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Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analogue for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January, but, as with Christmas cards, their late arrival is acceptable.

Here’s the Ampontan nengajo for 2011 with my apologies for its delayed delivery, which pushes the limits for acceptable late arrivals. As we get ready for our Great Leap Forward in the year of the rabbit, let’s take a quick look back at what happened in Japan during yearend 2010.

It started with a thorough housecleaning, as December is the month for spring cleaning in these parts. That includes Shinto shrines, which are de rigeur as a destination on New Year’s Eve or the first three days of the New Year for those who follow the tradition. Instead of climbing on tall ladders in those clothes for susubarai, or cleaning the dust from the eaves, the shrine priests and the miko (the Shinto equivalent of altar boys) make it easy on themselves by attaching bamboo grass leaves to poles so they can swipe from the ground. Here, eight priests and miko at the Gokoku jinja in Oita City, Oita are wielding four-meter-long poles in their devotion to ensure that cleanliness is next to godliness.

They also hung a 10-meter-long shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw denoting a sacred space. This one weighed about 200 kilos, and was made with the help of senior citizens clubs and veterans groups. The straw came from rice grown in a special field called a shinsenden (offering/paddy).

Everything—everything—gets cleaned at yearend, and that includes the 24 loggerhead and green turtles at the sea turtle museum in Tokushima City. Here’s Hamataro getting sponged to remove the moss and crud, after the big guy reached the turtle equivalent of kanreki (age 60) this year. They also changed the water in the pool to give their charges something clean to gurk around in. The museum likes to encourage visitors this time of year because turtles are traditionally thought to bring good luck, and it’s hard to keep a turtle in one’s pocket instead of a rabbit’s foot.

Shinto shrines aren’t the only ones who settle the heavenly accounts at yearend—Buddhist temples get involved too. The priests at the Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a temple in Narita, Chiba, near Tokyo’s international airport, burned all the ofuda amulets from the year in their annual ceremony to give thanks for blessings to Fudo Myo’o, who is one nasty-looking dude to judge from the photo at the link. He’s a divinity reputed to convert anger into salvation and who also brings financial blessings.

It took 15 priests to create a fire from a 1.5 meter high pile of cryptomeria branches to burn all 50,000 of the tapped-out amulets while parishioners prayed. The temple says the ofuda are the body of Fudo Myo’o, (an East Asian echo of the Eucharist?) and returning them to flames gives thanks for health and safety.

The temple expected as many as three million visitors during the three-day New Year period.

Shrines need extra help to deal with all the people who turn up on their doorstep, so in addition to serving as the equivalent of altar boys, the miko play the role of Santa’s helpers. They hire young women specifically for this role to handle the public during the yearend holidays to augment the miko already on their staff. The recruits undergo a day of training, during which they’re taught how to properly conduct themselves on the premises, receive guests, and how to wear the unfamiliar clothing—the white hakui and red hibakama. The new miko above were among the 80 local university and junior college students hired by the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki.

If there’s anything better than a photo of miko trying on clothes, it’s two photos of miko trying on clothes, especially when they’re having so much fun. Here are some ladies learning the ropes—or perhaps the knots—from the full-timers at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Dazaifu is a large shrine, and they also hired 80 part-timers to work until the 7th. They expected two million people to visit during the first three days of the new year, the largest turnout in Kyushu.

Once they’ve finished decorating their bodies, it’s time to decorate the premises. There are almost as many types of New Year’s decorations as there are Christmas decorations, and one of them is this shimekazari being hung by Tokushima City Mayor Hara Hideki on the front gate at the Chuo Park in the city. He had to stand on a four-meter high ladder to put up the one-meter-long shimekazari, which weighed three kilograms.

It’s actually being hung to greet spring—Shinshun—which is a synonym for New Year’s, and was up until just yesterday. The gate naturally had to be cleaned before His Honor ascended the ladder, and that chore was handled by two city officials. As yet another demonstration of how that old time religion is still good enough for many, this is an older custom that had fallen out of practice but was restored in 1989. A matching decoration was hung on the entrance to the gardens of the old Tokushima castle located next door.

