Japanese New Year Traditions

There must be a million and one New Year’s traditions in Japan, and I have resolved to try at least one new one each year. I did not ring any bells this (or rather: last) year, but I did go out to Shimogamo Shrine for hatsumode, and I bought a new general luck and happiness charm there for this year. On top of that, I have bought a kagami mochi this year:

Japanese kagamimochiIt generally consists of two layers of flattened mochi rice cakes, a Japanese bitter orange called daidai on top, and is decorated at least with a two-coloured bow that is considered lucky. The two mochi pieces are supposed to symbolise the old and new year, the moon and the sun, or yin and yang; whereas the daidai symbolises the continuation of a family from one generation to the next. My friends simply said that the two layers of mochi are meant to double the luck that comes into the household.

Kagami mochi are sold at the end of the year and are usually displayed in the household’s shinto altar until January 11th, when they are ritually broken apart in a ceremony called kagami biraki and are eaten. This is meant to ask the gods for good fortune during the coming year. Yes, the mochi are edible and according to my friends you just cut off the hard (and probably dusty) outer part and then fry them and that they are quite tasty – as far as mochi go, I guess.

Kagami mochi can have different sizes, the largest ones are usually those placed at the altars of shrines. Mine is a rather small affair, and the daidai on top is made from plastic. As you can see, the whole thing is wrapped in plastic as well, which is a good thing because I placed it near my entrance (I don’t have a shinto altar in my home) and I do indeed intend to try and eat it!

With the new year comes a new format for the blog. Since I have started working and am rather busy, I have much less time to go out and have fun with the Japanese and their culture. And I think that writing about my daily routines is quite dull (one reason I never kept a diary), and so is reading about it. So, I will reduce my personal posts to two per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, I will restart my weekend posts about all things Japanese that are hopefully of more general interest. I hope you’ll keep enjoying the blog!

Otsu Matsuri

Last Sunday I spent in Otsu, the capital of Shiga province, which lies on the shore of Lake Biwa, maybe 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu, for a short period in the 7th century the capital of Japan, is still home to the largest harbour on Lake Biwa, which itself is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. However, the city is rather stretched out along the shore, and thus has the feeling of a little town despite its 350.000 inhabitants. There are a number of famous sites there, but I did not do any sightseeing this time.

Instead I went to enjoy Otsu matsuri with some friends of mine. Otsu matsuri has its origins at the beginning of the Edo period at the turn of the 17th century; the first time it was officially recorded was 1624. It is similar to Gion matsuri in that there are large floats that are paraded through the city, but there are also differences. All floats of Otsu MatsuriThe hikiyama of Otsu matsuri are about two storeys high, that’s somewhere between the size of the yama and hoko floats of Gion, and they are similarly decorated with beautiful tapestries on the outside. They only have three large wheels, which makes them more easy to manoeuvre by the people who are pulling them – yes, I have seen some women doing that as well!

A hikiyamaOn the second floor of the hikiyama, which can be reached by a staircase at the inside, only men are allowed though. Traditionally, only the first sons of families that lived around the storage house of each hikiyama were allowed to take part in the matsuri, but this has changed recently, and other young men may now participate too. When the floats are moving, they play a tune with flutes and drums that is similar to the one at Gion matsuri – to my ears, at least.Young men playing flutesThe most interesting part of the 13 hikiyama however, are the wooden displays on the second floor. Those are karakuri ningyŇć, mechanical dolls, and they depict, or rather, act out, a scene from a well-known fairytale or story, mostl of them originating in China.Saikyo Sakura Tanuki Yama One of the exceptions is a float with a doll representing Murasaki Shikibu, the authoress of the famous Tale of Genji. It is said that it was in Otsu – more precisely in Ishiyama Temple – where she began writing on her novel some time in the beginning of the 11th century. Murasaki ShikibuWe were invited to one of the houses that “own” one of the floats, and we could go to a second floor balcony and watch the parade from there, meaning that we were eye-to-eye with the dolls and the men playing the instruments. From such an elevated postion you can see that the dolls were operated manually as the men crouched down, but that did not take away the beauty of the performance. I especially liked the one depicting how to catch a Tai (a lucky fish of golden colour), and because each performance was repeated twice in front of our balcony, I could even catch the decisive moment on camera. Catching a fish

Deja vu

Today was the Aoi matsuri, the hollyhock festival that takes place at the Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. When I came to Japan two years ago, this was the first festival I went to, and I have written about it then at length. Today, I had the opportunity – thanks to a friend – to see the parade again, this time from the special seats in Shimogamo Shrine.

