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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New Year, New Travel Goals

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My final New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to take a trip. I have been to Japan for the past 2 years and I would like to continue this tradition if possible. If not, I would like to at least travel to a place that is not my hometown or that isn’t required for work. I enjoy traveling to new places and exploring new cities, so I would like to take at least one trip to a new place.

When I was a grad student I spent a month with my then-fiance in Japan and was able to visit a lot of amazing places. However, when you are trying to adult and travel at the same time it can be difficult, because although you have a job and earn money, you can’t take endless amounts of time off, and sometimes you have to spend the money on adult expenses ( ´•̥̥̥ω•̥̥̥` )

In 2016, I was lucky enough to travel to my hometown four times and travel for work, plus I even got to visit Japan again! I can’t complain, and I love to visit my hometown, but seeing new places is always exciting.

My best advice for traveling? Plan ahead! Estimate the costs, save a set amount of money each paycheck, and remember that you might have to make sacrifices (like those new shoes that are super cute) in order to make the trip a reality. But it’s worth it in the end, isn’t it?

I’d also like to improve my photography skills during my travels! I always have the most fun photographing new and exciting places, rather than where I live. Although moving to a new town at the end of 2016 was almost like taking a trip, since everything is still very new to me!

Where did you travel in 2016? Where would you like to travel in 2017? 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

Best Omiyage to Bring to Japan

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Buying omiyage お土産 in Japan is a lot of fun, because there are omiyage specific to every region, and I often end up buying as many omiyage for myself as for family and friends ^^;;

However, when it’s time to buy omiyage in the US to bring to Japan, I always have a difficult time. The first time I went to Japan I had to buy omiyage for a host family I hadn’t yet met and for friends that I hadn’t yet made. I had a vague idea that omiyage meant souvenirs, but when I went out to shop for them I had a lot of trouble figuring out what to buy.

Now when I go to Japan, I always bring omiyage for people I know, as well as bringing a few extra omiyage in case I meet new people. And I still have trouble finding omiyage. Part of this might be my own particularity in trying to find the perfect gift for friends and family, but I think it also has to do with the lack of omiyage culture here in the US.

However, I have slowly started to get a better idea of what kinds of omiyage to bring for friends and other people I may meet in Japan, and I wanted to share it with others traveling to Japan.

Tokyo/Mt Fuji Strawberry Cheesecake Kit Kat

Tokyo/Mt Fuji Strawberry Cheesecake Kit Kat omiyage gift box – photo by kei

Non-Perishable Food

When you live in Japan and visit another prefecture or even another country, you bring back omiyage for your friends, family, and coworkers. Often, the omiyage is food that is in small, individually wrapped packages inside of a larger package, so that it is easily shared among coworkers or friends. Usually these food items are specific to the prefecture within Japan, or something famous from a foreign country.

Non-perishable food items are a great omiyage for people you don’t know because they work for men, women, and children. If your home country or state has a unique food item, that might be a good choice. It’s best if it’s something that isn’t too unique, and that people outside your country can eat. If your home country is India and you bring the spiciest food on Earth as omiyage, it might not be suitable for all palates, so you might choose something a little more tame. Of course, if you know your close friend likes it as spicy as possible, that’s a different story. Japanese people aren’t as concerned about food allergies, so unless you know you are meeting someone with a specific food allergy, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about it. Continue reading

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?

Photo Friday: Earth / Owakudani

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Owakudani, Hakone, Japan

Photo Friday Challenge: Earth

Today’s Photo Friday Challenge is…. on Tuesday. Oops. So I probably should have joined the Blog Every Day in May challenge to keep myself posting regularly, but sometimes life happens. Anyway, on to the photo!

Owakudani 大涌谷 is located in Hakone, Japan, and is essentially the area around a crater created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone around 3,000 years ago. This is an active volcanic zone where the volcanic activity heats vents (fumaroles) with sulfurous fumes and hot springs. Hiking on the trail near the sulfurous vents, where they boil eggs that you can eat, you can truly see the power that lies just below the surface.

When I visited Owakudani, I could understand the power of the Earth on which we live as I wandered over a volcanic magma chamber, as well as the natural resources that we can utilize, such as geothermal energy. Wandering in the “Great Boiling Valley” (the meaning of the name Owakudani) and looking at the andesitic igneous rocks (that are 3,000 years or older) that remind me of the explosive nature of this volcano, I couldn’t help but stand in awe of the Earth – and this photo reminds me of that experience.

What do you think represents best the power of the Earth? Have you visited a volcanic area before? Let me know in the comments!

Golden Week in Japan / ゴールデンウィーク

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Today (Thursday, May 5th) marked the end of Japan’s official Golden Week holiday. Golden Week – ゴールデンウィーク or simply GW – is a week of public holidays which many Japanese salarymen and other workers have off. During this week, Japanese people travel en masse out of urban centers to visit family, ancestors, and theme parks. This is the longest vacation period for many Japanese employees, and any days that aren’t covered by public holidays are either taken as paid holidays or the employer simply closes the office.

Fuji Sengen Shrine

The mass exodus of Japanese tourists means that streets and trains are crowded, and prices for travel skyrocket. Car accidents increase, and traveling on trains and buses becomes very uncomfortable. As a student traveling with my Japanese and American friends, it was a very fun trip because of the crowding. Japanese people that normally don’t acknowledge other people spoke to us, mostly asking questions about our studies, and it was like a Spring Break trip in the US, but without the typical spring break crowd. Continue reading