Christmas and New Year’s in Japan

KFC, disease-curing water, ominous fortunes, bar-hopping in Osaka, traditional New Year’s osechi-ryori, the reappearance of glorious festival food– the holidays in Japan were just as magical as they can be in the US.

“Kentucky for Christmas”

new doc 2018-12-23 21.59.08-1
The order form at my local KFC.

Although not as widespread as, say, the idea of turkey or ham for Christmas is in the US, it’s the closest you can get to the idea of a “traditional” Japanese Christmas dinner in a nation that’s 1.5% Christian. But don’t be mistaken– it absolutely is a thing, with reservations opening up weeks in advance, and hours-long lines on Christmas day if you failed to make one. KFC even offers a bottle of “shanmerry” (their words) alongside their whimsical Christmas-design buckets. I made my reservation about a week in advance, and even by then, they had already run out of said buckets and said champagne.

img_3230
Grungy 1980s aesthetic courtesy of Polaroid.

How was it? Well, they don’t change the recipe just for Christmas, but you better believe that combining that warm Christmas drunkenness with greasy, salty fried chicken makes for simultaneously one of the best and worst meals you’ll ever have in your life.

Osechi-Ryori: New Year’s Cuisine

The prevalence of Christmas in Japan is more for marketing and as a couple’s holiday than for religion or family. Instead, New Year’s Day is the most significant holiday in the Japanese calendar. The first part of this is osechi-ryori, traditional New Year’s food. It always comes in a special box, and although you traditionally cook it yourself, it has become much more common to order it instead. Most of the food is pickled, boiled, steamed, and the like: basically, food that could’ve been prepared a few days beforehand and would’ve kept well until the actual holiday.

img-2881It is, of course, best enjoyed with sake.

Hatsumode: Hiraoka Shrine and Saijinja

img-2891 (1)

Hatsumode is the tradition of visiting your family’s shrine to make prayers and offerings. Each shrine houses a particular god, and there’s a specific way to make a prayer:

  1. Throw a coin into the donation box at the front.
  2. Bow twice.
  3. If there’s a bell, ring it.
  4. Clap twice, to get their attention.
  5. Tell them your deepest desires and wishes.
  6. Bow once more as thanks.
Hiraoka Shrine, my girlfriend’s hometown shrine in Osaka. The rope in the middle rings a bell.

My girlfriend, her grandparents, and I also took a short hike up to Saijinja Shrine in Nara, famed for its mountain spring water with healing qualities.

linecamera-shareimageThe water was dispensed from this stone fountain thing, where people were waiting in line with empty bottles or standing by with metal cups provided by the shrine. It tasted fresh, very mineral-y, and exactly how you would imagine the boulder above to taste, but of course there was no sediment or anything like that. I definitely did feel a little more invigorated, enough to decide to buy some of it bottled– only 100 yen ($1)!

img-3034
Click to listen to the meditative sounds of Saijinja Spring!

There was also a bamboo stick piped into the spring, where you could listen to the wonderfully comforting sound of dripping water, echoing deep inside the recesses of of the Earth. Forgiving the background noise of passersby, you can listen a recording I made here!

IMG-6899.jpgYou can also get your fortune, omikuji, at shrines. They are printed on tiny scrolls of paper, and the one you get is determined by shaking around a bunch of sticks inside a wooden box. One stick comes out, and the number printed on it tells you which one to ask for from the shrine maiden. Now, these are the most legitimate fortunes I have ever received: firstly, they contain many different sections, from romantic relationships to your studies to that thing you lost. And they are not always positive or platitudinous either– one year, Rika’s mother got one that essentially said “You will never be happy or successful.” Mine told me to stop eating junk food, and the one I got for my friend told him to stop being lazy, and that the “person you are waiting for, will not come.” Dream-crushing fortunes, now that’s something I can get behind!

img-2950
Photo credit goes to Rika’s aunt.

For the price of another coin, you can wash down the sorrows of an outrageous fortune with a pour of sake.

img-3221 (1)
A shrine maiden pours sake in the background.

Hiraoka’s offering was very light and a little syrupy, with a hint of flowery sweetness.

img-3220Festival food makes its reappearance too– one of these is tamago senbei, which translates to the much less sexy-sounding “egg rice cracker.” It’s a shrimp-flavored rice cracker topped with takoyaki sauce, crunchy bits of tempura batter, and an egg fried sunny-side up, finished off with a generous squeeze or two of Japanese mayo. If you like eggs, or delicious food at all, I’m sure you’d love tamago senbei. As a bonus, the eggs are sometimes fried in fun shapes, like hearts.

