Japanese culture

Cultural Kotoba: Tsuyu (梅雨) – the rainy season

Japan’s rainy season, or tsuyu (梅雨/つゆ) is nearly upon us, which means spring is over and summer is around the corner!

梅雨入り(つゆいり; tsuyu iri)

The start of the rainy season; usually early June

梅雨明け(つゆあけ; tsuyu ake)

The end of the rainy season; usually mid-July

The kanji compound for tsuyu is literally 梅 (うめ;ume) meaning ‘plum’ and 雨 (あめ; ame) meaning ‘rain’. There are a few different ideas regarding how these two kanji came to represent the rainy season. One popular reason is that the rainy season coincides with the time when plums become ripe. 梅雨 can also be read as ばいう (baiu) originating from Chinese, which is thought to refer to the humidity which allows mould to flourish.

Why does Japan have a rainy season?

Japan experiences this because winds from the Sea of Okhotsk north of Hokkaido comes into contact with warm winds coming up from the Pacific Ocean. This leads to the humid and often rainy period before summer begins. Despite the name, the probability of rain during this time is only about 50%.

長靴 (ながぐつ; nagagutsu) = rainboots and 傘(かさ; kasa) = umbrella

Having said that, an umbrella or 傘 (かさ: kasa) is definitely a must – you can choose to buy a cheap clear umbrella from the convenience store, or invest in something more hardwearing. There is a wide range of clothes and accessories sold in shops that are both stylish and practical.

Tsuyu can be a troublesome time since the humidity makes it difficult to dry clothes. A dehumidifier/ 除湿機(じょしつき; joshitsuki) is necessary to stop mould (カビ; kabi) growing everywhere. This is also the time when food poisoning is a particular danger, so extra care has to be taken when storing and preparing food.

What to look out for during tsuyu

All of the rain and high humidity is annoying, but there are some interesting things to look out for during tsuyu:

Hydrangeas

Hydrangea flowers are known in Japanese as 紫陽花 (あじさい; ajisai). Hydrangeas grow in abundance during the rainy season and are therefore strongly associated with it. Places such as Meigetsuin Temple in Kamakura are particularly famous for their hydrangeas.

Fewer tourists

The rain generally puts people off travelling, so outdoor tourist spots tend to be quieter. Instead, indoor attractions like cafes, onsen, aquariums and museums are more popular. However, if you are happy to brave the weather, some places are just as charming to visit in the rain. Hokkaido is the best destination for those that hate tsuyu as the prefecture is lucky enough to avoid the rainy season!

Teru teru bouzu てるてる坊主

Making teru teru bouzu is a cute way to wish for clear weather. These handmade dolls are often made from tissue paper or cloth – it is best to hang them outside the day before. The verb てる (照る; teru) means “shining” and 坊主 (ぼうず; bouzu) is the name for a Buddhist monk. Young children usually learn to make them at school, and there is even a (rather sinister) nursery rhyme!

Looks like the teru teru bouzu didn’t work this time…

Rainbows

With all the rainy weather, rainbows 虹 (にじ; niji) are much more common during this time. I think this is one of the many reasons why tsuyu provides an opportunity to take some fantastic pictures!


This post was inspired by me watching an episode of Rilakkuma and Kaoru that was set during the rainy season. Although not explicitly stated, you can tell the time of year from things such as Kaoru wearing rainboots and making teru teru bouzu, as well as the appearance of mushrooms and a frog in her apartment. These things would be very familiar to Japanese people but less so to international audiences.

Have you got any tips for surviving wet weather? Let me know in the comments!

Guest Post: Learn Japanese Food Through Guru Navi’s Dish of the Year (今年の一皿)

Following on from my post on Unseen Japan, I’m super excited to be publishing the first ever guest post on this blog, written by head writer Jay. This is a great post for foodies and Japanese learners alike!

Learn about the beautiful diversity of Japanese food through some of its more recent variations.
Rights attribution: よっちゃん必撮仕事人 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

One of the things I’ve learned over the years of studying Japanese is how much more rich and diverse Japanese food is than I first thought.

As an American, my primary exposure to Japanese cuisine is through the small subsection that’s become popular in America – namely ramen, udon, sushi (primarily 巻き寿司 (maki-zushi), or rolled sushi) and Japanese curry. So when I first arrived in Japan, I received quite a shock.