It was just as I remembered, almost a deja-vu, but now the beautifully dressed men and gorgeous women on foot or on horses were passing underneath the large trees of Shimogamo Shrine instead of the open space of the Palace, which gave the parade a whole different feeling. I also think that it was a bit more compact than the first time I saw it – whether this was due to the different location or because of different timing, I cannot tell. The weather was nice and warm, but not really sunny, so I still have to wait for my first sunburn this year.

After the parade had passed the long sandy road up to the main buildings of Shimogamo Shrine, my friend and I had lunch at the few food stalls that were permitted at the shrine. We had yakisoba – grilled noodles with bacon and cabbage – and as dessert kasutera – a sort of small sweet buns made of pancake batter – and ichigo daifuku – sweet rice cakes with a strawberry on top.

This year, I did not stay for the horse race as I had promised another friend to see her, but it was nice to go to the Aoi festival again. There is still a part I have not seen yet, the one from Shimogamo to Kamogamo Shrine, so there is something left to explore for next year. I am already looking forward to it!

Seijin no hi

Ah, it’s Coming-of-Age Day again, one of Japan’s Happy Monday holidays. Today is the day where all over Japan youngsters who have turned 20 in the last year visit shrines to celebrate being an adult. Most young people do so dressed in expensive kimono, with elaborate hairstyles, and just the right attitude…

I went to Heian shrine again today in the hope of taking some pictures, but either I arrived too late, or the place to be this year was somewhere else than last year.couple in kimono at heian shrine

Girl and dragon fountainIn any case, there was a large group of young people in front of Kyoto Exhibition Hall, where some group had organised a meeting with speeches and photographers… so I did get some photos after all. Two things surprised me: First, the number of young people who were smoking. It is quite rare to see a Japanese person of any age smoking in public or on the streets. Especially in Kyoto, many tourist areas are strict non smoking zones, probably because so much of these parts of Kyoto are still made of wood, or maybe just because smoking in crowded places is not a very brilliant idea. There were even non smoking signs where the crowd gathered, but the brand new adults defied the signs as well as the guards and the police, who did not bother to say anything to begin with. I guess that they did not want to spoil the fun the youngsters had on their great day.

Second, the guys surprised me again, just like last year. The normal, traditional formal wear for a man has two colours: black and white, and maybe some gray in between. On seijin no hi, however, their kimono and hakama are often more colourful than the girls, and the young men don’t even shy away from dyeing their hair. I guess it’s the one and only and last day when they can be as reckless and irresponsible as possible in public. Obviously they had great fun doing so! Young man in flowery haoriHaori with tiger motifLeopard prints and flower punk


Japanese New Year’s Traditions

I have written a little about Japanese New Year’s Traditions last year, and I bet I will be writing on this subject more often ūüėČ Again, I will focus on the things I have done myself this year.

Just like last year, but this time alone, I went to the other side of Yoshida hill to the joyo-no-kane, the ringing of the bells. I went to Kurodani temple and listened to the bell being rung over and over again. Instead of waiting in line to do my own ringing, I went inside the temple, where monks where holding a ceremony. It was a Buddhist ceremony, and while the bell was ringing outside, four or five monks were banging sticks, sounded a sounding bowl, and recited the name of the Buddha over and over again: Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu

There are many Buddhist sects, but there is that one tradition for everybody, which teaches that anyone can be saved and go to heaven after death who is sincerely calling upon the name of the Buddha. Namu Amida Butsu literally means Homage to Infinite Light, but it can have other ideas behind it depending on the sect. In Japan, Butsu is the Japanese version of Buddha and Amida means as much as merciful.

While they were having the ceremony, people wandered in and out, praying together with the monks or alone, while all through the bell kept ringing outside. As I had no idea how long the ceremony would take, and it was cold in the temple (although it was a bit warmer than last year), I left after a while and went down to Okazaki shrine for my Hatsumode.

Japanese Lucky CharmHatsumode is the very first shrine visit in the year, and people pray there and buy Omikuji fortune-telling slips or Omamori charms. There are many different charms for all sort of things available, and this year I bought one myself: a general happiness-increasing charm in bright yellow.

