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Japanese New Year – between traditions, events and shopping

The beginning of the New Year is celebrated everywhere in the world. And every country has its own traditions. For sure Japan has its special ways to celebrate the beginning of a New Year, too. It’s one of the most important times in the year, where a lot of Japanese workers have days off and can spend their time with family. Get to know some of Japan’s traditions in my article today.  Traditional food around New Year in Japan Do you have special food you always eat around New Year? In my home country Germany lately people come up with making food on raclette grill for New Year’s Eve and eating carp on New Year’s Day.  In Japan you also have some food which belongs to the New Year’s time. Starting with Toshikoshi Soba (年越しそば) or also called year-crossing noodle. These buckwheat noodles are likely to be eaten on New Year’s Eve and should bring long life as well as health and energy for the upcoming year. The costume and name with this is a bit different from area to area.Also very important food in Japanese New Year is Osechi Ryōri (御節料理) which normally is served in bento-like wooden boxes. The dishes inside the Osechi each have a special meaning. For example: Kuromame (黒豆), simmered black soybeans, are standing for health and sake steamed shrimps go for a long life. Earlier house wives made Osechi Ryori by themselves, however, now it’s also common to buy a prepared box at special shops or departments. Countdown Events at New Year’s Eve What would be New Year’s Eve without an amazing firework? But wait – stop! In Japan – the country famous for their colorful and beautiful fireworks in summer – is exactly like this. When all other countries around the world start the New Year with wonderful artworks in the sky, Japan traditionally starts it in silence. If you want to see a firework on 31st December, it might get hard to find one, but probably you are lucky around Odaiba, the American base in Yokosuka or Tokyo Disneyland.  However, for people who don’t want to sit at home with their families and watch the famous music program Kōhaku Uta Gassen ( 紅白歌合戦) on TV, there are also some countdown events around the big towns. In Shibuya the famous scramble crossing was closed for cars this time, so people could celebrate around there. Some musicians hold New Year’s Eve concerts, just noticing Ayumi Hamasaki who’s Countdown Live concerts are sold out every time since more than 10 years. For sure, you also can celebrate into the New Year in theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland or Universal Studios Japan which are opening their doors over night for this special date. Just prepare to get your tickets for this as soon as possible. Another alternative is the Chinatown in Yokohama. You can hear firecrackers blow up the silence, around Kanteibyo Temple lion dancers make their performances and locals sell food and drinks on the street. The first shrine visit of the New Year At Buddhist temples the New Yyear starts with 108 bell rings which are symbol for the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief. With the bell ringing it is believed to get rid of the 108 worldly desires regarding sense and feeling. This process is called Joyanokane (除夜の鐘). The reason you can find big crowds of people at shrines and temples around midnight. Many connect this event with the first shrine visit of the year, which is called Hatsumode (初詣). Normally, you should make your prayers for the New Year within the first two days of January, but still after this time at least famous shrines like the Meiji Jingu are still crowded. It is a good time to get new Omikuji (御神籤), fortune telling papers, which will tell you how the New Year will be going for you. And don’t forget to get new Omamori (御守), Japanese amulets which will protect you. Let’s go shopping! Hatsuuri and Fukubukuro So, enough traditional things now. Certainly also department stores want to make money around this time. Some shops are still closed on 1st January (for sure, not all), but latest on 2nd January the famous Hatsuuri (初売り) starts. At the so called “first sale” of the year many shops give pretty big discounts. Some other sell Fukubukuro (福袋) which are lucky bags, filled with unknown items but mostly worth twice or three times the money you have spent for them. Many people line up at department stores early in the morning to get started into the New Year with the best bargain.  And even more… For sure there are even more Japanese traditions about New Year, but it will get too much to write everything down here. Just saying words like Otoshidama (お年玉), Nengajo (年賀状), mochi making and Kadomatsu (門松). Probably topics for next year. With this, I wish you all a happy New Year! あけましておめでとうございます!Have you ever spend New Year’s time in Japan? What are you experiences? 

Visiting Yokohama Chinatown

Yokohama Chinatown is one of the largest Chinatown in the world.Sharing some of the street shots during my visit.Visit my website

Let's Get Lucky with Fukuburo!