I wasn’t accustomed to the serving style of washoku (和食), where a number of small dishes are artfully prepared and presented. I didn’t realize that tofu could be prepared so many ways. I had no inkling of the numerous ingredients that were specific to Japanese cuisine – such as kamaboko (蒲鉾), a rolled fish paste, and konnyaku (コンニャク; 蒟蒻), a gelatin made from potatoes.

And I hardly knew just how popular Japanese takes on Western food were.

As diverse as Japanese food is, its diversity intensifies every year as creative food bloggers and restaurants invent new spins on old favorites, or adopt Western dishes to suit the Japanese palette. The smartphone app company Guru Navi (think of them as the Yelp of Japan) recognizes these innovations every December by naming a “Plate of the Year” (今年の一皿; kotoshi no hitosara).

In this article, I’ll give you, gentle reader, a tour of Japanese cuisine by way of some of its most recent innovations, as well as some of the tantalizing runners-up. Hopefully, this short introduction to Japanese cuisine will not only help you understand not only the richness of Japanese food, but some of the unique vocabulary associated with it as well.

2015: Onigirazu (おにぎらず)

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Making onigirazu is simple, and should appeal to the lazy person in all of us.
Rights Attribution: marrmya(画房マルミヤ) / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

This is one of my favorite past winners, if only because it’s such a great way to remember a Japanese grammatical construct!

Most Japanese learners who’ve been to Japan know of onigiri, a rice patty treated with sushi vinegar (寿司酢; sushi-su) and wrapped in seaweed (海苔; nori). The term itself consists of the honorific o- married to the noun form of the verb 握る (nigiru), meaning “to grip”.

Onigirazu is a variation on onigiri. The word is made by using the -zu grammatical construct, which means “without doing”. (E.g., the –zu form of 思う (omou), “to think”, is 思わずに, “without thinking”.) So onigirazu literally means “without gripping”. And that’s exactly what it is: a sushi “sandwich” made by lightly folding the nori wrapper around the sushi rice, and then cutting it in half like a sandwich. Some sort of filling – egg, meat, spam, or fish – is inserted into the rice to add flavor and nutrition, and to help the dish look pretty as all heck.

Guru Navi cites several reasons for choosing onigirazu for its 2015 winner. First, with an increasing number of tourists coming to Japan, onigirazu is a great way to get people talking by offering a new spin on a traditional favorite. Second, the popularity of onigirazu in 2015 spread beyond the Japanese home, and found its way onto various restaurant menus, making it a new culinary phenomenon. Third, with people in Japan eating less rice than ever before out of health concerns, onigirazu is a good way to encourage consumption of one of Japan’s oldest national food products.

2015 Runners-Up

Five other dishes were nominated for 2015, including but not limited to:

  • Japanese whiskey (ジャパニーズウイスキー). Thanks in part to clever advertising and the resurgence of the Japanese highball, the Japanese whiskey industry experienced a huge boom that continues to this day.
  • Nodoguro (のどぐろ). A well prepared fish makes for a great Japanese meal, and in 2015, the rare and expensive blackthroat seaperch was the culinary sensation of the nation.
  • Superfood (スーパーフード). Given Japan’s health conscious focus, it’s no wonder that foods such as goji berries and quinoa made their presence felt in 2015.

2016: Cilantro Cuisine (パクチー料理; pakuchii ryouri)

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If your taste buds hate cilantro, then I apologize for this picture.
Rights Attribution: マーボー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

My Tokyo-born wife, who insists that cilantro (a.k.a. coriander) tastes like lukewarm dish soap water, was probably none too happy about 2016’s selection.

Once primarily a staple of ethnic food in Japan, in 2016 cilantro crossed over into mainstream cuisine. One of the most popular variations was the cilantro salad (パクチーサラダ), which can be made many different ways, but always features a big heap (山盛り; yamamori – “mountain-sized portion”) of cliantro as the main ingredient. But the ingredient also found its way into traditional nabe (鍋; hot pot) recipes, as well as into cocktails and even candy.

The word pakuchii is a loan word (外来語 gairaigo) from Thai (ผักชี). Part of its appeal is, not surprisingly, its influence on health and wellness: the Vitamin K and calcium in cilantro fosters blood coagulation and healthy bones. The ingredient gained such popularity in Japan that it spawned a neologism: パクチスト (pakuchisuto), or “Cilantro-ist”. There are still festivals (パクチーフェス; pakuchii fesu) celebrating the food. (Here’s a video tour by Japanese vlogger Ayano, just in case you think I’m pulling a fast one.)