It already made me very happy: Yesterday evening and all through the night fell Hatsuyuki, the first snow of the year. In fact, Japanese people are very aware of everything that happens or they do for the first time in a new year. I guess many people stay up to see the Hatsuhinode – the first sunrise of the new year. New snow of course invites Hatsusuberi, the first skiing (not for this odd Austrian though), and there is Hatsubasho – the first sumo event – some time in mid January. Hatsuyume – the first dream – is of course very important, and if you can’t sleep, there is always the Hatsuuri or first sale of the year, often with lucky bags that contain surprise items at very decreased prices and may require people to line up in front of the shops. By the way, I have invented my own New Year’s tradition, which I intend to keep up for a long time to come: Hatsuchoco, the first chocolate of the year…

It does not really count towards Hatsudayori – the first exchange of letters – because those cards are prepared well in advance in December; but quite early in the morning on January 1st you will receive New Year’s cards, nengajo. Many people of an artistic bent spend lots of time in making their own, just as my friend has: Hand made New Year's Card 2015

Poetry Game

Last Monday, suitable for the Culture Day, there was a traditional event that goes back about 1000 years, centred on one of Japan’s favourite pastimes taking place in Jonangu shrine which is equally old and lies in southern Kyoto. The event is called kyokusui-no-en and it is a kind of poetry game or competition involving multiple poets, a little stream, and enormous amounts of sake.

The idea is as follows: A number of poets sit on the banks of a little stream that flows through Jonangu shrine. They all have to compose a tanka – a poem of exactly 31 syllables – on a predefined topic, in a predefined amount of time. How long they have is determined by the stream and the sake: Little sake cups are released upstream and when they reach the last person, the poets must be finished, and then all the poems are read aloud.

I arrived at the shrine – after a trip of 90 minutes, and I hadn’t even left Kyoto just yet – about one hour before the event started. The shrine is very large and has two beautiful gardens with stones and trees and big koi ponds and streams in between. It seems that the cherry blossoms are famous there, but even now the gardens are a beautiful sight. When I arrived at the appropriate part of the garden, I was surprised to see that benches had been set up for the spectators, not just for the honorable paying guests, but for all of us. Never before did that happen, maybe the event was just the right size for this to be feasible.

Another nice surprise were five ladies giving a little koto concert before the main event started. Usually, the spectators are expected to wait in silence until the start of the main performance, but I think everybody was pleasantly surprised. The koto is a traditional Japanese instrument, but they played comparatively modern songs – they had a melody…

The main event – I’m still undecided whether to call it a ceremony, a game, a competition… – started at one o’clock with all the participants, all dressed beautifully in elaborate Heian-style costumes, entering the garden from the main shrine building: First a few attendants from the shrine, then traditional musicians and a dancer, then the seven poets who would take part in the game, and two children who carried long bamboo sticks and were charged with an important role during the game. I’ll get to that in a moment. Important ChildrenFirst, there was some traditional Heian-era court music, thankfully short, and a dancer gave a performance, with traditionally prescribed movements, all executed very precisely, and certainly with a lot of meaning behind each gesture, decipherable only for the initiated. Dance performance

Then, the seven poets were shown a scroll – I assume that the topic of the poem they had to compose was written on it – and then they took their places along the little stream. Reading the topic (?)

On each place there had been prepared a little cushion and a tiny table with writing utensils: ink, brush, and paper. When they were settled and ready to write, the first cup of sake was released upstream. Writing poetry

The cups were mounted on little duck-shaped boats and, as the stream was rather rapidly flowing, they picked up quite some speed. Probably because of that, there was not a single sake-duck released, but quite a number of them, although I could not count them from my vantage point. I did notice, however, that, although the stream was comparatively broad, that sometimes the little ducks would get stuck, and this is where the two children came in. With their long bamboo poles they were supposed to help the sake on its way, and they did so by wandering around the stream and the poets with earnest faces and a grave manner.