    Fukubukuro or "lucky bags" are Japan's answer to getting rid of last year's stock and giving the consumers a steep discount to help expedite the process. You'll see them out as soon as shops open after New Year's Eve ends. In some places, that's just a few hours into the new year. In others, it's January 2nd or 3rd. In any case, the grab bag of old inventory usually comes in a few distinct flavors and price categories.    In the stores, you'll usually see a display version of the goods in the bag, so there really aren't any surprises. Bags usually start around 1,000 yen for what is usually at least 2,000 yen worth of goods, but the fancier the retailer, the more expensive the bag options. Many clothing stores only offer options around 5,000 yen and/or 10,000 yen. If you're more into brand name designer goods, these sales might not be your thing as the items you can get for super cheap will also be last year's model or excess stock. If you don't mind being just a little behind the cutting edge, these sales are well worth the time and energy.    Fukubukuro can run out quickly, so if you know you want to grab one from a specific store, it is a good idea to go early and get what you want while it is available. While these are major sales days, they are nowhere near as chaotic as Black Friday stateside. We are in Japan after all.This was my haul from Sendai sales-day of 2016. I headed straight to a cloth and craft store where I filled the blue bag with scraps for 500 yen. The green bag is some discounted fleece I bought to make a couch cover. Then there is this lovely red fukubukuro. Unlike most lucky bag buying opportunities, this was unplanned on my part. As I waited in line to buy some lunch-pack sandwiches in front of one of Sendai's department stores, one of the workers brought out a stack of these bags. There might have been around 50 of them in the cart the guy was pulling, but within minutes of him placing the load next to the line of consumers waiting to check-out, every single one was gone. There was no display in this case, so I wasn't sure what I was getting into, but I was willing to take the bet that whatever was inside was well worth my 1,000 yen. I was not disappointed.        All of that for 1000 yen. Mostly snacks, candy, and cup noodles, sure. Also, under the candy you'll see a warm pair of fuzzy red socks with white polka dots which were left over from some coca-cola campaign, according to the package. I think the white envelopes contained towels of some sort, but as it has been a year, I'm not entirely sure.    Nowadays you can find a lot of information about these sales online before you go to the stores. Just search for the local shopping mall online and you can find a list of participating stores and deals on the website. For instance, this is the deal I hope to take advantage of tomorrow: 5 pairs of kids Sanrio socks for 1000yen. A good deal if you have a small child who is occasionally obsessed with Hello Kitty, I'd say.    In addition to the fukubukuro, other sales are also a big deal on the first few days of the year. Check out your local retailers for their sales information.    One national chain that I usually spend at least 2,000 yen at around the first of the year is Mister Donut. If you're a fan of donuts, it's usually a good call. In previous years, the 2,000 yen fukubukuro from Mister Donut has included 20 donut coupons (good for one donut each at any point before March of the new year) in addition to an article of service-ware (glass, plate, or mug in different years), a calendar, and a towel or blanket. I may be forgetting some additional elements, but that doesn't stop it from being a good deal if you like donuts and eat more than 20 donuts in 3 months. My family does.    Keep in mind that while Japan's sales days are not nearly as rambunctious as those in some other countries, the shopping experience can still be difficult, exhausting, and even frustrating. If you too are planning to brave the crowds for the chance to get a bargain, remember to take care of yourself. Avoid getting hangry (hungry-angry) by eating at least a little something before you head out and don't be afraid to take a break when you need to. If you have small children, leave them with a trusted sitter or keep a close eye on them. Make sure they have what they need, too (a juice box, a snack, a potty break, whatever) as you make your way through the crowds.    So what lucky bags are you buying? Which stores offer the best bargains for you?Oh, and Happy New Year!

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.

