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Memories of an Unexpected New Year's Eve at a Small Temple in Kyoto.

            New Years Eve is always a really big deal for me; I love the feeling of celebrating and reflecting on what's been and looking forward to, and creating new dreams and resolutions for the year ahead. Every year I try to mark it by doing something different, and I've found that Japan holds an attractive array of both traditional and less-traditional options up its sleeve for me to be able to achieve that. From the traditional Oshogatsu traditions, to countdown parties, to live shows , to early morning hikes for the purpose of getting that all important first glimpse of the year's first sunrise (Hatsushinode) - there really is something to cater to every taste.One of my most memorable New Year's Eves here sort of came about by accident in Kyoto on the turn of 2012 and 2013 . The plan had been to head to the city's much-famed Chion-in Temple to bear witness to the ringing of it's seventy ton bronze bell. The bell is one of the largest in Japan, and every year it takes 17 monks  to perform the customary Japanese New Year ritual: 'Joya no Kane' which involves striking the bell 108 times; making it  one the most sought after New Year spectacles in Japan.This reputation together with Kyoto's own reputation for being the place to go to for an authentic Shogatsu experience means that every year the temple is descended upon by thousands of people, which can often lead to overcrowding and many people being turned away at the gate; which proved to be the case for me and hundreds of others others who had failed to read the subconscious small print saying: 'get there early to avoid disappointment'. Luckily for us the Maruyama park area (where the temple is located) had several much more localized smaller temples tucked away in it's streets. The kind of temples that usually get overlooked by visitors to the area in favor of the area's more celebrated venues like Chon-in and nearby Yasaka Shrine.To this day I still don't know the name of the temple I ended up at.  I just remember walking off into the area's adjacent side streets and joining on to the first line I saw, hoping for the best with a sense of not really knowing what to expect. Although, One thing I did know was that rather than watching hatsumode rituals being performed by others, I was now  on the verge of fully engaging with Japanese New Year tradition by actually ringing a bell at a temple on New Years Eve myself; a custom which I'd be partaking in for the very first time. I'd visited shrines in an around Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo during the first few days of January before, but never a temple on New Year's Eve.Once midnight came about a group of well-meaning French tourists attempted to encourage a countdown and then proceeded to crack open a small bottle of champagne. Coming from a culture of New Year countdowns and parties, I desperately wanted to join in, but given my position as part of a peaceful line waiting to enter a temple, it just somehow didn't seem entirely appropriate, so I just joined in with a light applause of solidarity along with a few other people waiting alongside me.One hour later, and I was still yet to step foot on to temple grounds. By this point my toes despite being comfortably cushioned in what deceivingly gave off the look of being super warm ugg boots were cold to the point of pain. Part of me did contemplate giving up and heading to one of the nearby shrines to observe happenings there, but I'd made it this far and didn't want to walk away from something that I knew could potentially be a special and memorable experience. As the long wait continued a very sweet Japanese family decided to strike up a conversation with me. I think it was my jumping up and down in an attempt to keep my feet warm which caught their attention. Our short conversation though, was a nice way to pass the time, and before long we soon found ourselves finally making that long-awaited step through the temple gates.The next big moment of excitement came when we were finally able to get our first glimpse of the temple and  its bell ringing platform. As we gradually moved closer the sound of the bell's distinctive chimes  grew stronger and the anticipation and excitement for what we were about to experience grew more powerful.Lining the path to the bell were several monks bowing and welcoming worshippers one by one, which added a more personable feel to proceedings. There were also several fires lit inside medium-sized metal cans. Walking past them was definitely a source of warmth on what was a freezing cold night, but I knew that that wasn't their purpose.The Japanese family who I'd spoken to earlier explained that the fires were placed there for people to burn their omamori (lucky charms) from the previous year which are purchased from shrines every year. Anyone who has seen one of these charms will no doubt  describe how gorgeously crafted they are through a combination of silk and beautiful kanji inscriptions.I asked the mother from the family in front of me if she ever 'felt sad about throwing such a beautiful object into a fire?' She explained that when she buys them every year she becomes attached to the charm's meaning and not to the charm itself. She then went on to tell me a story about a time  when she had once sent an omamori to her friend in Germany as a gift. Her German friend responded with a card 'thanking her for the beautiful gift, with a promise to treasure it forever'. She smiled and said that 'it all made sense now'. I smiled too, our difference in thinking was enlightening.After almost three hours of waiting, and  with my toes now surely on the cusp of frostbite, I was now just eight people away from ringing the bell.  I felt a sudden wave of panic as I realized that I wasn't actually sure what I was supposed to do:  I observed closely the people in front of me for tips on the correct bell ringing etiquette to follow: from what I could gather from my crammed moments of on-the-spot study, it seemed to be prey and bow once, ring the bell, bow and prey again before making way for the person waiting  behind.Typically, my own encounter with the bell ringing process ended up being a lot more comical than it should have been: as I readied the bell pull, the bakers boy hat which I somehow managed to forget I was wearing fell off rather awkwardly in slow motion. It  was picked up for me  a few moments later by the lady following me on to the bell ringing platform. I thanked her, bowed politely and left feeling slightly embarrassed, but also fulfilled having finally sampled a New Year's Eve in Japan in true Japanese style. With the wisdom of hindsight, I now realize that I should of taken the hat off, out of respect more than anything else.The streets  that greeted me outside the temple were filled with people making their way to other nearby temples and shrines to complete their own annual Hatsumode rituals. There was also a line of yatai (street food vendors) which are always a much welcome and common sight at most festivals in Japan. The New Year festivities were now in full swing, and the atmosphere was suitably festive and full of optimism and mystery for what the new year  would bring. I stopped off at one of the yatais for some Takoyaki before taking a relaxed and appreciative stroll back to the station and making my way back to Osaka just in time for first sunrise of the 2013 over Abeno Harukas. 

