to a weekend of speaking 99% Japanese. My first language is English, I was born in the US, and I live in the US, but I have studied Japanese since high school so I can have everyday conversations without too much trouble.

My husband is Japanese, and he can speak conversational English, but when we met he spoke literally zero English and so our conversations from day one were in Japanese. Since we spoke Japanese from the time we met, it’s difficult to change our habits at this point in time. (I’ve since noticed that whenever I meet someone, whichever language we start speaking first is the one we usually speak in at least 75% of the time from that point on).

English on the Weekdays, Japanese on the Weekend

So that means that I spend the week speaking English at my job and speaking Japanese at night, but when I come home on Friday I start a weekend of pretty much only speaking and listening to Japanese. We mostly only watch Japanese TV and movies (mostly because I like to watch Japanese news and TV shows). The friends I’ve made in my new city are also mostly Japanese speakers, so when I go out on the weekends I speak more Japanese. The only times I really speak English for any length of time on the weekends are when I talk to my parents on the phone or Skype.

Then Comes Monday Morning…

So what does that mean on Monday morning? You might have guessed that my English is pretty lousy by the time Monday morning comes around. I have an early morning meeting every Monday, and while my sleep-deprived brain is already fumbling to make coherent sentences, Japanese words come to my mind rather than English words. My English sounds like an English language learner, or my grammar switches order as I try to directly translate the Japanese that comes to mind. It can be frustrating, but also maybe more than a little entertaining to my co-workers.

Conversely, when I go on business trips and come back home (usually Fridays), my Japanese is lousy when I go back to talking to my husband. I’m tired from travelling on airplanes, getting up super early, time changes, and sleeping in hotels. I go from discussing technical data in English to blanking out on answering simple questions in Japanese. It usually takes me a while to get back to where I can have coherent conversations in Japanese again.

Does Every Bilingual Person Experience This?

I imagine this is something a lot of bilingual people experience. A few other American friends of mine who have studied Japanese and used it on a regular basis, then had to switch back to English after long periods of time, have told me that they also noticed that their English (native language!) got worse. Of course, either language improves with use, but that initial transition can be tricky.

When I had to interpret for my parents and my in-laws earlier this year when they finally met, I was mentally thoroughly drained thanks to having to constantly switch back and forth between the two. I really admire interpreters, as it takes a lot of mental fortitude to keep up that kind of transition!

Are you bilingual? Have you ever experienced this kind of thing? Have you ever tried interpreting between two languages? Any advice that could make this transition between languages easier? Let me know in the comments!

Summer Means… Ghosts?

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Summer means sun, vacations, the beach… and ghosts?

In Japan, ghosts or yuurei 幽霊 appear more often than usual during the summer, including family ancestors. The appearance of ancestors coincides with the Obon お盆 festival, a Buddhist festival where Japanese families return to ancestral family homes and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. The festivals held across Japan are accompanied by Bon odori 盆踊り, which are large dances meant to welcome back the spirits of the ancestors.

Hasedera in Kamakura

Hasedera in Kamakura – photo by kei

While in the US we associate ghosts and zombies mingling amongst the living with October and Halloween, Japanese ghosts tend to show up in July and August. In the run-up to the Obon season, there are a variety of obake yashiki お化け屋敷 or haunted houses to visit. This year there was even a haunted train, complete with zombies. And of course, the hospital-themed haunted house at Fuji-Q Highland is exceptionally popular during the Obon season. 

During Obon, lanterns are traditionally hung outside of homes to help light the way for the ancestors to return. At the end of Obon, floating lanterns are set adrift in rivers, lakes, and the ocean to help guide the ancestors away again.

 

The holiday this year started off on Friday, with the newly-created Mountain Day or Yama no Hi 山の日 (which just started in 2016). The Obon festival lasts for three days in the middle of August (although the dates vary somewhat in different parts of Japan), and this year’s festivities are just winding down this weekend – accompanied by the usual traffic jam as people return to the large cities from the countryside.

What kind of holidays do you celebrate in the summer? What kind of holidays do you celebrate with your ancestors, ghosts, or other spooky things? Let me know in the comments!