Video: Vlogger Ayano takes viewers on a tour of a Cilantro Festival

2016 Runners-Up

Some of the 2016 also-rans include:

  • Japanese Wine (日本ワイン; nihon wain). Japan continued to booze it up in 2016, with locally produced wine finally finding respect in the marketplace.
  • New Style Gyoza (進化系餃子; shinkakei gyouza). What’s wrong with gyoza? Nothing! But in 2016 restaurants and home cooks began experimenting with new and unique ways they could make delicious bites with gyoza wrappers. Check out some of the deliciousness for yourself here.
  • Roast Beef Bowl (ローストビーフ丼; roosuto biifu donburi). The classic donburi bowl got a makeover in 2016 when someone discovered that piling it high with roast beef and topping it with a raw egg tasted as good as it sounds.

2017: Chicken Breast Cuisine (鶏むね肉料理; tori mune niku ryouri)

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In 2017, health-conscious Japan fell in love with lean chicken breast.
Rights Attribution: NikDonetsk / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Sometimes I think the Japanese are just smarter than us Americans. Exhibit A: chicken. While chicken has been a staple of the Japanese diet for years, Japanese cuisine traditionally uses the chicken thigh (もも; momo), which contains fat and, you know, flavor.

In 2017, however, Japan caught up with the West and began introducing chicken breast (むね; mune) into dishes in a big way. As usual, of course, Japan put its unique spin on the ingredient.

Chicken breast by itself tastes about as inviting as a cardboard and sandpaper sandwich. Additionally, as anyone who’s cooked it knows, it’s easy to dry out. Japanese chefs overcame this problem through various techniques, such as marinating the breast in shiokouji (塩麹). Shiokouji is a pickling solution that’s a variation on the traditional sagohachitzuke (三五八漬け); whereas sagohacitzuke uses salt, rice malt, and rice in a 3:5:8 ratio, shiokouji uses just rice malt, salt, and water.

Others took a play from another popular American trend and used sous vide – cooking in water in vacuum sealed bags – to cook the meat evenly without drying it out. And still others just fried the stuff, karaage style – which definitely takes it out of the realm of health foods, but puts it in the realm of firmly delicious.

2017 Runners-Up

  • Japan Tea Sweets (日本茶スイーツ; nihoncha suiitsu). Some clever bastard discovered that sencha, matcha, and houjicha taste wonderful when combined with sugar, fat and flour, and it was off to the races.
  • Neo Sake (Neo日本酒; neo nishonshu). Once facing extinction as a drink of the past, distilled rice wine got a shot in the arm from young sake makers who weren’t afraid to try new twists on old recipes.
  • Cheese Ribs (チーズタッカルビ; chiizu takkaribu). That’s just what it sounds like: barbequed ribs dipped fondue-style in cheese. This South Korean delicacy became a hit in Japan for 2017 for reasons that, I must confess, escape me.

2018: Saba (鯖)

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“You can’t eat me! I’m ADORABLE!”
Rights Attribution: masa / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As an island nation, it should be no surprise that Japanese cuisine is rich in seafood. But Japan is also an island plagued by natural disasters. And 2018 was a particularly trying year: from the killer heat to deadly floods, from the Hokkaido earthquake to Typhoon Jebi, it seemed like the Land of the Rising Sun had become the Land of the Sinking Ship.

This year’s disasters inspired Guru Navi’s choice of mackerel, or saba (鯖), as its Dish of 2018. Beset by disaster, people in Japan became more concerned with stockpiling canned foods that would last even if the power were out for a long time (as it was last year in Sapporo after the earthquake, and in the Kyoto area after the floods). Saba is also something of a natural culinary treasure – one that Guru Navi is hoping can be disseminated outside of Japan as well. There are no less than 20 major national brands of saba. Additionally, many small coastal towns are selling their own saba in hopes of helping revitalize areas that have seen their young move off to major cities.

The selection of seafood for 2018’s Dish of the Year is especially poignant in light of the historic shuttering of the Tsukiji Fish market, which just a few months ago moved to its new home in Toyosu. With so much attention on the Japanese fishing industry, it’s an ideal time to remind the world just how amazing Japanese 海鮮料理 (kaisen ryouri; seafood) can be.