Another New Year’s decoration is the kadomatsu, which is placed in front of homes as an abode for the divinities. This 3.5-meter-high number was set up in front of the Ohmi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, on 13 December. It took two hours to make using mahonia berries and flowers as well as the traditional pine, bamboo, and plum. The Otsuans used to cut down the pine trees for their kadomatsu until six years ago, when they decided to get ecological and dig up a pine tree on the shrine grounds instead. They replanted it on the 15th.

Some shrines don’t use a kadomatsu, however. The Ikuta-jinja in Kobe creates a tree-like facsimile using 2,000 cryptomeria branches, a talisman the shrine has long used for good luck in the New Year. It too stood until the 15th.

The folks at the Ikuta shrine chose cryptomeria instead of pine because centuries ago a pine tree fell over during a flood and smashed the main shrine building. These are priests, after all, and they know how to pay attention to omens when they see one.

A group of about 30 priests and miko wrapped a 5-meter-high pole in straw and then arranged the branches.

Now for the souvenirs. Here’s a group of miko at the Asakunitsuko-jinja, in Koriyama, Fukushima, making hamaya, the arrows sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits, and which some also think provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. Dang, I need me one of those!

The four miko attached small trinkets to the hamaya that symbolize wishes for children or a bountiful harvest, and others that represent the rabbit. They made 5,000, and since they’ve been at this for centuries, they probably have a good idea of demand before they start. The proper way to dispose of these arrows, by the way, is to burn them in a ceremony at the end of the year, as with the ofuda amulets above. And no, they don’t shoot any flaming arrows!

The hamaya arrows are made and sold throughout the country, but some shrines think locally and produce unique items. For example, the Urahoro-jinja in Urahoro-cho Hokkaido, makes and sells oppai mori, or literally, breast protectors. The shrine has a reputation nationwide as a Mecca (to mix religious metaphors) for those wishing to have children, give safe birth, or give milk during nursing. That means their oppai mori is a popular product.

The custom derives from the tutelary deity for the shrine, which was a breast-shaped bump on a nearby large nara tree (called the common oak in English). Some women who had difficulty giving milk and went to the shrine to pray for help in early 20th century had their wish granted. The tree eventually collapsed, but the priests took their eyes off the sparrow and switched them to the important part to salvage it. That section of the tree was moved to a new shrine in 1982 at the request of the Urahoroans.

Sold for JPY 1,000 since 2006, the oppai mori are made from the wood of the nara tree and given a decoration based on a painting by a local artist. A nearby studio produces them individually in the shape of the human breast. Some have straps so they can be used for cell phones, and I’ll bet that’s a conversation starter.

Jack Seward, the unofficial patron saint of students of the Japanese language and country, died last year at the age of 86. Any native English speaker with any interest at all in fluency beyond a standard textbook has read his memoir/manual, Japanese in Action. Here’s one passage discussing local drinking habits:

The large family of gods (in Shinto mythology) who founded Japan were heavy sake drinkers. They were often drunk, and the mythology nowhere implies censure for this drunkenness. If it was good enough for the gods, why not for us? the Japanese ask. Think of what our attitude toward drinking might be if the Bible told us that Christ and his disciples met every afternoon at a Jerusalem cocktail lounge and got glassy-eyed.

So now you won’t be surprised that the Sanzo Inari-jinja in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, sells divine sake made by a brewer at nearby Minoshima-cho for New Year’s visitors. They even had a special packaging ceremony during which the head priest filled the first large bottle. He was followed by the three Misses Sanzo Inari, who filled 100-milliliter bottles and attached labels.

