Category Archives: holidays

Preparing for Gion

early stage of constructing the Gion Matsuri floats With barely time to sweep up the remains of Tanabata, Kyoto has jumped into preparations for one of the largest oldest and most treasured festivals in Japan–Gion Matsuri! On side streets and main streets throughout downtown Kyoto, construction has begun on the 32 massive floats that will comprise the Gion Matsuri parade.

Matsuri actually just means “festival”, and Gion is a goryo-e, or protective festival meant to fend off medieval plagues and epidemics 1200 years ago, but it soon grew into a way for craft guilds and merchant families to compete in showing off their wealth and taste. Music, dance, comic plays, and artistic treasures had all become part of the celebrations by the close of the 10th century, creating a true feast for the senses. And in order to parade their accomplishments through the city, each group constructed huge wheeled carts decorated as sumptuously as their means and skills allowed. That tradition along with all of the accumulated artifacts have been carefully preserved and handed down so that once a year, each year these beautiful relics of the past can be brought out and reconstructed for the continuing celebration of Gion Matsuri.

Over these last few days since July tenth, the various groups have swarmed with activity in the sweltering July heat to begin putting these floats together. Although the floats can be several stories high, no nails are used in the construction. The enormous beams are simply lashed together with ropes as shown below. lashings used to construct the Gion Matsuri floats And at right, you can see the skeletal structures beginning to take form. Small streets are entirely blocked off, while major streets become restricted to a single lane that allows traffic to slowly crawl around the float during these festival days.

supervising the construction of the Gion Matsuri floats And of course we Kyotoites take a keen interest in the progress of the construction. As the floats grow, so does the festival atmosphere. Sight-seeing increases with each day as does the number of vendors selling cold drinks and a variety of souvenirs. Members of the “team” involved with each float can be recognized in the crowd because of their distinct summer kimono. At this particular float, the team members sport an indigo blue with a white carp design.

Within a building near each float, the float committee displays the fabulous artifacts that will eventually be used to decorate the completed float. From the late 16th century onwards, as a result of the growing prosperity of Kyoto’s merchants, artwork from China, Persia, and even Europe were transmitted eastward along the Silk Road until they found their way to the capital of Japan.

Many of the floats are decorated with Gobelin tapestries that are thought to have come from Holland in the early 17th century. I have been told that these remain the best preserved Gobelin tapestries in the world with European scholars frequently seeking a chance to examine them. Below is a photo of the “treasury” of the Koiyama (Carp Float) Preservation Society. Note the large carved wooden carp on the left of the photo. This carp, placed on top of the float, is the obvious source of the float’s name. Behind the carp is a section of Gobelin tapestry. The orange torii gate in the center of the picture, the candles on the altar and the folded paper streamers on the right are symbols of the purification ritual that preceded the beginning of construction for this year’s festival.
decorations for one of the Gion Matsuri floats
Preparations will continue for another several days, and then the grand parade itself takes place on July 17th.

Summer in Kyoto

Kamogawa river in summer It’s hot and humid and typically summer in Kyoto. The mountains that surround the city hold in a stagnant cloud of heat that settles over everything. Children and families and friends try to cool off by wading in the the Kamogawa river that runs down the east side of the city. Those who can try to excape the summer’s heat with foreign travel and since many of my friends are English teachers and college professors, I’ve had a week of good-byes as I see them off on their travels. They’ll be back in September when school starts up and the weather begins to cool.

For those of us who stay, summer holds a series of holidays beginning with Tanabata, the Star Festival. Occuring on July 7th, it is one of the five double-fortune days: January 1st (01/01) is the solar new year, February 2nd (02/02) is the lunar new year, March 3rd (03/03) is girls’ day, May 5th (05/05) boys’ day and July 7th (07/07) is Tanabata.

Tanabata wishes Tanabata celebrates two stars that appear to meet in the mid-summer night sky, although they normally remain quite distant through most of the year. According to mythological tradition, these stars represent Ori-hime (the weaving princess) and Hiko-boshi (the farmer), archetypes of skills needed by society. Through most of the year they busy themselves with their work, but take a summer break from their labors to enjoy each other’s company, then return refreshed and renewed, and re-doubled in their skills. To celebrate this holiday, Japanese adorn bamboo branches with colorful paper streamers and make wishes for acquiring or improving some personal skill. Traditionally, boys wish to improve their farming skills, while girls wish for better sewing skills, making it one of my favorite holidays all year.