Christmas in Japan - The German way

I´ve been living in Japan already a few years, but the Christmas season always brings back the memories of my hometown and I wish to be there. But mostly I can not go back every year so I´m trying my best to enjoy christmas in Japan.  The Christmas atmosphere is totally different here.  The following points are very different than what I used to know:-    The weather is always too warm!     At least in Tokyo it can be sometimes amazing hot during the Christmas holidays (up to 20 degree). And of course there is no snow when it is so hot outside. -    People tend to go out for a date on Christmas eve. Usually Christmas is a holiday for the whole family in other countries. In Japan oshogatsu (new year's celebration) is the big family come together day. For many people Christmas is a romantic day, that´s why especially couples like to spend that day together. -    Christmas Illumination/light up:First time I saw those Illumination events in Tokyo, I was very surprised. I didn´t understand what it has to do with Christmas. In my home country (Germany) we don´t have those light ups. People usually hang some Christmas decoration like lightning stars or candle at their windows at home. -    Christmas Food:The typical Christmas food in Japan is chicken and Christmas cake. This tradition comes from a very old TV spot of Kentucky fried chicken. I guess nowhere else you will find this kind of food combination. In Germany there are many different kinds of dishes we are eating. Usually for the Christmas eve it is very popular to eat raclette or potato salad and sausages (it depends on the region). For the Christmas lunch on 25. and 26. December we have the big Christmas roast like duck, rabbit, goose or turkey. And of course all the time you can enjoy typical Christmas sweet like “Lebkuchen” or almond biscuit.-    Christmas markets open very late:Most of the Christmas markets in Japan open 2 weeks before Christmas and end right after Christmas. So always make sure to check out when they are open. Usually the Christmas season starts at the beginning of December, except in Japan.If I´m staying in Japan during the Christmas season, I´m trying my best to do as many traditional Christmas things as I can. Usually at the beginning of December, I´m starting to decorate the whole apartment with Christmas ornaments. For the right scent I´m used to put some cinnamon and orange on a small plate and put them in every room. Around mid of December, I´m baking together with friends some Christmas cookies and the kids love to make a small “Lebkuchenhaus” which looks like the small house of the bad witch of the Grimm fairytale “Hansel and Gretel”. After Christmas you can eat the whole house because it is mostly made from sugar, “Lebkuchen” and other sweets.As soon Christmas is coming, I´m taking out the big two meter Christmas tree. Unfortunately it is very difficult to find a big real Christmas tree, so I´m used to put a fake one. To decorate the tree with many ornaments and electronic candles are a typical tradition in my family and usually a lot of fun. The morning of Christmas eve in Japan is always a very busy time for me. I´m standing the whole time in the kitchen to cook for my Japanese family. We just celebrate one day in japan because usually nobody has off, when it is during the week. The typical Christmas lunch is a mix of all typical German food. Mostly every year I´m cooking a very huge duck which I ordered online, german style potato salad, red cabbage and octopus salad (that´s the Japanese part). As dessert we filling our stomach with Lebkuchen. After eating all those food we need to move our bodies. That´s why we visit the nearby Christmas market. In our case the Hibiya Christmas market is the closest. Also it has a very big candle pyramid original from Germany. Especially in the evening it looks very great! We just walk around and check out all the handcraft-/foodstores and drink a cup of “Glühwein” (hot wine).As soon it´s getting evening we are heading back to home and open all the Christmas presents which are laying under the Christmas tree. Most people just give presents to little kids, but I like the idea to also give a small present to the whole family members and friends. Then we are turning off all the lights, except from the Christmas tree, and watch all together a typical Christmas movie like the “Christmas carol”. My favorite one if from the muppets!The day will end in a typical Japanese way with eating delicious sushi at a nearby restaurant. Even I can´t celebrate in my hometown, I like now the way I´m celebrating in Japan too.

Getting into the Christmas Spirit (in the Countryside)