In the good old days, the parishioners could have a swig on site when they made their New Year’s visits, but the shrine changed its policy in 2007 and now only gives out bottles of the heavenly brew. They say it’s to prevent DWI, but it might also prevent some guys from getting any ideas about volunteering for oppai mori duty after eyeballing the young miko. Noshima Naomi, one of the misses, said:

We did this with the wish that people would feel good (kimochi yoku) as they greeted the new year.

I’ll bet!

Mochi rice cakes are a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient in Japan, and during the New Year, they’re also used to decorate the home. These are called kagami mochi, and some families still pound them out in the yard for the holidays.

The ingredient is a particularly glutinous form of rice, and Takanezawa-machi in Tochigi is a big rice production center. That’s how the local Yasuzumi-jinja got the big idea to decorate their shrine with jumbo mochi. The priests and miko don’t have to make it themselves, as the locals donate it as thanks for a good year and supplication for a good harvest next year. The mochi cakes they use have gotten jumboer over the years, and now weigh 500 kilograms. As you can see from the video above, they need some equipment to help haul it. The lower level is 110 centimeters in diameter, while the second is 80. The miko tote only the top level.

Though many people pay the traditional first visit to a shrine on the first, any time through the third is fine. The photo above is of the Taga-jinja in Taga-cho, Shiga, the shrine with the largest turnout in the region. About 160,000 people showed up on the first day of the year to pray and buy amulets. That was about 10,000 fewer than last year, but equilibrium was achieved when 150,000 people showed up on the 2nd, 10,000 more than last year.

The holiday shrine pilgrimage is an ecumenical affair, as even Buddhist priests come too. The priests at Kofuku-ji in Nara joined the Shinto priests on the 2nd in a prayer for peace in while paying their respects at the local Kasuga Taisha (a World Heritage site) and its affiliated Wakamiya-jinja. The Buddhist priests used to read sutras at the shrine every day during the Edo period, but that practice ended when the government legally forced the separation of the institutions during the Meiji period. They still hold joint ceremonies once a year, and this year the procession included nine priests of both varieties and two miko. They offered sake and rice during the Nikkuhajime-shiki ceremony and the priests took their chance to read some sutras. They they trooped over to Wakamiya and the Buddhists read the heart sutra just to make sure.

To top it off

Once upon a time before video games, children had special amusements on New Year’s—kite-flying, hanetsuki (a type of badminton) and top spinning. There are 450 years of tradition behind the Hakata koma, or tops, in Fukuoka. Upholding that tradition is the current Shuraku Chikushi, a woman, who describes how she maintains that tradition, performs, and makes the tops she uses during her performances in this fascinating English-language interview. The interview tells you as much about Japan and the Japanese as I could—including her intention to pass the art down to her taiko-playing, jazz-listening son. There are no videos on the Net, alas, but that photo of her balancing a spinning top on the edge of a folding fan is still impressive.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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Shogatsu 2009: Lighting up traditional Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 4, 2009

AT LEAST ONCE IN THEIR LIVES, usually in early adolescence, Americans make a point to stay up to midnight on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball of light slide down the tower above Times Square in New York City to herald the start of the new year. My niece even went there to see it in person a couple of years ago and still lived to tell the tale.

Never ones to be shy about borrowing an idea that strikes their fancy, the Japanese turn the night sky’s darkness into daylight throughout the country on 31 December. Many venues offer a special countdown coupled with entertainment and charge an admission fee. One of them is Mitsui Greenland, an amusement park a couple of hours down the road here in Kyushu.

More interesting than the ersatz events at amusement parks, however, is the way in which the Japanese have adapted the concept and retrofitted it to more traditional settings, such as Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.


For example, the Shinto priests in charge of the Himeji Gokoku shrine in Kobe, Hyogo, don’t light up a single ball—they light up 2,000 chochin, or traditional lanterns, on the shrine grounds. The first photo shows the chochin lit up earlier this week during a trial to see if any of the bulbs had burned out. Inspecting the fixtures seems to be another part of the miko‘s job description. If you were lucky enough to be there at midnight on 31 December, you would have gotten to see the real thing.