2018 Runners-Up

  • High-End White Bread (高級食パン; koukyuu shokupan). If you haven’t eaten white bread made at a Japanese パン屋さん (panya-san), you just can’t understand.
  • “Numbing” Cuisine (しびれ料理; shibire ryouri). Featured in the show The Solitary Gourmet (孤独のグルメ; kodoku no Gurume), available on Netflix, Japanese foodies went wild this year for this side of Szechuan cooking (Japanese: shisen ryouri; 四川料理) that’s so spicy, it literally numbs your face.
  • Made in Japan Lemons (国産レモン; kokusan remon). Tired of eating lemons coated with anti-molding agents used to help them survive the trip, people in Japan helped quell the summer heat this season with lemons grown primarily in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Conclusion

Guru Navi’s award winners are an interesting mix of foreign influence, variations of traditional favorites, and a re-discovery of classic recipes. Even the 16 food and drink items mentioned here, however, barely skim the surface of Japanese cuisine. As you expand your Japanese skills, try diving into a few Japanese restaurant website menus online, and accustom yourself to the unknown terms and kanji you’re sure to encounter.

About the Author:

Jay Andrew Allen is the head writer and publisher of Unseen Japan. He holds an N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and is currently studying for Level 3 of the Kanji Kentei. Jay lives in Seattle with his children and his wife, Aya. 

Have you tried any dishes mentioned above? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

Of the dishes I have tried, I really like onigirazu which I first learned about from reading Cooking Papa!

New Year, Same Old Blog (sort of)… A Quick Update

This is the first post of 2019, so I will start by saying Happy New Year/ あけましておめでとうございます, or あけおめ for short!

You might have noticed that the blog is looking slightly different. I have migrated the blog from WordPress to my own self-hosted site. I’m in the process of doing exciting things like fixing broken links which will take a little while but I think the end result will be worth it.

In related news, I have written my first ever guest post over at Unseen Japan! My article is about the history of colours in the Japanese language. I’ve done my best to put in some colour related words and phrases which will be useful for Japanese learners at any level. There will be an article for Unseen Japan making its debut on this blog later this month, so stay tuned.

I hope everyone’s 新年の抱負 (しんねんのほうふ/shinnen no houfu = New Year’s Resolutions) are going strong!

YouTube spotlight – 2 channels to watch if you’re learning Japanese

I’m always on the lookout for YouTube channels that are useful for Japanese studies. This post is a follow up to other posts I have written about Youtube channels for Japanese study:

I wanted to put together a quick post about a couple of channels I have found recently that I think are particularly good for Japanese learners.

Great for beginners: Nami Ohara

Nami Ohara is a Japanese teacher based in Newfoundland, Canada. I discovered her videos some time ago and strongly recommend them to Japanese beginners.

I am a big fan of her videos which help introduce different aspects of Japanese culture and traditions. In these videos, two young children called Kyoko and Kenta ask their teacher (Ohara sensei) about the topic of the video.

The videos are all in Japanese but have furigana readings and English meanings for the vocabulary and phrases used in the videos. I think these are a great way to practice your Japanese listening and learn some new words at the same time. The speech of these videos is much more natural Japanese than what you might encounter in textbooks, so you get used to Japanese as it is actually spoken.

If you are studying towards the JLPT, then you might be interested in her JLPT listening practice videos. These are in the same format as the listening questions you will encounter in the final exam. She currently has listening practice videos for JLPT N5 up to and including N2.

Besides the JLPT specific videos, there are a number of listening quiz videos aimed at beginners too. Each video is based on a different theme such as nationality and age.

If you want to learn some children’s songs, there’s plenty to be found on the channel too!

Clearly, a lot of effort goes into her videos, and I hope that by posting about her channel more Japanese students will discover her content.

Japanese grammar explanations in simple Japanese: Sambon Juku

Sambon Juku is a YouTube channel mainly run by Akkie, a Japanese language teacher. I first learned about this channel through a video collaboration he did with YouTuber Kemushi-chan. After checking out his channel, I can highly recommend it to Japanese learners!

Akkie has a number of videos covering various topics relating to Japanese study. Most of his videos are explanations for different Japanese grammar points. Akkie’s videos are all in Japanese but he explains everything in a very clear manner and is very easy to understand.

If you are an upper beginner and above, I think you will find the grammar videos particularly useful. Having said that, videos on this channel all have subtitles in both English and Japanese. This means all Japanese learners can understand the explanations whilst getting some listening practice.