5 Favorite Things About Japan

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It’s no secret that Japan is one of my favorite places. Even though I’ve only lived there for a short time as a student and visited for a week or a month at a time since that, every time I plan a trip I end up visiting Japan for the umpteenth time rather than visiting a country I’ve never been to before (although there are a lot of countries I haven’t visited yet).

So what is so great about Japan? I’ve met many people who have visited Japan, and when I ask them what their favorite thing about Japan is, I get just as many different answers. Here I’ve compiled a list of favorites, including both my experiences and those of people I know.

  1. Public Transportation
Train doors

Riding on the train – photo by kei

In the US you can’t get anywhere easily without a car. And streets, residences, and markets are laid out such that it’s not often feasible to just walk to the super market – it’s too far or too perilous to reach on foot. When you do use public transportation it can be grimy (think NY subways) or costly (taxi fares to downtown), or just really slow (how long do I have to wait for a bus?).

In Japan, public transportation is efficient, frequent, and clean. You can be sure that the train will be on time down to the minute – yes, 14:17 means that it will arrive at 2:17 PM on the dot – barring a disaster or accident, of course. If your apartment is far from the train station or eki 駅 you can ride your bike or take the bus to the station, then take the train to your destination. Taxis can be expensive, but the bus is often an inexpensive option, and you can look up bus or train schedules on your smart phone. No wifi? Find a 7/11 convenience store and you can connect to their 7-SPOT wifi. You can use the same ID and password for the Tokyo Metro wifi as well.

2. Public Toilets

Separate toilet rooms keep things clean – photo by kei

Toilets in Japan are something you need to experience yourself to truly understand and appreciate. Before I went to Japan, I wondered what the big deal about oto-hime and bidet was, but once I spent some time there I understood why people write articles about Japanese toilets. Japanese toilets have lots of bells and whistles, including seat warmers, buttons that emit flushing sounds, and a variety of bidet settings. At first the array of buttons is intimidating, but once you figure out what each button does, you will wonder how you ever lived without the button that plays a charming little tune.

Public toilets in Japan often contain these high-tech toilets. Some even have lids that open automatically when you approach. You often find the high-tech Western-style toilets in shopping centers and super markets. However, there are still Japanese-style toilets interspersed with the high-tech toilets in stores and train stations. Many parks have both low-tech Western-style toilets and Japanese-style toilets, or just Japanese toilets. These are the hole-in-the-ground type, which can be an adjustment for many Westerners, but when you need to go they are just as welcome as the Western-style toilets.

The abundance of public toilets available in Japan is quite helpful when you are exploring a new place, as you are usually not far from a public toilet. Even when I climbed Mt. Fuji there were public toilets available! (Due to the difficulty of accessing and cleaning the loo at 3000+ meters altitude, they request a small donation, and although this is honor-based, I am sure most visitors pay the small donation.) Public toilets in Japan are also incredibly clean. A public toilet in a park in the US can be pretty disgusting, but I’ve never been to a public toilet in Japan that I literally couldn’t use because someone mucked it up.

3. Fast Food

The number one thing that people comment on about their trip to Japan is the food. Even people who don’t eat sushi find the food to be delicious. Japan indeed does dining well, from traditional favorites to international cuisine, the food is always well made but at reasonable prices. The same is true for fast food in Japan. Whether it’s the internationally famous McDonald’s or Japan-based Mos Burger, fast food just seems better in Japan. Aside from Western hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Japanese udon and beef bowls count among the ranks of fast foods. The food choices are more varied and some of the places seem healthier than your typical fast food joints. Some of the fast food restaurants in Japan don’t even seem like fast food, and so sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking you’re eating healthier (although I haven’t checked the nutrition values).

You can even pick up frozen or refrigerated meals at the convenience store that taste almost fresh after you heat them up in the microwave. I’ve had 7/11 fish heated up in a microwave that tastes like it was freshly cooked. It’s hard to go back to US frozen food after that experience…

4. Mascot Characters

Japan essentially has the market cornered on cute. Cute accessories, cute characters, even cute food (like kyara-ben キャラ弁). That’s why Hello Kitty has endured worldwide for over 40 years and why I always stop at the capsule vending machines to get a new character key chain in game centers. One of my favorite Japanese things is mascot characters.