The event is called the Mantosai, which literally means The Festival of 10,000 Lights. Before you start wondering about truth in advertising, keep in mind that it’s not supposed to be taken literally. In China and Korea as well as Japan, the number 10,000 has long been used to mean “a very large amount” rather than 10,000 in round numbers.

The shrine says they offer the ceremony in the hope of a “bright” new year. Explained the chief priest, “This year has been filled with “dark” events, including the financial crisis, but we want to raise a light at the New Year in the hope that people will be reminded of the beautiful Japanese virtue of treasuring a richness of spirit.”


Another Shinto shrine took the opportunity to use the lighting to promote one of its most recognizable assets. The Kumano Hongu shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, light up their immense torii on the former shrine grounds at Oyu-no-hara from 31 December to 7 January. The second photo shows the dress rehearsal on 27 December, in which 13 spotlights placed around the torii were turned on at 5:00 p.m., just when it starts to get dark in these midwinter days.

The torii is 34 meters (111.55 feet) high and 42 meters wide at the maximum point, so it must surely be an impressive sight bathed in floodlights in the middle of a pitch black field. They purposely used a red light for the yatagarasu crest in the middle of the torii to set it off from the overall blue hue. That’s a mythical sacred magpie with three legs that was reputed to lead people to the proper path in life. Lit up like that, it’s almost as if there’s a neon arrow pointing to the Promised Land and flashing the message, Step Right This Way!

On New Year’s Eve, or o-misoka as they say in Japan, it was lit from 6:00 p.m. to 5 a.m., but for the rest of the week visitors will have to make do with just three hours from 6-9 p.m. (By the way, try this link for a previous post about the Yata Fire Festival at the same location. They use a nice lighting scheme for that event, too.)


Even more spiritually distant from the Times Square fleshpots is the ecumenical spirit of a group in Setochi, Okayama, which provides illlumination to more than one religious institution on Mt. Kamitera. The group was organized to preserve the joint Buddhist and Shinto culture that survives on the mountain, so they made sure to shine a light on both the main building of the Yokei-ji Buddhist temple and pagoda as well as the Toyohara Kitashima shrine. They used 150 lights for the temple, which is a nationally designated important cultural treasure, as well as the shrine and torii. The group gave visitors a taste of the brightness to come when they switched on the lights from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the 30th, but then they went the whole Hogmanay on the 31st by letting them burn from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. the next morning. For an extra decorative touch, they also placed candles and lanterns along the pathways.

And while you’re still recovering from having stuffed yourself with o-sechi ryori, pickled herring, black-eyed peas, or whatever other special foods custom dictates be scarfed down during the season, you can get clicky with some blasts from the past presenting other aspects of the Japanese New Year.

Here’s a look at the Big Shimenawa in Hiroshima.

What else is there to eat? Well, there’s mochi. And soba. And even whale and shark, for the more discriminating palates.

The Japanese also deck the halls with boughs of pine trees, and all sorts of other things.

And to conclude, the New Year’s firsts shall come last!

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Greeting the new year the Japanese way

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 30, 2008

YEAREND IS THE ENGLISH WORD used to describe both the end of the business year and the period during which New Year’s holiday events take place. The same word is used in Japan, but more frequently to denote the end of the business year. When referring to the period during which the holiday events take place, the Japanese tend to use the term nenmatsu nenshi, or year-end, year-beginning.


That’s because there are as many New Year’s events after the year begins as there are before it ends. Often, these events are held to mark the first occasion in the New Year people will perform a specific activity.

Everyone knows about the custom of the daily bath in Japan, for example, so it will be no surprise that one of the New Year events would be the first bath of the year at the Arima hot springs in Kobe (first photo). Naturally, they make a point of using the first bath water of the year.

This year, about 400 people were present to watch the tribute to the hot spring founders and the offering of a prayer for future prosperity. There was also a parade with mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines, and combined Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies.