That was all New Year’s Day, January 1st. As for New Year’s Eve and the countdown to the beginning of 2019, it’s very much a party atmosphere like anywhere else. I spent it outside a club in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. The name and the details, I can no longer recall.

26 Things You Can Do and See at a Japanese Convenience Store: From A to Z

To see the heights to which the concept of convenience can reach, look no further than the humble, ubiquitous konbini— the Japanese convenience store. To avoid saying konbini 800 times, I will just namedrop all the chains I’ve ever seen. Here are 26 things you can see/do should you ever find yourself in one:

  1. American dogs. Konbinis feature both American and Japanese junk food. At the hot food section, you may be able to buy an American dog, i.e. a corn dog.

    IMG_0672
    A bento lunch from 7-Eleven. Includes rice, pickled radish, Hamburg steak (basically Salisbury steak), a piece of fried chicken, a potato croquette, a piece of salmon, and tamagoyaki (rolled omelette). Will set you back about $4.70.
  2. Bento boxes. They’ll heat it up for you, too!
  3. Cash withdrawal. Every konbini has an ATM, which are necessary in the land where banks close at 3 PM on weekdays, are not open on weekends, and are much less widespread than 7-Eleven and friends.
  4. Dine in. Some konbinis have small dining areas so you don’t have to wait another moment to enjoy that steaming bento box!img_3801
  5. Erotic literature. Are you, too, a Harvard-educated man/woman who still enjoys the high-class art of printed pornography? Then support your local giant-boob artist and head down to Lawson’s today.new doc 2018-12-14 08.35.01-1 (1)
  6. Fried chicken… for Christmas. Did you know that traditional Christmas dinner in Japan is… Kentucky Fried Chicken? Reservations open weeks in advance, and if you miss the deadline then it’s okay, you can still go with the equally-as-good konbini versions.
  7. Get your Amazon package. You can order things online and have them shipped to your local Sunkus for pickup instead. This may be beneficial because deliverymen will not leave packages if you are not home, you have to deal with the dreaded redelivery notice instead.
  8. Hot bottled drinks. In addition to cold bottled drinks, there will also be a hot bottle section to get your portable tea/coffee fix.5f960e39-540c-42d8-a6c1-c63117a3f26d
  9. Instant ramen. If you weren’t really a fan of it before, you’ll probably become one once you’re here. From seafood to curry to Pringles, the possibilities are limitless.
  10. John Player Specials. Likely one of the coolest-named cigarettes ever, konbinis also offer an outside smoking area where you can enjoy it. Unlike the US, where smoking is allowed nowhere indoors but in practice is allowed EVERYWHERE outdoors, Japan is the opposite. Smoking on the street is a kind of no-no, but there are many designated outdoors smoking spaces and indoor smoking rooms.

    IMG-1754
    This bag includes 3 miso Kit-Kats! See bottom right.
  11. Kit-Kats. It’s popular to bring back strawberry or green tea kit-kats as a souvenir for people back home. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg– there’s flavors that we in the States cannot even fathom, from pumpkin to miso and wasabi.
  12. Lemon Coke. And to round it out, there’s peach and even coffee Coke!
  13. Mail packages and lettersScrew the post office, come to Daily Yamazaki instead!
  14. Nigiri sushi. I believe American 7-Elevens also sell sushi, but for some weird reason I can’t figure out, there’s just something about sushi in Japan that seems less shady. And would you believe, in general I have found cheap sushi in Japan to be just “OK,” not much different from cheap sushi in the US.
    img_2700
    Utsunomiya City omiyage. These are rice crackers in the shape of gyoza dumplings, which they are famous for.
  15. Omiyage. Omiyage are regional souvenirs, usually in the form of individually-wrapped cookies, rice crackers, pastries, etc. with a flavor/design unique to that region. It is a societal expectation to bring back omiyage for your coworkers whenever going somewhere. For this reason, many konbinis in touristy/well-traveled areas will sell such souvenir boxes.
  16. Postage stamps. You can buy stamps at the konbini too, how exhilarating!
  17. Quaff a beer or three outside. Public drinking is not against the law in Japan, so aside from perhaps a few glances, you are free to sit on the curb and slug one back with the tomodachi, unharried by policemen.
  18. Rice balls. Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) are the grab-and-go equivalent of the sandwich. They come with different fillings from mere seaweed to salmon to bulgogi or pork and mayo.img_2625
  19. Strong. Even better than beer is Strong, a vodka-based carbonated cocktail-in-a-can, boasting percentages as high as 9%. If you’ll be drinking in Japan, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be pre-gaming with a Strong or two. That’s the strength of two standard drinks for less than $2.
  20. Trash cans. Public trash cans, like out on the street, simply do not exist. You don’t even find them in most public bathrooms (which is why many people still carry handkerchiefs). Even people climbing Mount Fuji are told to take their trash to the peak and back with them. Why so few trash cans? Apparently, they were taken away in response to a 1995 terrorist attack involving nerve gas bombs being dropped in places on the subway– it’s one less place for terrorists to plant something in the future.
  21. Utility bill payment. Your utility bills come with bar codes that can also be scanned and paid for in cash at the local konbini. That’s how I keep my water, gas, and electricity flowing every month.