       Are you celebrating Christmas in Japan this year, but don't live in any major city? Finding it hard to get into the Christmas spirit when all the "cool wintery Japanese things" you see online seem to be happening in Tokyo or Osaka, while you live way-far-away from both? Don't worry. I'm there with you, and I've been doing this for years.     Most foreigners in Japan seem to gravitate toward the major metropolitain areas, and that's no surprise. Population trends in the native inhabitants correspond to this. The big cities are where the people are. Where the jobs are. Where the fun and excitement and extravagant, crazy Japanese-ness all reside.     But then there's the rest of the country. If you're like me, the distance from home seems more palpable this time of year. For me, that's partially because of the weather (Texas has freezing weekends followed by 30 degree Celsius weeks. Miyagi, not so much), but the holidays that come at the end of this month do have an effect as well. Not being in the semi-constant distraction of a larger city or in the warm embrace of your country of origin, things can get sad pretty fast. Here are four tips on how to get through that. 1) Decorate    Even if it's a few little things from the 100 yen store, do it. Put those few things up. I have a tree I bought at Daiso in Nagoya for 735 yen back in December of 2009. I still decorate it with cheap, colorful balls and a handful of other ornaments, mostly won from crane games.     Rirakuma, a gloomy bear, a Kirby in Link's costume, why not? They all look pretty good on the geek-tree.    If a tree is too much (or you lack the space for it), even a little garland or a stocking can be a nice touch to an otherwise cold semi-bleak winter space. 2) See the "Illumination"      The first time a Japanese person used this fantastic bit of Katakana on me, I thought he was talking about a weird, quasi-religious gathering of sorts. Maybe that's just me. I corrected all of my students into explaining it for foreign ears. "Holiday Light Display" is what I taught them and I stand by that being a more accurate description.        Despite my 8 years of living in various non-urban locations, I have never lived in a city that didn't have a holiday light display somewhere. You can tell my current town has more than twice the population of my last town because the display has more relevance to the holidays, featuring Santa, reindeer and even the shape of a church-like building. The first "illumination" I ever saw contained a tunnel of fairy lights and a 2-deminsional dolphin. While dolphins are cool, I was left pondering the relevance to Christmas especially in Gifu, one of the few land-locked prefectures.     Even though the light displays may be weird, and very Japanese, and not quite what you might see back home, going out and being a part of the twinkly lights can be really comforting, even if it's just as a reminder than fairy lights exist here, too. 3) Go into "The City"      If you're in the countryside, odds are you know how to get to at least one larger city, probably by train. Make a point of doing this at least once before the holidays are over so you can see some beautiful and profoundly weird stuff as well as stock up on whatever necessities from home that you can find at the import shops.     This is Clis road, part of Sendai's major shopping arcade which spans several blocks, eventually connecting the area around the east exit of JR's Sendai Station with Ichibancho, home of the bars and evening entertainment. As it is the shopping arcade, it makes sense that the major decoration for Christmas is a massive balloon depicting Sendai Shiro, the merchant-friendly cultural and historical figure of the region, dressed as Santa on a sleigh pulled by a single red-nosed reindeer. For years I thought he was a random monk, but no. Sendai Shiro was an actual person who lived in the area more than a century ago. Businesses that he favored tended to prosper while those he dismissed tended to dwindle. Somehow this led him to become something of a religious icon for business owners. Mitakisan shrine, pictured to the right in the photo above, is actually dedicated to Sendai Shiro.    This massive decoration is featured every year, so if you're not in the area this month but want to see this for yourself, head out to Miyagi next December. 4) Enjoy Seasonal Beverages     Japan is great for creating new novelty flavors and temporary menus to fit just a few months of the year. Winter is no exception. Starbucks, Tully's, Doutor, and most other chain coffee shops offer a few select beverages for the season. Many other retailers including convenience stores and grocery stores also offer drink and snack options for winter not seen the rest of the year. Check some out while you can! You might even find a new favorite. Of course the season will end and the menus will change, but seeing this new favorite flavor might give you something to look forward to when things start to cool down in 2017.      This 7-11 purchase was the closest to apple cider I've had in this country. The warm and fruity drink is apparently inspired by the winter beverages of Germany and is spiced with cardamon, cinnamon, and cloves. Unlike mulled wine, it is completely non-alcoholic. Look for it in the hot beverage section alongside a few other seasonal options, likely to be equally delicious.However you are spending the holiday season, remember to stay warm and take care. Happy holidays!

Strolling around the Yokohama Christmas Market

Last weekend my husband and I went to Yokohama – first for getting some Shinkansen tickets, second for doing some Christmas shopping and third: to visit the Christmas market in Yokohama.  As you may know there are some Christmas markets held around Japan right now. One is situated at Yokohama's Red Brick Warehouse, the so called Akarenga (赤レンガ倉庫). This year is already the 6th year in a row the event taking place there. It's held from 26th November to 25th December 2016. For me as German native I'm used to visit Christmas markets in my home country more than once every year. So also the tradition of Christmas markets original comes from Europe. In Yokohama you can find German-styled Christmas market with pretty nice looking huts having Christmas figures like Santa Claus and snow men on their roof. Even some snow was brought there this year and someone built a quickly melting snowman close to the entrance. For sure you also could find a big Christmas tree there which was shining in bright lights. People were lining up for taking a memorial picture in front of it.  At the stalls they were selling food and drinks – some typical and not so typical stuff for a German-styled Christmas market. You even could buy some (super expensive) Christmas ornaments if you want. They had sausages, schnitzel, Christmas cake (Stollen) and more. For sure you could drink hot wine (Glühwein) in different tastes like the traditional red hot wine, but also white wine version or apple one. I decided for the apple version within a super small papercup. Indeed, be prepared you might need to wait in long lines if you want to buy something. That’s why we ended up without eating something there…There is no entrance fee, however, the prices of food and drinks alone are expensive enough in my opinion. If you want to go there: the Christmas market is opened from 11 am to 11 pm every day until 25th December, light up starts from 4 pm. Find more information (in Japanese) on the official website.   If you finished looking around the stalls you can go ice skating at Art Rink. It’s directly next to the Christmas market and will stay there until 19th February 2017. As adult you need to pay 500 yen for entering the ice rink and additional 500 yen for rental skates.

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