Legend has it that the Arima hot springs were discovered by two gods, O’onamuchi-no-mikoto and Sukunahikona-no-mikoto. No one seems to have pinpointed the date of the discovery, but there are records of Imperial visits to the bath in the 7th century.

The facilities later fell into disrepair, but were restored by the monk Gyoki in the 8th century. It also was destroyed after an earthquake and rebuilt by the monk Ninsai in the 11th century. The spa waters of Arima must be superb for people to keep bringing the place back to life!


During the event, which is roughly 300 years old, employees of a local ryokan, or Japanese inn, and monks in ancient dress carry the mikoshi from a temple to a local elementary school. There they hold a ceremony to cool the water until it’s the right temperature for bathing. And by way of honoring tradition and thanking the people who made the spa what it is today, they also splash water on statues of Gyoki and Ninsai!


Since the start of a new year is a holiday, there’s no better way to spend one’s free time than by playing games—or in this case, cards, or karuta as they are traditionally called in Japanese (second photo).

The Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, held the first karuta competition of the year early in January with the help of the members of a local association called the Nihon Karuta-In. The women playing the game— dubbed the karuta princesses—dressed in the clothing of court nobles during the Heian period (794-1185).

This is not the Japanese version of gin rummy. Instead, the game is a fascinating blend of the artistic and the competitive. It is sometimes called hyakunin isshu, or Single Poems by a Hundred Poets. That name is an apt description because the poems used are a collection of 100 waka, or verses consisting of 31 syllables. These specific poems are thought to have been written by 100 different people during the period from the mid-7th century to no later than 1242. Here’s how the game is played.

There are two sets of 100 cards on which the poems are written. One set is used by a reader, and the other set is used by the competitors, who face each other with the cards lying on the floor between them. The reader recites the first three lines of the waka, and the two contestants compete to be the first to take the card on which the full poem is written.

Don’t let the costumes fool you—those ladies have lightning fast reflexes, and by the rules, they don’t have to grab the cards. All that’s required is to be the first to flick them to the side. Simply watching a match can be engrossing, as it combines elegant historical clothing and knowledge of poetry with the steely gaze, calm demeanor, and cobra-quick attack of seasoned competitors.


Flower Arranging

Those women who prefer artistic pursuits without the head-to-head competition might have chosen to participate instead in the first flower arranging ceremony of the New Year on the 5th at the headmaster’s dojo of the Ikenobo school of flower arranging in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward (third photo). A total of 1,400 people ranging in age from 11 to 97 came from around the country to create their own floral works of art.

The event dates back to the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when people met to exchange New Year’s greetings and pledge to promote the art of flower arranging. The practice soon became an annual custom.

The 11-year-old girl who participated, Yamane Ayaka, told an interviewer she visualized a flower garden during the creation of her work, and that she hoped to continue flower arranging as a junior high school student.

It’s likely that Ayaka got her early start in flower arranging because her parents are involved in the art. The two characters used to write her first name mean “brightly-colored flower”.


Read a Japanese newspaper early in January, and you’re almost certain to see photographs such as this one in which the practitioners of traditional Japanese archery take aim for their first shots of the New Year in their own ceremony (fourth photo). The archers shown here gathered on the 3rd at a site in Otsu, Shiga, to demonstrate their resolve to improve their skills in the coming year.


It was sponsored by the Shiga Archery League, and about 80 members ranging in age from 16 to 83 participated. The head of the organization conducted a formal ceremony called the yawatashi, or “handing over the arrow”, to open the event, and then 10 people formed lines to shoot two arrows at a target 28 meters away.


Most of these events are derived from centuries-old Japanese traditions, and the participants are usually serious hobbyists. One exception, however, was the first firefighting drills of the New Year conducted by the Tokyo Fire Department with 2,800 firefighters on the morning of the 6th at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. The participants also included personnel from regional fire departments and corporate firefighting teams.


