New Year in Japan

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The  New Year in Japan is probably the most important holiday of the year. Schools and businesses close for the year-end holiday 年末年始 nen matsu nen sho and many people return to their hometowns to visit family.

New Year's kadomatsu 門松

In Japan, the New Year holiday is the time for family, while Christmas in Japan is a time for couples. This is the opposite in the US, as Christmas is the time when people gather with their extended families and usually is the most important holiday. New Years for Americans is instead a time for partying as a couple or with groups of friends.

The result of the New Year’s holiday being such an important, family-oriented holiday is that shops and tourist attractions close early, often for several days before and after the New Year. If you are an employee this is great, but if you’re a tourist, you might be frustrated. With restaurants, souvenir shops, and museums closing, you might not be able to cross some things off your bucket list. Banks and ATMs also close, so be prepared with plenty of cash before the New Year’s holidays begin. You also might find more crowds when traveling to and from big cities during this time.

Even if normal shops and activities shut down for a few days, there are still plenty of things to do during this time of year!

Sensouji (shrine) at Asakusa

New Year’s Shrine Visit – Hatsumode 初詣

On New Year’s morning, often just after midnight, millions of Japanese people flock to shrines (jinja 神社) or temples (otera お寺) to perform their first visit or hatsumoude 初詣. If you are in Japan over the New Year, this is an event that I would recommend trying at least once. Unless you hate long lines and crowds. If you are willing to suffer a little bit queuing up in the cold winter air for a truly Japanese experience, then I would make sure to try a New Year’s shrine visit.

The festivities begin on January 1st as the year turns, where the temple bells are rung 108 times (to chase away bad fortune). At the larger shrines and temples there are food stands. You can also buy lucky charms, or get your fortune (omikuji おみくじ) in kanji characters.

Shrine wishes at Fuji Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi

You can expect to line up for over an hour at the most popular shrines and temples, and at the end of the waiting you reach the main offering hall where you can offer a prayer for the New Year. Major train lines run overnight as the year turns to accommodate the huge crowds of people, but be prepared to be packed into the trains like sushi!

If the biggest crowds and longest lines scare you off, you can perform your hatsumode after January 1st, for at least a week at the major shrines.

Waiting for hatsumode at Meiji Jingu

Waiting for hatsumode 初詣 at Meiji Jingu – photo by kei

 

New Year’s Sumo Entry Ceremony

In 2015, I went to the Meiji Jingu Shrine 明治神宮 with my then-fiance for our hatsumode. I was surprised to find out that we were there on the same day as the Yokozuna Deizuri 横綱手数入り, or the sumo ring-entering ritual. I’m not particularly a sumo fan, but it’s pretty impressive to see these athletes in person!

Emperor’s New Year Greeting

On January 2nd, the Emperor of Japan makes a public appearance at the Tokyo Imperial Palace or Koukyo 皇居. The only other public appearance the Emperor makes is on his birthday, December 23rd. On the 2nd, the inner palace grounds are open to the public and the Emperor and his family appear on a protected balcony to wave and give short speeches.

 

 

Tokyo Imperial Palace, Koukyo 皇居

Tokyo Imperial Palace, Koukyo 皇居 – photo by kei

 

New Year’s Sales

Once the New Year’s family gatherings are over, the stores open back up and greet the new year with huge sales! Stores want to move their stock to make room for new product, and therefore they offer great discounts on many items. This is probably one of my favorite parts of the New Year!

In addition to deep discounts on electronics and clothing, you can buy fukubukuro 福袋 or lucky bags. These range from small, inexpensive bags to large boxes with household goods, depending on the store. People will line up for the best fukubukuro, so get there early if you’re interested in the high-end hauls!

New Year's Sales Haul

New Year’s Traffic Congestion

Since many people get the same New Year’s holidays off, travel becomes very congested during the end of the year. From December 29-31, the mass migration begins and many people leave Tokyo and other big cities to return to their hometowns.

Once the New Year celebrations are over, on January 2-4, these same people return to the big cities, creating travel congestion on the roads, on trains, and at airports. If you plan to travel between Japanese cities or out of the country during these times, be prepared for lots of crowds!

Is New Year’s a big holiday in your country? What would you recommend if I visited your hometown for the New Year? Let me know in the comments!

 

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Photo Friday: Rare / Hydrangeas

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Kamakura Hasedera Hydrangeas

Photo Friday Challenge: Rare

Japan is full of things that are fascinating and rare to the Western world, so for the Photo Friday Challenge “Rare” I could have picked many things. For this challenge, I picked hydrangeas or ajisai アジサイ. While hydrangeas themselves are not rare, the season in which hydrangeas bloom is relatively short. And while hydrangeas are blooming, people make trips to view hydrangeas. This is similar to the tradition of flower viewing or hanami 花見 for cherry blossoms or sakura 桜. The tradition of viewing flowers that are in season is very Japanese.

Hydrangeas bloom during the rainy season, or tsuyu 梅雨, which is literally translated to plum rain because plums come into season during tsuyu. The rains are strong and last for as long as two months. This year I was in Tokyo just prior to the start of the rainy season, which started the day I left. In the week leading up to tsuyu it was hot and humid because it wasn’t raining, but it gave a cloudy grey backdrop to make the beautiful blue and purple hues of the hydrangeas pop.

What kind of seasonal traditions does your hometown or country have? Let me know in the comments!

Photo Friday: Fun! / Sanno Matsuri Children

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Sanno Matsuri Children

Photo Friday Challenge: Fun!

What expresses Fun better than children? These kids are pulling the mikoshi 神輿 (also 御輿), a portable shrine in which a deity is enshrined, at the 2016 Sanno Festival or Sannou Matsuri 山王祭 in Tokyo, Japan.