For example, the above video on the differences between は and が is wonderful and probably the best I have come across on this topic, summarising the key differences in usage with plenty of examples.

The channel also has a growing number of videos covering JLPT grammar points for levels N3, N2 and N1. If you like the channel Nihongo no Mori, then you will likely enjoy this series as well.

I always like to look at different explanations of the same grammar point. Sometimes the way one textbook or website describes things can be unclear, or not have enough example sentences to understand certain nuances.

JLPT videos only have Japanese subtitles, but there are normally two sets (one with kanji and kana, one with kana only) which allows you to find the readings for any words you want to look up.

It just so happens that the two channels I’ve covered today have JLPT specific content, but I really think anyone studying Japanese can find some value in the videos!

What are your favourite YouTube channels? Let me know in the comments!

The Best Japanese foods to eat in Winter

Winter in Japan brings with it a whole host of seasonal dishes that often make for the ultimate comfort food. Having lived in the northern island of Hokkaido, I quickly learned that eating the right dishes were essential to surviving the long winter!

Here are just a few Japanese dishes that I recommend eating to keep warm in the cold season.

Nabe (鍋) – hotpot goodness perfect for winter in Japan

鍋 (なべ) itself means ‘cooking pot’, but is more generally used to refer to one pot dishes that are made in the pot, which are usually soups and stews – perfect for winter. These large pots are normally used to cook nabe dishes on top of a portable stove.

Ishikari_nabe_by_naotakem.jpg (800×600)
Ishikari (Hokkaido) style nabe with ikura/ fish roe. Source: naotakem CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cooking nabe is often a very social event where a group of people gather around the table to eat. Everyone adds ingredients to the pot before enjoying their freshly cooked meal. If you have the chance to go to a nabe party, go – it is a great experience!

There are a few well-known types of nabe, including ちゃんこ鍋/ chankonabe (a hearty stew famously eaten by sumo), and 湯豆腐/ yudofu (a simple dish of tofu simmered in a konbu seaweed broth, usually served with ponzu sauce). Nabe also varies by region, such as the Ishikari (Hokkaido) style nabe featured above.

This post is going on focus on three of the most popular nabe dishes: sukiyaki, shabushabu and oden.

すき焼き Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki consists of thinly sliced beef and other vegetables, cooked in a broth made from a mix of soy sauce, sugar and mirin. Ingredients often used in sukiyaki are tofu, cabbage, mushrooms (shiitake, enoki) and spring onions.

Cookingsukiyaki.jpg (480×384)
Source: Kapichu [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Once cooked, the beef can be dipped into raw egg just before eating. At the end, udon noodles or mochi can be added to soak up the remaining broth.

Being a winter dish, it often makes an appearance at 忘年会 (ぼうねんかい bounenkai/ end of year parties).

しゃぶしゃぶ Shabushabu

Shabushabu might just be my personal favourite, and it is not just because of the name! Shabushabu gets its name from an onomatopoeic term referring to the process of boiling the meat and vegetables which constitute the dish.

It is important that the meat used is sliced thinly – this allows it to cook in the boiling water in a matter of seconds. You can then dip the meat in a sauce before eating: popular sauces include ponzu and gomadare (sesame sauce).

Chef Mako Okano explains shabushabu in this great video which showcases the types of foods that tend to be used.

A lot of places offer shabushabu 食べ放題 (たべほうだい/tabehoudai – all you can eat) for 60 mins or more for a good price. This makes shabushabu an economic choice in the winter, even for large groups of people.

おでん Oden

Being both filling and warming, oden is the perfect winter food.

Oden is one of the oldest nabe dishes, as it’s origins can be traced back to the 18th century. It is a dish consisting of boiled eggs and vegetables simmered in a soy flavoured dashi broth. There are regional variations, but the most common ingredients are daikon radish, potatoes, chikuwa fishcakes and konnyaku noodles.

The above video takes you through some of the many things you can add to your oden dish!

Oden can be eaten at specialist oden restuarants and traditional yatai stalls, but nowadays can also be found at convenience stores, supermarkets and even vending machines.

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You can buy oden from a range of places, but it is hard to beat the traditional yatai food stall experience! Source: Keiichi Yasu [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Winter snacks to keep you warm

If you aren’t quite hungry enough for a whole meal, you often pick up other warm Japanese snacks at street stalls or convenience stores:

肉まん Nikuman

Nikuman are steamed pork buns – basically the Japanese version of Chinese baozi. The buns are made from a flour-based dough, and the filling is usually made with pork, spring onions and shiitake mushrooms. You can buy these cheaply from convenience stores, where they are kept nice and hot!