This was a full-scale drill, complete with entertainment. A total of nine squads were mobilized, and they used 130 trucks and four helicopters. Tokyo Fire Chief Teruyuki Kobayashi started the morning off by remarking that Tokyo area firefighters were given a reminder of the difficulty of their work last year by their struggles to contain a fire resulting from an explosion at a Shibuya bathing facility. He urged the men to use their training and experience to protect the lives and safety of the citizens.

Then they showed off their firefighting and rescue skills in exercises based on conditions they might expect to deal with when confronted by fires in buildings and ships, or collapsed buildings in earthquakes.
The event closed with the acrobatic display shown in the fifth photo of the traditional ladder-climbing techniques firefighters used during the Edo period (1606-1868). Some of those moves seem as if they might have been performed more to impress the audience than to demonstrate actual techniques that were used to fight fires!


Many different decorations are used during the New Year’s holidays, as we saw in this previous post, and most of them originate with Shinto. Because some of these decorations are thought to be associated with the divinity—or even considered to be a divinity’s temporary dwelling–they are not casually tossed in the trash when the holidays are over.


Instead, Shinto shrines conduct a special ceremony known as the dondoyaki to ritually burn these items. This particular New Year’s burning took place on the 7th at the Takayama shrine in Tsu, Mie, with a prayer for peace, health, and safety in the coming year (last photo).

The priests held a special fire-lighting ceremony at 8 a.m., after which they started the fire at the site for sacred incineration with 15 parishioners helping.

After all the decorations were burned, the shrine thoughtfully distributed nanakusakayu, or rice gruel with the traditional seven spring herbs, to visitors.

It’s worth remembering that these events are held by and for members of the general public with an interest in traditional activities (except for the firefighters, of course). In Japan, at least, there are still pleasant and rewarding ways to spend one’s time during a time of year that for some is just dead space to be filled by watching television.

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Shogatsu: Pounding Mochi for New Year’s Day in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 30, 2007

NOW THAT the Christmas decorations have been taken down, Japanese attention has turned to the real yearend holiday, which is the most important holiday on the calendar—New Year’s Day.

Though Christmas has become a part of life in Japan, it’s little more than a festival of light and a commercial opportunity. It may be a pleasant diversion for children and young people, but unless it falls on a weekend, 25 December is still a working day here.


One of the perennially popular seasonal songs in the US is I’ll Be Home for Christmas (written in 1943 at the height of World War II). But the yearend holiday the Japanese come home for falls on 1 January, and that’s the day everyone around the country has been getting ready for.

Just as there are many traditions associated with Christmas in Western countries, there are also many traditions associated with New Year’s Day in Japan.

One such custom is mochitsuki, or mochi rice pounding, which is performed to produce a traditional food. Mochi is a type of rice cake made from a very glutinous form of rice, and in the old days people made it by hand using a mortar and a wooden mallet. Steaming rice is pounded into sticky whole and then formed into either rounded cakes or sheets that are cut into squares.

Mochi has long been an essential part of some religious ceremonies, and none are more important than those held at yearend. Three mochi cakes of different sizes, called kagamimochi (mirror mochi), are displayed as a decoration in both homes and shrines. The cakes themselves are also eaten in zoni, a kind of soup that can be made in several different ways. The most auspicious food eaten during the season, zoni is thought to have originated in the 15th century in a ritual for partaking food with the divinities.


Those people who still pound mochi for tradition’s sake do it out in the yard at their home with family or friends. But the custom is also performed at other sites. One example is the mochitsuki shown in the first photo at the municipal offices of Mima, Tokushima Prefecture. The city employees of Mima hold the ceremony annually to mark the end of the work year, but they add a twist—they swing their hammers in time with music played on shamisens.