Why do we eat Osechi for the new year?

Now that we have refrigerators and a lot of places are open around the new year, there isn't a huge necessity for osechi, the traditional new year food in Japan. It's eaten for the first few days of the year, sort of as a break from cooking for the usual chef, but translating into tons of prep work instead. I've heard the new year season is taxing for housewives in Japan – they often host friends and family and have to keep the home tidy and make sure everyone is fed. Meanwhile everyone is at home enjoying some time off and making a mess. Traditionally the new year was supposed to be a break from using the stove for a few days, but I welcome the heat from the fire this time of year.I haven't been able to try all the different foods commonly eaten on the first few days of the year, but they each have some sort of meaning - the reason why they are lucky to eat for the start of the year. Here I've listed all of the osechi foods I can find out about, sorted into the reasons they are eaten.As a wish for children: Because it sounds like generations, daidai is a type of small tangerine which we can often see on top of two round mochi (kagami mochi) during the new year season. These are sold everywhere in simple versions or super fancy versions, and I think most people just use whatever mikan they have handy. A lot of the store bought ones have a plastic daidai. The Kagami mochi (mirror rice cakes) are mostly decorative. Kazunoko sounds like number and child, meaning a wish for several children. It's yellow herring roe, similar to the pink-red mentaiko. I guess roe is eggs, so it's sort of fitting for symbolizing offspring. Not super interested to taste this one. Sato imo or taro roots symbolize children because there are so many from each plant. As a wish for a long life: This might start with the toshi-koshi soba usually eaten Before midnight on new year's eve. Some people say the long soba noodles symbolize longevity, but some say they are simply easy to prepare when the cook in the family is already busy making several osechi dishes to prepare for the new year. Soba is tasty, nothing wrong with that. Ebi is shrimp, and it's supposed to look like an elderly grandpa, bent over, with a long beard – meaning he's lived a long life. Doesn't make it sound tasty. Hoshigaki is dried persimmon, a sweet food eaten in winter. It is said to mean longevity because the skin looks wrinkled like an elderly persons. As a wish for financial success: Dried sardines (niboshi or tazukuri) are said to mean a good harvest, which is related to success or provision. They are boiled in soy sauce, although they can be eaten in crunchy form. Nishiki Tamago is an egg dish made from boiled eggs with the white and yolk separated, then prepared ad steamed into a shape. When the egg white and yolk are separated, they appear gold and white, representing gold and silver. An obvious reference to wealth. Kuri kinton is a dumpling made with chestnuts and sweet potatoes, and as kin sounds like gold, it's eaten for good finances. Dumplings also look like tiny coin purses. As a wish for health: Kuromame, or black soybeans, are a tasty side dish called nimono, one of the more traditional types of osechi. They are boiled with soy sauce and sugar or mirin, and usually sprinkled with sesame seeds. I heard mame (bean) sounds like hard work and good health, but am not sure what word that's referring to. Gobou (burdock root) is also eaten for good health and good harvest. I know it's a very healthy plant, but didn't know it represents a crane (another symbol of a good year). Kinpira gobou is a common dish made with gobou, and kin sounds like gold, so that should be good. Because it sounds fancy: Yorokobu (joy) sounds like kombu, I guess. Kombu is a type of seaweed commonly used to make dashi, but it can be eaten as a cooked vegetable too of course. They are usually found in little bundles in osechi dishes. A commonly boiled fish (but also sashimi), tai (sea bream) sounds like Medatai (omedetou). I'm sure you're heard 'omedetou gozaimasu' but not sure if it's made you think of a fish. Because it looks like something else: Kamaboko is a fish cake formed into a half-tube, then sliced into half circle shapes. It is usually pink (red) and white, like Japan's flag, so it represents the rising sun (which we commonly watch on the first day of the year and call hatsuhinode). Datemaki is a sweet omelette cooked with shrimp or fish paste and rolled up (sort of like yaki tamgo). It supposedly looks like a scroll (more like a comfy sleeping bag?), so it's meaning is good culture and education. Vinegar lotus root, or subasu (su is vinegar and basu comes from hasu, the word for the lotus plant that the root, or renkon comes from), means we can see the future clearly, because of the holes in the roots. Some people just make a kinpira or nimono from renkon, maybe because sunomono dishes are more summer feeling. Nontraditional osechi! I haven't seen much besides the sweets versions, but there are many nontraditional osechi to be found these days. If Pokemon osechi or all meat osechi is more your style, you can get some ideas by reading this article:

Tips to arrange new year's flowers

I was so busy and sick for last few months and couldn't post articles... Now I recovered and will start introducing Ikebana again!2016 is almost over, and we are preparing for the new year, 2017. Most of Japanese houses, shops, buildings decorate their gates or doors with new year ornaments. It's one of the Japanese traditional ways to celebrate new year and you can get detailed information through books or web, but if I explain very briefly, we decorate them "to welcome gods of the new year to our houses/facilities". Not only at doors, we arrange Ikebana arrangements inside. There is no specific rules, but we prefer to use certain materials to make our works more special. Each material has own meanings to be selected for arrangements. Let's see what they are.This is my work for 2017.I'm sure that most of the ikebana artists usually use pine tree (Matsu 松) as main materials. Pine trees are symbol of longevity and youth, because their leaves are always green and not be fallen off throughout the year, even in dry and cold winter season. Also, the sound "Matsu" is the same as "Matsu 待つ to wait". So it means we are waiting for gods' arrival to our house.I added colorful materials afterwards. Since we are going to celebrate, brilliant colors such as red, white,yellow, gold and silver are preferred for new year arrangements. As I mentioned before, there's no rule, so it's OK to use pink or other bright colors. But I personally think red, yellow or white will help our arrangements look more traditional.Then I used round shaped yellow chrysanthemum (Kiku 菊). Chrysanthemums are used in many ikebana arrangements regardless of seasons because they look very Japanese-like with their colors and shape. Not only that, they last long in water, so we like them as luck of health.Then I put some branches with tiny red fruits, they are Senryo 千両. Senryo is Japanese, means Sen (thousand)-Ryo(old Japanese currency), and is thought to bring lots of money or fortune.Similar plant called Manryo 万両(Man means ten thousands) is also used in arrangements as fortune item. Search in Wikipedia pageAt last, I chose red tulip, white baby's breath and gold-painted willow to add colors.Below is another arrangement for new year, which I made in Hawaii. Compared to Japan, Hawaii has limited materials for ikebana arrangement due to different climate. But it's still possible.My teacher prepared pine tree, bamboo, white chrysanthemum and plastic plum branches (if it's extremely hard to get it, you can use artificial ones). Bamboo (Take 竹) is popular item for new year with its straight shape, representing strong growth. And plum trees (Ume 梅) are known for symbol of good luck or success, because they start to bloom in winter, earlier than other flowers.Now do you think you can try it? Or you concern that you don't have enough space in room to put works or can't get enough materials? Don't give up! You still can make it!This is made of leftover after lesson; one short gold colored willow, one short yellow chrysanthemum and three short pieces of senryo. Simple work, isn't it?Try to create your own new year arrangement with these tips. But please note that 29th and 31st Dec. is not preferable to set, because the date 29th 二十九 (Niju-ku) sounds as the same as 二重苦(Niju-ku; double troubles), and 31st is too late to prepare for gods. Sorry to update this article on 29th... we have only tomorrow, 30th left to prepare....Anyway, have a great new year!