The Sanno Matsuri is a summer festival, held in mid June on even numbered years in Tokyo. The Kanda Matsuri is held on odd numbered years. This photo was taken during the grand procession, which begins at Hie Shrine 日枝神社, winds its way through Tokyo for nine hours, and then finally returns to Hie Shrine. There are several places to view the procession, and we caught it on June 10th in Ginza.

Watching the children, who had already been traveling around Tokyo in the hot sun for hours, give it their best as they escorted the mikoshi, and still having fun as they walked beside cars and waited at stoplights in the heat, I was quite impressed at their endurance. As people lined either side of the Ginza streets, we cheered them on in their efforts. Even the adults accompanying them seemed to be having fun!

What do you think of when you hear the theme of fun? Let me know in the comments!

Is Japan Safe?

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It was creeping into the wee hours of Saturday morning, and the party that had begun Friday night was starting to wind down. I looked around at my friends crowded into the tiny Japanese apartment, then at Yuki, who lived in my direction, and asked her そろそろ行く? (“Shall we leave soon?”). She checked the time on her phone and shook her head. まだだよ。(“Not yet.”). I was puzzled because she looked as sleepy as I felt, but when I pressed her, she just said that it wasn’t a safe time to walk home.

I looked around the room and realized that no one else was leaving, either. Among the mix of Japanese and American exchange students, at least two were softly snoring with their backs leaning against the wall. Everyone else was just talking quietly amongst the remains of a few chuuhai cans and an empty potato chip bag. In this quiet rural town in Yamanashi prefecture, dotted by rice paddies and grape and peach farms, I couldn’t imagine it ever being anything other than safe. But once the dark began to melt into early dawn and the sky began to lighten, Yuki’s eyes met mine, we said our goodbyes to the others and headed home.

When you visit Japan, it’s hard to believe that it’s anything but safe. But while living in Japan as a student, I heard a few more times that the wee hours (between 3 am and dawn usually) were not a safe time to walk home, even in Yamanashi.

–So, you might ask, as many have asked me before, is Japan safe? Continue reading

Photo Friday: Opposites / Sanno Matsuri

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Sanno Matsuri

Photo Friday Challenge: Opposites

I have been out of town a lot recently, for both business and pleasure, so I have a few Photo Friday Challenges to catch up on. The first one is Opposites, which I chose to represent with a photo I took last month when I went to Japan. Summer in Japan is the season for festivals or matsuri 祭, and I wanted to attend at least one while I was in Japan. On June 10th, my mother-in-law and husband took me to Ginza 銀座 for the Sanno Matsuri 山王祭 along its parade route.

I was able to snap this photo along the parade route, and along with the charming gentleman smiling in the front as he pauses for the traffic light, I think that this exhibits the opposites that are so noticeable when in Japan. Japan is a delicate balance between opposites: the modern and the ancient. Throughout the country, from Tokyo to Kyoto and in between, I am struck by the contrast of these two opposites. Ancient Shinto festivals parade along the modern city streets in between high rise buildings, and men in period costumes who bear shrines on palanquins wait in the hot, humid city air at a red light as cars pass.

What do you think of the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in Japan? What other opposites strike you?

Photo Friday: Face / Tengu

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Tengu

Photo Friday Challenge: Face

Tengu 天狗 are mountain and forest goblins in Japanese folklore, and are associated with both Shintoism and Buddhism. They have supernatural powers like shape-shifting into humans or animals, moving instantly from place to place without using their wings, and the ability to appear uninvited in human dreams.

Although the name comes from Chinese Tiangou and the kanji are heaven (天) and dog (狗), the Japanese version is closer to the form of a crow. The Tengu is the patron of martial arts and is said to play tricks on arrogant and vain Buddhist priests or samurai, and to punish those who gain fame or status by deceit. The long nose of the Tengu is related to hatred of arrogance and prejudice. Priests who are vain or deceitful become long-nosed Yamabushi Tengu after their death. These Tengu are the ones who look more human-like, rather than crow-like.

This Tengu was snapped while I was transfering trains in Tokyo at Takaosan-guchi Station on the Keio Takao Line. This is the nearest station to Mt. Takao in Hachioji. This face made a big impression on me, as the size of it is huge (see the train to the right for scale) and I saw them everywhere in Tokyo – even in Asakusa.

What does the theme Face mean to you? Do you know of any distinctive folklore faces from your home country?

T is for Tokyo Station

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For the letter T in the A to Z Challenge, my obvious choice (if you’ve read many of my other posts) is Tokyo. There are many places to visit in Tokyo, including Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree, so it was difficult to narrow it down. But I narrowed it down, and decided that T is for Tokyo Station 東京駅.

Tokyo Station

Tokyo Station – photo by kei

Tokyo Station is located in the Marunouchi shopping district of Tokyo, Japan. It is the main intercity rail terminal and the busiest station in Japan with over 3,000 trains per day, and serves Shinkansen bullet trains from around the country.

Tokyo Station Ceiling

The iconic ceiling of Tokyo Station – photo by kei

Tokyo Station opened in 1914, and has been rebuilt several times due to fire and WWII bombing, as well as undergoing extensive remodeling. When I was there in late 2014, the surrounding streets were undergoing renovation.

Tokyo Station Christmas Illumination

Tokyo Station Christmas Illumination – photo by kei

 

In addition to being a train hub, Tokyo Station is also a shopping hub, with many stores, souvenir shops, and small restaurants within the indoor station complex.

Tokyo Station Shops

Tokyo Station Shops – photo by kei

If you are traveling around Tokyo, to the Imperial Palace grounds, Ginza, or by Shinkansen, you may find yourself in Tokyo Station. If you have some time to spare, it’s well worth a look around this iconic train station.

Have you ever visited Tokyo Station? Or a train station or major hub in another country? Tell me about it in the comments!