Twenty members of Udatsu, a shamisen mochitsuki preservation association, work the mochi while music is performed in the background. This year, they hammered out 36 kilograms worth. Other city employees formed the rice cakes, which were distributed to people who came to the offices that day. The custom in Mima of combining mochi with music predates City Hall–it has 420 years of history behind it.

Mochi demand is much too great to fill completely by hand, however, so even as you read this small businesses throughout the country are operating round-the-clock to put a smile on the faces of mochi lovers nationwide. The second photo shows the mochi made at Co-Op Kobe in the city of the same name, which began production this season on the 26th. Their small plant employs 230 people, including students hired just for the season, and the work will go on 24 hours a day for a six-day period until the 31st.

This year, they expect to make about 10.5 million cakes weighing 40 grams each. The reports cheerfully inform us that if the Co-Op Kobe cakes were piled one on top of another, the stack would be 210 kilometers high, or 56 times higher than Mt. Fuji.


The folks in the previous two examples are making mochi to be eaten, but third photo shows the miko, or shrine maidens, at the Suwa Shinto shrine at Nishiyama-machi in Nagasaki City making two giant kagamimochi for decoration.

The two bruisers they’ll be slapping together are made with mochi rice grown in Isahaya and will weigh 30 kilograms each. After they finished the pounding, they let the mochi set until the 30th–today!–and then put the two huge cakes together. One miko said the more she pounded, the more she enjoyed the sensation of the rice sticking to the mallet, though she still wound up with callouses. (And probably sore shoulders, too.)

Not all mochi rice is used for food. This is Japan, after all, so some of it is diverted to sake production, as you can see in the fourth photo.

The Aso Shinto shrine in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, makes sweet sake to distribute to the people who visit the shrine on New Year’s Day. They finished the job on the 21st, and are letting fermentation work its magic until New Year’s Eve.

They use rice donated by parishioners. The reports say that sake made with mochi rice has a more full-bodied, sweeter flavor, but I’ve never had any, so I can’t confirm that.


Sometimes at this time of year people in Japan ask me if I’ve got that New Year’s spirit, but I always have to disappoint them by saying no. The New Year’s spirit, much like the Christmas spirit, is the result of holiday experiences accumulated from the age of zero, and the American New Year’s holidays of my childhood were too boring to create nostalgic memories. All the fun came during Christmas, it was too cold to go outside and play, and television, with college football games morning, noon, and night, was even more boring than usual.

I did pound mochi once during my first year in Japan. Rather than put me in the New Year’s spirit, however, it just reminded me how lucky I was that I don’t have to make a living from manual labor. It’s a lot of work swinging that mallet, and it took a lot longer than I thought for the rice to congeal into a whole. I enjoy the taste and consistency of unpounded mochi rice, but don’t consider mochi rice cakes a treat—too gummy and hard to chew—so I’ve politely declined invitatations since then. The enjoyment came from the sweat-based camaraderie developed with the other people who worked just as hard as I did.

For a video of mochitsuki, look in the third column from the right on the list of this page of Brovision videos of life in Japan (link also on the right sidebar). That’s exactly what happens!

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Nippon Noel: Japanese Christmas tree finale!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2007

MOST OF THE JAPANESE CHRISTMAS TREE designs we’ve seen over the past few days have been recognizabe as Christmas trees, albeit from a unique perspective. This Christmas night post, however, features three trees that really stretch the envelope for Yuletide design.

The arrangement of lights shown in the first photo isn’t even called a tree, though it is conical in shape and definitely suggests a Christmas tree. The creators refer to it as an objet, however, and it has been on display in a park in Sumoto, Hyogo Prefecture all month.


As with two of the PET bottle trees shown in the previous post, this is also a project of the local JCs. The group has been involved with public lighting displays in the city during the Christmas and New Year’s season since 1999, but they substantially changed the exhibit’s design this year.

The tree–sorry, objet—is 15 meters high and five meters in diameter. An estimated 10,000 red, orange, and yellow LEDs were used in its creation. There is also a tunnel created by lights nearby, and both are surrounded by a 1.5-meter wide path, along which are hung 6,500 PET bottle lamps carved by local kindergarten students.