For about a week before the 7th, there are bamboo branches set up throughout the city. The photo above was taken at my local shopping arcade and the wishes were probably written by local school children, who appear to have adorned their streamers with self-portraits.
Tanabata in front of the Kyoto police stationThe photo at left was snapped in front of the Kyoto police department. One can but wonder what skills they wished to improve…

As for me, I celebrated Tanabata with another Kyoto tradition – Tea ceremony. Tea was served in Koko-an, the tea room on the top floor of the Hosomi Museum. The lovely okashi sweets were served by Nishimura-san, while the elegant tea preparations were performed by Sakano-san.
Tea ceremoney for Tanabata As always the case with Tea, the preparations and utensils reflect and rejoice in the present moment. The utensils were carried into the room in a chabako, typical of the season and the bowl in which tea was served is decorated with bamboo fronds and Tanabata streamers. It was a beautiful way to enjoy a summer’s afternoon.

And finally, we have Setsubun

Here in Japan, the lunar new year is preceded by setsubun, a minor holiday marking the division of seasons and announcing the start of the lunar year. But unlike the major celebrations currently on-going in China and other parts of mainland Asia, the Japanese setsubun is a relatively simple holiday filled with bean-throwing, maki-sushi eating and a wee bit of merry-making.

setsubun mask and candied beans “Bean-throwing?” you might ask. Yes, the tradition on this day is to stand in front of your doorway and thow handfuls of dried soybeans towards the northeast while chanting: “Oni wa Soto; Fuku wa Uchi”, which is generally translated “Demons get out; Good luck come in.” Then family members each eat a serving of beans equivalent to their age plus one for good luck. That is, a 5-year-old should eat 6 beans and a 60-year-old should eat 61. Children, of course, make more of a game of it — dressing in oni masks and pelting each other with candied beans. Though devilish in appearance, oni seem to be more like mischievous poltergeists.

bean-throwing at Shiramine shrine during Setsubun Local Shinto shrines also participate in ritual bean-throwing. This picture was taken at Shiramine shrine, where shrine maidens, celebrities and politicians tossed beans from the walkway surrounding the main shrine. The tradition was apparently imported from China about 750~800 years ago, but originally rice was thrown as an act of purification. Later soy beans were used, since beans were thought to be better able to blind any malevalent attacking spirit, driving it away. Other protective traditions include placing a holly leaf and a dried sardine head on the gate post outside one’s home, as the sharp prickly spines of the leaf and the dried fish odor are also thought to drive away oni.

So now that 2008 is well and truly here and all the new year’s parties are over, I guess there’s nothing left to do but get on with the year and see what kind of luck 2008 will actually bring.

Coming of age day

girls in kimono The second Monday in January is Seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day). On this day, all 20-year-olds across Japan celebrate the fact that they are officially and legally a part of the adult community. Coming of Age Day is celebrated only once a year so it includes all those who turned 20 since the previous Seijin no hi. On this day, the streets are filled with lovely young girls in beautiful furusode kimono rushing on their way to their first social events as adults. Of course, the boys also celebrate their entry into adulthood, but they are far less noticeable in their standard black suits.

Furusode are a particular style of kimono worn only by single women. Furisode are distinguishable by their long sleeves, which average between 39 and 42 inches in length and reach nearly to the ground. The name furisode literally translates as swinging (furi) sleeves (sode) and the image of such sleeves is associated with youth and beauty. Furisode are also among the most decorative and brightly colored kimono, as befitting a young woman. Often the fans, flowers and other motifs are accented with rich embroidery and the wide obi belt is tied in an elaborately ruffled knot. With so many layers required to complete the look, kimono are quite warm, so even in January only a little fur stole is needed to protect against the winter chill.

girls in kimono In an earlier time, a young woman would be photographed in her new furusode and the picture circulated to arrange a suitable marriage. After marriage, she’ll no longer wear kimono with such long flowing sleeves or such elaborately tied obi. The styles for married women are much simpler.

Coming of Age Day also marks the end of the official New Year’s celebrations. Decorations have come down and most people have settled back into their work routines. Though the pace is winding down, there are a few last shinnenkai gatherings still going on. In fact, I have three more New Year’s parties scheduled for next weekend.

A season of firsts

Monday was my first day back at work after a lovely long week of relaxing my way into the new year.
Fushimi shrine on New Year's Day
After days and days of preparations, the new year began with the bells at the Buddhist temples across the city tolling at midnight, 108 times for the 108 delusions that affect humankind. Many people stay up till dawn to see the first day break of the new year, some even hike up the hills surrounding Kyoto to view dawn from a mountain top. And then comes family time. New Year’s is a family holiday in Japan. I’ve been told that at breakfast on New Year’s day, many families have a ritual of thanking each member for what they have contributed to the family in the previous year.