The New Year Song in Japan

Did you know: In Japan, Beethoven's “Symphony no. 9” (specifically the fourth and final movement, performed with the vocals from Ode of Joy) is often performed and played as the new year song, instead of what we'd expect in the western world, the traditional Scottish “Auld Lang Syne.” The Japanese song “Hotaru no Hikari” (Light of the Firefly) is set to the same melody as “Auld Lang Syne,” which helps explain things. I have often heard “Auld Lang Syne” (instrumental) played in shops which are about to close for the night and wondered why. The Japanese song is frequently used at graduation ceremonies and as a symbol of endings. (Not to be confused with the Japanese drama “Hotaru no Hikari,” although that's a great one!) Happy New Year everyone!(Monkey year is changing to a Rooster year)

Shibuya Street on Christmas Eve 2016

I took a short stroll on the streets of Shibuya on Christmas Eve.Sharing some of the interesting street photos.Visit my website

The grievances of 2016 that weren`t

This year has been a remarkable one. With celebrities dropping like flies and America`s political biosphere on fire, it is good to look back and reflect on all the good and bad things these past 365 days have brought. Of course, living in Japan is a whole other story. When you stay here for long enough, the outside world starts to look like some distant memory; nothing can touch you. For some, this means the stress of war, turmoil and new presidents (not necessarily talking about Trump here. Iceland also got a new president this year, albeit one with less fabulous hair). Some people come to Japan to run away from their problems. The problem is that this country is not free from its own problems. Troubleshooting in a completely different environment is not for the faint of heart, and many well-meaning individuals buckle under the pressure and leave within a few months. There is a term I often refer to when discussing the expat experience: The Honeymoon Period. For those not familiar with the term, The Honeymoon Period is the time period in the beginning of your stay somewhere unfamiliar, where everything seems perfect. The flowers smell fresher, the air is cleaner, the people more polite, trains on time and the food. Oh my Glob, the food! Like an explosion of feel-good senses burst from your brain and permeates everything you see. Even the homeless people seem to be smiling. Now, as we hopefully know by now, all good things come to an end. It is sad but true. You wake up one morning and you find an uncooked rice in your bowl of gyudon. You drop your change from the conbini because the teller put the coins on top of the receipt again. Some kid yelled “Why Japanese people!” at you for the three-thousandth time and something inside you. Just. Snaps. This is when the honeymoon period ends. The time it takes differs between people. For some it takes only a few months. For others, a few years. The most common timeframe I`ve heard is two years. It seems that the second or third year for expats is the hardest one. I guess it has something to do with starting to see patterns in life. You`ve experienced the same things before, the veil of freshness drops and your brain starts getting bored. And when it gets bored, it starts focusing on the negative parts in life. And that`s when you`re in trouble. For myself, I have no idea where I am on the “honeymoon-period-curve”. I am on my third consecutive year in Japan, but my fourth in total. I have experienced some hardship and annoyances during that time, but never have I gotten close to saying “well, it has been fun. I`m leaving. See ya never!”. So for the difficulties of 2016, I would only count the minor grievances as a collective, rather than one big event. And even then, these annoyances don`t add up to me wanting to pack my bags.   So, without further ado, I present the top 5 gripes of 2016 in no particular order. 1. The amount of people (hito-gomi). There are so many people in Japan. There are so many people in the cities. There are so many people in my train station. Why can I not get a seat on the train at 7:30 on a Wednesday in the most populated station in West Japan? Why is everybody pushing me? Why is that person running? What does he know that I don`t? Don`t you dare steal that seat. I saw it first! What`s that smell? Why is a school baseball team taking the train now? Despite all that, I actually really like riding trains. 