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These nikuman are a bit more expensive than what you would find at the convenience store! Source: Japanexperterna (CCBYSA) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The nikuman pictured above are more traditional, but convenience stores often do special types of nikuman, including ピザまん (pizza flavour nikuman),  カレーまん (curry nikuman). Each store has their own unique flavours, so it is well worth visiting a few different places to see the many varieties available!

焼き芋 Yakiimo

Sometimes the simplest foods are the best ones, and yakiimo is a great example of this. Yakiimo literally means ‘baked potatoes’. Imo are Japanese sweet potatoes, which have purple skin and are sweeter tasting than their Western counterparts.

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Source: Kanesue [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the colder months, there are usually street vendors and little food trucks that sell freshly baked yakiimo.

Not only are Japanese sweet potatoes delicious when baked, but they are also known for having many health benefits – I recommend trying them at least once!

焼き餅 Grilled Mochi

Mochi (rice cakes) are a popular snack all year round but is especially popular in the New Year period. They can be eaten in many forms, but a nice way to eat in winter is to grill it, which is known as yakimochi (meaning ‘grilled/ baked mochi’).

I became a little bit obsessed with yakimochi after I was first introduced to it. All you need to do is grill the mochi until it is toasted and has expanded. The gooey warmth of mochi when it is grilled makes it a lovely snack to warm you up in the winter!

I hope this post inspires you to try one of these dishes if you haven’t already. There are a lot of various Japanese ingredients mentioned in this post – if you want to learn more, I suggest checking out the following websites:

Japan Visitor’s Food Glossary

NHK World’s Japanese Food Glossary

Japanese Cooking 101

What is your favourite winter dish (Japanese or otherwise)? Please tell me in the comments!

Cultural Kotoba: Tanabata

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Tanabata is just around the corner (in some parts of Japan anyway), and it might be one of my favourite celebrations in Japan.

Tanabata is not a national holiday, but it is widely celebrated around the country. To me, this festival is truly a sign that summer has arrived. I just love the colourful celebrations at Tanabata, so decided to write a bit about it today.

Where does Tanabata originate from?

One of the things I was curious about is why Tanabata is written in Japanese as 七夕. 七 is normally read as しち・なな (shichi/nana) and 夕 is normally read as ゆう (yuu), so where did the name Tanabata come from?

Actually, what we now know as Tanabata was a festival called Qixi originating in China and was brought to Japan in the 8th century. Tanabata is thought to originally refer to a special cloth (棚機・たなばた) offered to a god to pray for a good harvest of rice crops in a separate ritual. The timing of this offering coincided with Qixi, and so the two festivals merged. Once merged, the festival was still called tanabata but the kanji used was written as (七夕; meaning “evening of the seventh”) referring to the timing of the festival, which at one point was read as しちせき (shichiseki).

The timing of Tanabata is based on the traditional Japanese calendar; it is usually celebrated on the 7th night on the 7th month (ie. 7th July in the Gregorian calendar). However it can be celebrated during early August; during Japan’s transition from the Chinese lunar calendar to the current Gregorian calendar, the definition of the first month can vary by over 4 weeks and so August is sometimes treated as the 7th month in the calendar.

The Story of Tanabata

The Tanabata story is based on the Chinese folk tale “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”. Here is my rough summary of the story:

Orihime ((織姫・おりひめ), literally “weaving princess”) lives by the Milky Way and works everyday weaving fabric. Because of her work, she doesn’t really have time to meet anyone and so her father, the Sky King(also known as Tentei/ 天帝・てんてい), arranges for her to meet Hikoboshi ((彦星・ひこぼし), the cow herder) who works on the other side of the Milky Way. They fall in love immediately and get married, but they also begin to neglect their work duties.

The Sky King is angry about this and takes his daughter back to the other side of the Milky Way as punishment. Orihime is extremely upset and pleads with her father to let her see Hikoboshi. The Sky King then agrees that they can meet on the 7th day of the 7th month every year as long as Orihime works hard.

If you want to try reading the story in simple Japanese, you can find it on the children’s story website Hukumusume here.

The celebration is therefore of the one night in the year when husband and wife are allowed to meet. Having said that, it is thought that the star-crossed lovers can only meet if the weather is clear on July 7th!