Japan has a mascot for everything – TV stations, stores, even every prefecture and city has its own mascot character. You may be familiar with the TV station NHK’s Domo-kun (どーもくん), the brown furry square monster, or Kumamon (くまモン), the black bear that is the representative of Kumamoto Prefecture. The mascot characters are my favorite cute characters, and I wouldn’t mind having a mascot for everything in my life. You can even meet the mascot characters if you get lucky. City mascots appear at festivals and other events, and store mascots sometimes wander about while you shop.

5. Sakura

Sakura

Sakura blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen – photo by kei

Spring is my favorite season, next to summer, and with spring comes cherry blossoms or sakura 桜, which bloom for a very short time across Japan. When it just begins to warm up, but before the rain falls, cherry blossoms bloom for a couple of weeks. The light pink blossoms all bloom at the same time, and then begin to fall or are washed away by the rain. The ephemeral nature of the cherry blossoms is very poetic, and has begun a primary symbol in Japanese culture.

When the cherry blossoms bloom, people come out for dates or in groups to view the cherry blossoms, taste sakura-inspired snacks and drinks, and consume alcohol in the parks. The warmer weather that accompanies the blooms and the short viewing period inspire crowds to congregate outdoors. Celebrating the coming spring and viewing the beautiful blossoms (hanami 花見) creates an atmosphere that is unique to these blooms.

Other seasonal events that bring out the crowds in Japan are the changing leaves in the fall, and the illuminations (seasonal lights) in the winter. The beach is a cool relief from the humidity of summer. Any season that you visit Japan offers specialty events and delicacies, and each offers a unique experience!

What are your favorite things about Japan? Do you agree with my list? What about your home country? Let me know in the comments!

The Japanese Emperor – and the end of the Heisei?

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The Japanese emperor (tennou 天皇) is said to be descended directly from the sun goddess Amaterasu, and today represents the Japanese constitutional monarchy. With such a long lineage filled with time-honored customs, and tied to modern Japan through the constitution, there seems to be little room for grand changes.

Yet at the end of 2018 a major change may occur in the imperial system.

Customarily, the Japanese emperor serves as the imperial head of Japan for the duration of his natural life. Succession occurs with his death, and the title of emperor is passed on to his first-born son. However, at the end of 2018, Emperor Akihito may step down and pass on his title. This would be the first time that the title would be passed on while the present emperor, or kinjyoutennou 今上天皇, was still living.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why pass on the title?

There are a number of reasons why passing on the title, or abdicating, during his lifetime would serve both the emperor and the country as a whole. In the present day where health care is better than it’s ever been and people are living many years longer than their ancestors, the emperor may indeed live for many more years. As the emperor, at the age of 83, he must work 25 days out of the month (I work 21-22 days out of the month). I imagine that this is quite tiring!

Also, as Japan is preparing for the 2020 Olympic games, the emperor will be expected to serve as a symbol for the country. He will need to make public appearances, and if he unexpectedly falls ill during the games, this might dampen the spirits of the host country.

These are some reasons which may be behind the decision for early abdication by the emperor.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial residence buildings in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why is this decision so monumental?

The early abdication of an emperor is an event that has never occurred since the institution of Japan’s national constitution in 1947. In fact, as I understand it, the language even prevents the early abdication (likely as a safeguard against the emperor’s title being removed). Thus, to allow for this unprecedented circumstance, the Japanese constitution itself must be amended.

A committee took an initial vote on whether the emperor should be allowed to abdicate, and while the decision has not been finalized, it seems that the committee was favorable to allowing the emperor to go through with this. The change might not be permanent, though, as the government seems to favor only allowing the abdication for Emperor Akihito, rather than applying it to all succeeding emperors.

Still, Emperor Akihito may step down at the end of 2018, and pass down his title to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito (who is 56), on the first of January 2019. This would bring the Heisei 平成 era to an end at 30 years, and begin the new era – which may be named as early as this year.

How do you think the Japanese government should handle this decision? Allow him to abdicate? Make it a permanent rule? Do you think this is a good decision for Japan? Let me know in the comments!