When the last sake duck had reached the last poet, all poems were collected. A group of five men dressed like priests would sit down on the platform where the dancer had given her performance before, and then would read each poem. First, the name of the writer was announced (and probably also the poetry school he came from, but I am guessing here) and then the poem was read once by one person, and then by all of them, both times in a kind of chant, as I have seen before at religious ceremonies. Obviously the topic had been somehow related to autumn, I could make out words like trees, colours, leaves, autumn, momiji…The reading of the poetryDuring the reading, more sake was sent down the stream, and this time I could see some of the poets drinking a cup or two. Howver, most of the sake was probably imbibed by the koi in the next pond… Anyway, after all the poems were read, the poets, dancers, and musicians left the garden. I thought there would be an announcement of a winner, a best poem nominated, but I was told that was not the purpose of the meeting. I know, however, that in the Genji Monogatari (*), where this game was already mentioned, there was always talk about people writing good and bad poems, so I think that in the olden days, there was probably lots of judgement going on… Heian court ladyAfter the poets had left, there was a purification ceremony at the same little stream. People were invited to buy a little piece of paper in the shape of a man or woman, handle it in a prescribed way and then release it into the stream, to the incantations of a priest. Again, the two children were there and gently used their bamboo sticks to guide the prayers and wishes on their way.

(*) The Genji Monogatari, the Tale of Genji, is one of the oldest Japanese novels, written in the 11th century by a lady in waiting on the Heian court. Apparently, the game had already taken place then in the same shrine as now.


Yesterday was the matsuri of Yoshida shrine, which I consider “my” shrine, as it is less than 5 minutes away from Ebisu’s. It was a matsuri as many others I have seen before, but on a much smaller scale, it felt almost intimate.

As I got the timing wrong, I was very early and could see the preparations. Some things were ready: The main mikoshi had been prepared and the seats for the priests, the musicians, and the local dignitaries who would be present during the religious ceremony. The three carts that would be carried or drawn through the streets: a large cask of sake, a small mikoshi, and some sort of sacred tree, decorated with paper.¬†Mikoshi of Yoshida shrineOthers were still in the making: Four Taiko drums were set up at the main square of the shrine and carefully covered to shield the skins from the sun before the performance. People who would be participating in some way or the other, would get dressed: the dignitaries mentioned above, the students, both male and female, who had the honor to carry the mikoshi through the streets, the children who would accompany the parade. little samuraiThe two students who would play the important role of the lion got into their costume – and into their role. I could ask them a few questions, they were highschool students and it was not their first time. The lion – shishi – who accompanies the parade is performing a lion dance – shishimai – and part of that dance is to chase and bite little children, in order to bring them luck in the next year. Apparently their parents like that idea better than the kids though… mask of a Japanese lionFinally, the preparations were over, and as a sign that something would start happening, the musicians took their seats. Then, the dignitaries formed a lane through which the priests – five of various ranks, distinguishable by their robes – would walk toward their seats in front of the musicians, then the dignitaries – all dressed in black ceremonial kimono with gray hakama – would take their own seats opposite the priests.

The ceremony started with the usual bowing and consecration rituals. Then the priests got up and went to a small shrine, and, while the musicians played a tune – well, a single tone, actually, that sounded both creepy and hallowed – they transferred the kami of that shrine into a little portable shrine, and from there to the large mikoshi that had been prepared. Then, more bowing followed, and each of the dignitaries made a small offering to the kami in front of the mikoshi. When that ceremony was over, the people gathered for the parade. start of the paradeUnder the drumming of the taiko the parade started out from the main shrine, uphill past four other, smaller shrines (I am never sure whether they have anything to do with Yoshida shrine or not) and then, the parade meandered through the neighborhood, with a drum upfront, the two mikoshi behind – carried by a large group of girls under many washoi-screams – and the lion doing his dance to scare, I mean, bless the children. Yoshida matsuri parade