The object at the top of the objet is what appears to be an upside-down human figure, but none of the reports I saw included an explanation of what it was supposed to be doing. If we let our imaginations roam freely and look at the exhibit upside down, we could say it resembles the Spirit of Christmas from Outer Space beaming his Noel Ray down on the people of Sumoto.

Whatever it is, it will be lit every night from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. until 6 January.

The next tree doesn’t need electricity to create a glow—a subtle illumination emanates from it naturally. That’s because it’s made out of an estimated 10,000 cultured pearls.

On display at the Japan Pearl Center in Kobe, the two-meter long tree is worth about 30 million yen (about US$ 263,000).


Assembly of the tree required about three months. The pearls, which range from eight millimeters to one centimeter in diameter, are hung like chandeliers on 400 threads from the ceiling and illuminated vertically. The creation–pearl objet?–is said to shine with a mysterious milky white color when viewed in a dimly lit room.

The pearl tree (on which no partridge could roost) was made by the Pearl City Kobe Association, a group that consists of 70 companies in the industry. Their objective was not only to celebrate Christmas, but also to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the development of the Akoya Cultured Pearl technique, which was the key to making pearls more inexpensive and therefore accessible to the public at large.

The Akoya Cultured Pearl technique for coaxing oysters to create pearls on demand was invented by two Japanese, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise, and successfully commercialized by Kokichi Mikimoto. The story is fascinating, and you can read more about it at the bottom of this page. Mikimoto had a long history of creating elaborate structures with pearls, so it is likely the association did not come up with the idea of making a large pearl Christmas tree on the spur of the moment.


The next tree is my personal favorite for the sheer brilliance of the idea alone. This Christmas tree is located in the Omotesando Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo. In Japanese, a subway is literally an underground railroad (chikatetsu[do]). Since the station is underground, it only makes sense that the portion of the tree visible there would be the roots. Therefore, this decorated Christmas tree is not the part above the ground, but the part below the ground—the Christmas roots.

The tree—sorry, roots–are in the Echika Omotesando section of the station, which is a commercial area with restaurants and shops. Instead of giving the tree’s height, the reports say it is “two meters deep”.

The pink ornaments hanging from the tree are actually Christmas cards on which messages can be written. Every Friday for the past month, the nearby shops have distributed the cards to customers, who jotted down their Christmas wishes. The cards are then placed on the tree.
Japanese readers and those familiar with Japan will recognize this as a custom borrowed from Tanabata on 7 July, during which people write their wishes on colored pieces of paper and hang them from a bamboo tree. For as often as it is claimed that the Japanese are an insular people with a tendency toward xenophobia, there are in fact more spontaneous expressions of multiculturalism here than people think–and this represents another one.

Finally, lest you think the country has floated over the edge into the Christmas twilight zone, here’s a more conventional decoration on a more conventional Japanese piece of architecture.


That’s the Megane Bridge in the Isahaya Park in Isahaya, just outside of Nagasaki City, shown in the fourth photo. The word megane in Japanese means eyeglasses, and the reason the bridge was given that name is obvious once you look at the photograph. Built in 1839 in imitation of the older and smaller Megane Bridge in Nagasaki City, which is reportedly the oldest stone arch bridge in the country, it has been designated an important cultural treasure by the national government.

This year the city decided to festoon the bridge with lights, and they used an estimated 5,000 of them for the project. They’ve been on from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every night since the 15th. The bridge has been decorated in conjunction with a larger event that also involves a 10-meter-high light tower and roadside bushes and trees hung with another 25,000 lights. (This is what the bridge looks like when it’s not decorated for Christmas.)

The show will last until 14 January, after which the lights will be removed, the objets will be dismantled, the PET bottles recycled, the roots restored to the dirt, and the country again returns to normal!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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