First prayers of the New Year are also significant. A visit to one of the many shrines and temples is often the first outing of the New Year. Japanese ema 2008 Fushimi Inari with its famous pathway under a succession of orange torii gates is a favorite site for New Year’s visitors as shown by the sea of people crowding the path in the photo above. During the New Year’s holiday, several million people visit Fushimi Inari. While there, people write their hopes and wishes on small decorative wooden plaques called ema, shown at right. Being an inari shrine, many of the wooden placques are shaped like a fox head, since foxes are regarded as a spiritual messenger of Inari. But for New Year’s, each shrine will issue a limited edition of holiday ema featuring the animal that represents the new year, for 2008 a mouse, and some image that reflects the shrine, in this case the path of torii gates. Each shrine offers their own special ema and often they become collectors items.

New Year's Tea 2008 For those who practice Chado, the way of tea, another important “first” is hatsugama or “first kettle”. One of the most colorful and festive of Tea ceremonies, it is a time for using the most auspiciously decorated tea bowls, tea kettles, and other tools to create an elegant and welcoming celebration of the New Year. The lobster design on the cup at right serves as an indication of the luxurious sentiment that accompanies the first Tea of the New Year. Guests will dress in their finest kimono and the tea master will prepare the most elegant foods to accompany the Tea drinking.

Of course, there are also many many gatherings that are less formal than Tea. Called shinnenkai (New Year ‘meetings’), they represent the first time friends get together in the New Year and will continue to take place throughout the month as people re-new and re-fresh contact with various circles of friends, colleagues and associates.

But for now, as we come to the end of the first week of the new year, we arrive at kotohajime, the first day of work. For me, that was January 7th.

readying the New Year’s feast

mochiLike all cultures, Japan has some treasured holiday favorites. The most basic and most important is making mochi. Mochi is made by pounding boiled rice to a smooth elastic paste. Unlike other forms of food preparation, pounding the rice to a paste was traditionally the husband’s job, like the couple pictured at left pounding home-made mochi in their carport despite the rainy day. It’s not uncommon for social groups or neighborhood associations to turn the task of mochi-making into yet another shared festivity that forms part of the New Year’s preparations. For the less energetic however, mochi can also be bought in shops like the one pictured below. After the rice has been thoroughly pounded, the rice paste is formed into balls of various sizes, dusted with rice flour and left on trays to air dry.

mochi For the holidays, two or three large cakes of dried mochi in graduated sizes are stacked up rather like a snowman and topped with a tangerine to form yet another New Year’s decoration that signifies prosperity and thankfulness. Smaller mochi are often added to o-zoni, a sweet New Year’s soup made from red adzuki beans or else they can be toasted till the mochi have turned melty soft and puffy, making a wonderful hot winter treat.

Osechi ryori Osechi is New Year’s party food. It can be a wonderfully elaborate visual treat, served in elegant lacquered or porcelain trays. Many of the foods are pickled or preserved and served at room temperature, so that they can be made in advance and allow the hostess to relax with the family and guests during the period of New Year’s entertaining. Traditionally, women did not cook for the first day or two of the new year, but in order to get to that brief period of respite, they are currently engaged in several, several days of pre-New Year’s preparation.

Japanese tea sweets And to top it all off, the sweet shops are offerng the most delightful display of New Year’s candies. Those on the far right of the picture are decorated with little mice, the Chinese horoscope sign assigned to 2008. The twelve animal signs also transit through a longer 60-year cycle of elemental associations: Metal, Fire, Wood, Water and Earth. Each of the elements persists for 12 years, that is, one complete cycle of animal years. Being the first in the cycle of twelve signs, the Year of the Mouse is considered a particularly auspicious time for beginning new projects, launching new endeavors. And being the beginning of an earth cycle, those new endeavors are considered destined toward slow but stable growth over many years to come.

So good luck to you all in your 2008 ventures, and may you be well prepared to have a Happy New Year!

busy, busy once again, New Year’s on its way

Christmas may be small in Japan, but New Year’s is really big. In fact, it’s HUGE. On Friday, my office closed for the holidays and won’t re-open till January 7th. Japanese New Year's decorations All over Japan, people are getting ready for a new year and a new beginning. Bonenkai parties (forget-the-old-year parties) have been going on for several weeks now as people repeatedly “wring out” their worries and grievances from the old year while sharing a bottle of sake and assortments of grilled food with their co-workers, friends and neighbors at a seemingly endless parade of parties and gatherings that have spanned the last two weeks.