How is Tanabata celebrated?

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By Laika ac from USA (Tanabata Wishes) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is customary to write wishes on small strips of paper known as tanzaku (短冊・たんざく) which are then hung on bamboo along with other colourful decorations. Bamboo is culturally significant because it is a strong and durable plant and therefore symbolises prosperity.

Other decorations include:

  • Paper cranes known as 折鶴 (おりづる・oridzuru) which represent longevity
  • 吹き流し (ふきながし・fukinagashi) – these are streamers meant to represent the threads that Orihime weaves.
  • 網飾り(あみかざり・amikazari) – decorations that represent fishing nets. These are used to wish for an abundance of fish.
  • Purse or pouch shaped origami to wish for good luck with money

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By rinia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52729862

The city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture is well known for its Tanabata celebrations, and lots of tourists flock there to enjoy the event. It is customary in Sendai to eat 素麺 (そうめん・soumen), a type of noodles usually served cold with a dipping sauce which makes it a refreshing meal in the summertime.

If you want to test your understanding of Tanabata in Japanese, JapanesePod101 have done a great video outlining Tanabata and its customs (recommended for intermediate learners and up!).

What is your favourite national holiday or festival (in Japan, or another country)? Please leave me a comment!

Cultural Kotoba: Sakura and Hanami, the mainstays of spring in Japan

Spring is nearly upon us (in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere at least), which could well be the most celebrated time of year in Japan. I recently learned a new word 春めく which reflects the early signs of spring:

春めく

(はるめく; verb)

to become spring like

Defined in Japanese as 春らしくなる; something becoming spring-like. For example in terms of weather, this could be the days getting longer or the temperature increasing.

I thought I would seize the opportunity to write about a couple of the most common words and phrases associated with spring in Japan. This post will focus on 桜 (sakura) and 花見 (hanami).

Spring in Japan = 桜 (さくら Sakura; Cherry blossoms)

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Whilst the arrival of 梅 (うめ ume; plum blossoms) happens earlier, the blooming of cherry blossoms, or sakura, is the event which truly indicates that spring has arrived in Japan.

There is a lot of anticipation for sakura as sadly, the blooms usually last for less than two weeks. As such, the sakura hold a special significance in Japan as they reflect the transience of life, a key teaching of Buddhism.

Additionally, in many areas of Japan, the blooming of sakura coincides with the start of the new academic year and is often the time when people begin new jobs. For this reason, the spring and sakura also represent a time for new beginnings.

There is so much art in various forms which have been inspired by the onset of spring. Personally, I’m always reminded of the song GLORIA by YUI, in particular, the following lyrics:

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Rough translation: wo~ when the cherry blossoms bloom, wo~ I’ll find a new me

The build-up to the blooming of sakura begins with the sakura forecast. The sakura forecast starts showing on TV alongside the weather forecast in February, indicating rough dates of when you can expect to see cherry blossoms depending on where you are in the country.

Knowing this in advance gives you as much time as possible to start making important plans, namely for 花見.

Spring in Japan means 花見 (はなみ Hanami; flower viewing) time!

The arrival of sakura is as good excuse as any to celebrate, and what better way to do so than to sit under the blossoms to eat, drink and be merry?

The practice of hanami is said to date back to the Nara period in the 8th century and was initially associated with the flowering of the aforementioned ume plum blossoms. Once a practice restricted to the imperial court, it later became commonplace for everyone to take part in. Hanami remains a popular tradition today, with people gathering early in the morning to lay down a tarpaulin and secure the best area at popular hanami viewing spots.

Hanami parties with friends, family or co-workers involve plenty of eating and drinking. Easily shareable food such as onigiri and yakitori are popular hanami choices, as well as beer and tea. It is a great time to enjoy bento and limited edition snacks only available in spring.

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By gochie* (花より・・・) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These special springtime snacks include 花見団子 (はなみだんご Hanami dango), special Japanese style sweets related to もち. During hanami season, 団子 are available in the 3 colours commonly associated with sakura; pink, white and light green (also known as 三色団子 さんしょくだんご; three colour dango).

Unfortunately, spring in Japan has a slight downside. The arrival of flowers means the arrival of 花粉症 (かふんしょう kafunshou; hayfever. Those that are afflicted with hayfever will need to stock up to make sure they can make the most of hanami and the rest of the spring season.