2. Polite versions of already polite enough words There`s the plain form, there`s the polite form, there`s the super polite form and probably twenty more forms. I barely mastered using the desu-masu forms, and the teller in the Disney store just asked me something I couldn`t understand. I say “eh?” and the teller replies “puresento?” like I`m a damn fool. Even now, I cannot recall what she actually said, but I know it was not a “masu” form of any word I know. Or maybe it is. Now, the real reason I don`t understand is because I haven`t bothered to learn as much as I should have. That doesn`t make me feel any better, you know! 3. The lack of sleep Japan has such variety. There are so many things to do here. Everything is available almost any time of the day. 24/7 entertainment. Why would you want to leave? Why would you want to sleep? So what if you have to wake up at 6:30 to dance in front of hundreds of 6 year olds. You can survive on 3 hours of sleep and coffee. There is no escape. Sleep or boundless entertainment. Choose one and regret the other. 4. The variety Why buy this when you can buy that? This place has a discount, but this place uses point cards. If you sign up now, this place offers a free takoyaki machine with your purchase. Options, options, options! Sometimes I wish for a world that has just ONE STATE APPROVED TOILET PAPER TYPE. And then I remember that I actually like takoyaki. Oh well. 5. The weather It`s too sunny. It`s too cloudy. It`s too rainy. It never snows! It`s too cold! Why can`t it be summer in wintertime and winter in summertime? Why is the weather not like it used to be back home? What? It`s because I`m not home? What`s this nonsense? Now, as you may have noticed, these are extremely minor annoyances. Barely worth mentioning. And all of them can be summed up to my own personal view of the world. My own failures as a person, my own inexperience and my own irrational, egotistical ways. And that is the way of the world. We all get upset sometimes that the world doesn`t revolve around us. And that`s quite alright. As long as we recognize and deal with our feelings in a productive, safe manner (Batting center!), it`s alright to feel the way we feel. If you start feeling overwhelmed and alone, just remember that there are options (options, options, options!). We all get into a slump every once in a while. As Doctor Seuss said, there are plenty of ways to “unslump” yourself. 2016 is coming to an end. The next year will promise another four seasons and a whole lot of reasons to leave the country. It also gives us just as many reasons to stay. So let`s rejoice and count our lucky stars we`re not celebrities.

Jingiskan? Lamb don? Mutton don? What's in a name when it tastes this good?

A friend took me to this pint-sized place in Tokyo the other day for some jingiskan (Genghis Khan); a dish of grilled mutton (aka adult lamb).  Actually, with jingiskan you're often going DIY with that using a hot plate at your table.  On this occasion my grilled mutton came prepared on a bowl of rice.  Can I call this 'mutton don'?Now, gyūdon (牛丼 - beef bowl) has become something of a staple for me in Japan.  It's cheap, quick and seldom fails to deliver the goods, even at 'fast-food' joints like Matsuya and Yoshinoya.  This was my first time to try 'lamb don', and my first time to pay 1,200 yen for a bowl of meat on rice in Japan.I'm not sure any dish that basically lumps meat on rice could ever be worth 1,200 yen, but if there's one that comes close, it could well be this one.  Where a serving gyūdon often has meat that is kind of stringy and flimsy, the cuts of meat in this dish were a class above.  Really substantial, juicy, and with a little bit of 'chew' factor, too.  The raw egg in the middle might have been something of a hurdle a while ago, but spend long enough in Japan and you get used to it.  The dish was topped with some diced negi and served with a steaming cup of green tea.We ate in one of those places you can often find in Japan that get by with only one or two dishes on the menu.  Popular joints, like this, also have a limit on the number of dishes they can make, and they usually sell out.  Pretty quickly.  We arrived at around 1:00 pm at the (by then) empty shop and were served the last two dishes available.  


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