Japanese New Year's decorations But now as we head to these final few days, preparations are becoming more serious with lot and lots of cleaning and tossing out anythng that’s worn out or broken, since the New Year should be greeted with freshness and cleanliness. Doorways and entrances receive particular attention and after a good sweeping, are decorated with woven rice straw, bits of greens and tangerines or dried persimmons, like the decorations shown at the shop in the picture above. The rice straw expresses appreciation for the past year’s good harvest (prosperity), green, of course, is a universal symbol of life; and the fruits, both being orange, symbolize gold or good fortune in the year to come. And tiny pine saplings with their roots still attached symbolize the continuing cycle of life and are placed on either side of the entrance gate as a welcome to blessings in the new year.

Japanese New Year's decorations And indoors there are wonderful ikebana. My flower class this weekend focused on holiday decorations. Over steaming cups of green tea, my sensei and fellow students explained the symbolisms involved in the various plant choices.

So many of the elements seem so similar to western Christmas decorations, which of course, were borrowed centuries ago from winter solstice celebrations in northern Europe. There is a plant with red berries and green leaves similar to holly but different, the leaves are softer and less pointed. Called senryo, the name means “thousand treasures” and is yet another expression of the wish for prosperity. The chrysanthemums are white for purity. Pine branches symbolize the continuation of life in the midst of winter and it is an ancient Shinto belief that God comes down at midnight on New Year’s Eve to touch the tallest tips of pine trees. Thus, the pine branch that forms the tallest element in a New Year’s arrangement is considered an invitation to God to enter our homes in the New Year. Is that why we in the west put an angel or the Star of Bethlehem on the tops of our Christmas trees? There is so much self-reflection that comes with exploring the customs of others.

A Christmas weekend

Christmas tree Christmas weekend was long and lovely. And though I may not have a Christmas tree, I have the very good fortune of living right next to the largest Christmas tree in Kyoto. Every year Doshisha University, which hosts the “Center for the Study of Christian Culture”, decorates a positively huge tree in the center of their main campus. It stands a glorious four stories high with beautiful lights that cheer me along as I bike homeward on these blustery winter nights.

Christmas tree Not to be outdone, one of my neighbors has put up their own little version of a front yard tree, though such personal displays are rare here, since Japan is a Buddhist country and Christians comprise a minority 2% of the population. Still the most commercial trappings of Christmas have been imported and broadly disseminated. I suppose that’s the way of the world these days: so many things are converted to just another gimmick to keep the cash-flow flowing. All the stores here have Santa Claus displays to encourage the shopper’s spending. And Christmas Cake, a peculiarly Japanese confection of yellow cake, whipped cream and strawberries decorated with tiny Santa Claus figurines, has been sold and consumed all over Japan this week. Some of the restaurants advertise Reindeer steaks for Christmas Eve dinner, which generally causes Westerners here to moan, “Oh no! you don’t understand! Santa needs his reindeer alive tonight.” But such is the skewing of Christmas symbols in a Buddhist country, you just sort of shake your head and smile wryly.

Christmas napkin For myself and my friends, we have our own traditions of life abroad. This weekend was the annual Women’s Network Christmas potluck. Last year I started a tradition of embroidering holiday napkins to add a festive touch and everyone gets to take theirs home as a holiday souvenir. I wish I could remember where I got the design. It was one of the many many freebies that I downloaded last year and I’m afraid I can no longer say where it came from. But the message is so true to the spirit of Christmas and I wish it to one and all — no matter which part of the world you live in or what silly things they do with images of Santa or reindeer — Let there be Peace on every corner of our Earth, tonight and throughout the coming year.

Busy, busy with Santa’s elves

my sewing room

Buttons and patches and the cold wind blowing,
The days pass quickly when I am sewing.
~Author Unknown

Hard to find blogging time with so much Christmas sewing to do. With a grandson waiting and party goods and decorations to prepare, time at my sewing machine is sweet and the days are swiftly fleeing. My sewing room looks like a wild woman works there with thread snippits flying to the right and left and stacks of projects everywhere and only a week to finish. Hope everyone is enjoying their Christmas preparations as much as I am enjoying mine.

Happy hooping to all and to all some good sewing!