Comb Festival

It was a great autumn day today, 30 degrees, sunny, with a clear blue sky… I celebrated by going to a quite unique festival in Yasui-konpiru-gu shrine: The comb festival or kushi matsuri. Similar to the needle festival I visited last year, here people bring their old combs and hair ornaments to the shrine where a ceremony is held for them. Detail of Japanese hairstyleApparently the idea behind these ceremonies is, that when an object has been used for a long time, they possess spirit – imbued by their owner’s or their own – and it is thus proper to send those spirits back to the gods instead of just tossing the item. Such ceremonies are held in various shrines and temples for a number of things: needles, combs, calligraphy brushes, dolls,… Unfortunately, I could not find out what would happen to the combs and hair ornaments that were brought to the shrine, but the thing in the back of the image below is called the kushi zuka, the comb mound, so maybe they are interred there, or at least, at some former time may have been. used combs before the comb moundJust like last year, there was first a ceremony and afterwards a short dance performance called “black hair dance” as an offering to the gods. The special thing about this ceremony at this shrine, however, is the attendance of about 50 young girls sporting the hairstyle of various periods in Japanese history. Of course, they wore beautiful kimono of the appropriate time as well, but the show piece were clearly the various coiffures. Japanese hairstylesI asked one of the girls in an elaborate Edo period hairstyle whether this was all her own hair. In case you consider me rude: Geisha very often have rather short hair and wear wigs for their performances, so I was curious.Japanese hairstyleShe said her hairstyle was about half-half, that some of the longer parts were hair pieces, made in the way they had been produced in the Edo period. It was very well done, and practically impossible to distinguish the pieces from her real hair, but, taking a closer look, especially from behind, you could see for example pieces of black paper that were used to style the hair.Japanese hairstylingShe also said that finishing her hairstyle would take about 3-4 hours – she must have gotten up very early this morning! After the ceremony and the dance, the girls formed a long procession through Gion, but I did not go with them, I had had plenty of photo-opportunities in the shrine already.Japanese hairstyle


Yesterday, I was woken up by the neighbours just before 8 am. They were already up and about on the little street down the steps from our house and chatting and laughing and doing something. Children were also already up and running about – what ever happened to sleeping in in the weekends? There was something going on all day, and in the early afternoon, the party culminated in a little ceremony at the Jizo shrine at the bottom of the steps… This I found worthy of investigation, and, lo and behold, last weekend was Jizo-Bon, the Jizo festival.

These are the Jizo statues in our Jizo shrine at the bottom of the steps:Jizo Shrine

Jizo is a Buddhist saint, a Bodhisattva (Japanese: Bosatsu), that means, he has attained enlightenment, but will stay on Earth to save other souls. O-Jizo sama is chiefly the guardian of children, dead or alive, but he also takes care of travellers and firefighters. Thus, he is probably the most popular saint in Japan and his statues can be found everywhere. Often he is depicted as a simple Buddhist monk walking with a staff, and the statues are clothed in little red or white hats or bibs. The idea behind that is that, as Jizo will take care of dead children, he will protect them from harm and cold – and pass on the clothing.

Jizo-Bon is the yearly festival for this saint, and it happens on August 24th (and sometimes also on August 23rd). Traditionally, it has been a day to confess bad deeds to the Jizo and asking for their forgiveness, and probably many people still do that. Nowadays, it is often combined with a children’s festival, Jizo-sai, where the neighborhood children are allowed to do little things like changing the clothing of the Jizo statues or painting their faces, and eat red-coloured food. From the sound of it, it seems that the kids had lots of fun last Sunday!

Note: I will visit a friend in Nagoya for the rest of the week, so my next post will be in September!

Daimonji 2014

Indeed, the Daimonji festival took place on Saturday evening, despite all the rain. A friend of mine told me that it was a religious ceremony, nothing geared towards tourists, so they would try to do it at the designated day no matter what.

It rained heavily on Saturday, with brief stops in between, and all day I was unsure whether the daimonji would take place. However, the rain stopped at around 6 pm, and when it got dark about an hour later, you could make out people – or rather, their flashlights – on Mt. Daimonji, where the largest and the first of the five fires is lit.

I went to a friend of mine who lives farther North in Kyoto and who had arranged to go to the roof of a three storey building in his neighborhood. From there, four of the five fires could be seen, although not all picture perfect: the¬†hidari-dai or “left dai” fire could not be seen in its full glory, but only as a single thin strip of fires. Here are photos of the three fires – from right to left on the mountains, in order of their being lit – that are more or less recognisable: The dai on Mt. Daimonji, which simply means “big”; the two signs myo-ho, part of a Buddhist sutra; and my favourite one, the fune, the boat-shaped fire.Daimonji "dai"Daimonji fire spelling "myo-ho"Daimonji fire in the shape of a boatWatching the fires being lit one after the other to guide home the ancestral spirits was once again a wonderful, touching experience. The whole display only took about half an hour, and then I walked home, meandering through town in the dry, cool evening.

There is only one of the daimonji fires I have not seen yet: the big torii gate on Arashiyama. Maybe I will try to go there next year.