So that is all for today. What is your favourite thing about spring? Let me know in the comments!

10 Japanese words which sum up the New Year period in Japan

We are in the last few days of the year and it is almost 2018, the year of the dog in the Chinese zodiac. The New Year, or お正月(おしょうがつ) as it is known in Japanese, is one of the biggest celebrations in the Japanese calendar.

There are a lot of traditions associated with the New Year period, so what better way to learn a bit about New Year in Japan than to learn some new vocabulary? Here are ten words which should help you get a feel for how New Year is celebrated.

1. 年賀状/ねんがじょう Postcards

The custom of sending ねんがじょう cards started hundreds of year ago, as a way of sending new year’s greeting to relations who were too far away to visit in person. These are normally sent to the post office around 15th December in order to ensure delivery on 1st January.

Whilst the popularity of electronic messages are growing, the custom of sending cards is still widespread – you can buy premade cards or design your own. Modern cards even make use of VR!

2. 門松/かどまつ Kadomatsu (literally ‘pine gate’).

As the name suggests, these pine decorations are put in pairs in front of homes to welcome the kami Toshigami. It is believed that Toshigami visits homes to bring happiness on New Years’ day if he is invited into the home with かどまつ. かどまつ tend to consist of pine, bamboo, plum flowers and flowering kale. These are normally put out around Christmas time and stay outside until about 7th January.

3. 年末のお掃除/ねんまつのおそうじ End of year cleaning

This is the time of year when Japanese people undertake a thorough clean of their homes. It is thought to help purify the home to help welcome Toshigami in the new year. It is a great time of year to discover new cleaning products and tips. You may end up finding things you thought you had lost during the year!

4. 紅白歌合戦/こうはくうたがっせん Red and White Song Battle

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The こうはくうたがっせん (usually abbreviated to こうはく) is a singing competition that takes place in the evening on New Year’s Eve (大晦日/おおみそか in Japanese). The competition has been a regular fixture on broadcaster NHK for over 60 years. Each year sees popular artists split into two teams, a red team for the female participants and a white team for the male participants (hence the name of the contest) who sing to become the overall winners of the competition.

5. はつもで First temple visit

The first visit to a shrine or temple to wish for health and prosperity for the coming year, called Hatsumode, is considered essential during the first few days of the year. Most people will do this before dawn on New Year’s Day, although some people visit on New Year’s Eve in order to witness 除夜の鐘/じょやのかね where a bell is rung 108 times just before the end of the year. Each ring of the bell signifies the 108 worldly desires thought to cause suffering in Buddhism.

6. おみくじ Fortune

During the first temple visit of the year, many Japanese people will write their wishes on little wooden plaques known as 絵馬・えま. They may also take the opportunity to get their fortune, called おみくじ. You draw out a paper slip and hope for a good result for the coming year!

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7. 御節料理 おせちりょうり Osechi ryouri – New Year’s dishes

おせちりょうり is an assortment of dishes traditionally eaten during the first few days in the new year. Each food is thought to bring different types of prosperity for the coming year and are presented in a special box resembling a traditional bento box. You can read more about the kinds of おせち dishes at Just One Cookbook.

8. 餅/もち Mochi rice cakes

Aside from おせちりょうり, もち is eaten during the New Year period. Many communities will take part in the tradition of 餅つき/もちつき, the process of pounding the rice to make the rice cakes.

You may also come across 鏡餅/かがみもち in a Japanese house around the New Year. かがみもち (literally ‘mirror rice cakes’) are traditional decorations formed with two round pieces of もち stacked on top of each other and adorned with Japanese fruit that symbolise good omens for the forthcoming year.

9. お年玉/おとしだま Otoshidama

New Year’s for Japanese children is a lot like Christmas for children in the West, in that it is when children receive gifts from parents, friends and relatives. The gifts are in the form of おとしだま, gifts of money for children as a blessing for the coming year and are usually presented in a special envelope.

10. 福袋 ふくぶくろ Lucky bags

Around the New Year, many shops will sell lucky dip bags containing a number of the store’s items at a good price. Certain shops’ ふくぶくろ are extremely popular so you may need to line up outside the store to get hold of one. Even convenience stores sell lucky bags!

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By Nissy-KITAQ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 

So that is my list, which turned out to contain quite a bit more than 10 new words!

What is your favourite New Years’ tradition (Japanese or otherwise)? Please let me know in the comments!

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