    IMG-2704
    The Ponta Pointo card, used at Lawson’s.
  22. Verify your point balance. Every chain has their own rewards card, of course featuring a cute animal mascot. You can earn points towards future purchases, and even win prizes like stuffed animals during special promotions!
  23. Warm up. Found yourself woefully underdressed for winter? Stop in FamilyMart and equip yourself with some gloves, a beanie, or a scarf.
  24. Xerox a document. Most konbinis have printer stations.
  25. Yogurt soda. Carbonated Yakult? Yes! Yes!
  26. Zoo tickets. Concert tickets, sports tickets: anything you can buy online, you can also arrange to pick it up at the konbini.

Lost in Translation: “Engrish” Signs

Poorly translated English is still hilarious to this day. Why it happens, I couldn’t say. The only thing I can attest to is that machine translation, like Google Translate, still does a pretty poor job. Try conversing with someone in Japanese (or most any Asian language, for that matter) with Google Translate as the middleman, and you’ll get results like this:

img-2076-e1543276642264.png
What my mother actually said: “P, I want you to take good care of your teeth. Brush them well, and I forgot to tell you: the dentist said that candy and chocolate are fine, just don’t keep them in your mouth for too long.”

So, maybe Google Translate screwed someone over, or maybe the dude they put in charge of it just dropped the ball. Here’s some of the great signs I’ve seen so far (across all my trips):

IMG-2035
Actually tonkotsu ramen, which is usually topped with pork belly. Spotted in Kyoto.

 

IMG_20171224_140018
Seen at Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Exhbition Center. Technically not Engrish, but it still works.

 

IMG_20140719_213609
Look above the word “Cherry.” Seen in Kabukicho, Tokyo.

 

IMG_20161224_142726

 

IMG-1912
Seen at Osaka Castle Park.

What About the Children?: Japanese Club Activities

In America, some kids play on their Nintendos. Others smash mailboxes and hang out at the local malt shop. Japanese kids, on the other hand, belong to various clubs, that often suck up all their free time. Sports usually practice daily, even on weekends and during summer vacation!!! Teachers may also coach sports as part of their jobs, meaning they don’t leave school till after sunset, and as far as I know, it’s thankless, unpaid extra work. Your club activities become your life, to the point where a good 80% of essays for “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?” was answered with “club activities.” And, well, despite the time-suck, they are pretty cool. Here are some I found especially interesting:

Tea Ceremony Club

It would not be a Japanese high school without a club devoted to one of the most Japanese things ever– the tea ceremony.

Flower Arrangement (Ikebana) Club

It would also not be a Japanese high school without another club devoted to another one of the most Japanese things ever– traditional flower arrangement.

Kendo

IMG-1762

Let’s not forget who does the killing to put flowers on the table– the hard-working swordsman! It’s both a PE activity and a club.

Shodo (Calligraphy) Club 

img-1565.jpg

The Japanese writing system was pretty much adapted from Chinese, so the art of writing beautiful kanji is just as appreciated here as it is in China. I tried my hand at writing riku, the closest Japanese equivalent of my name.

Koto Club

IMG-0543

Traditional Japanese floor harps.

Aikido/Judo

If it was invented in Japan, you bet your buttocks that it’d be a thing in high schools.

Broadcasting Club

Members learn how to be professional announcers, like on the radio or commentating sports events. There is a very particular tone, rhythm, and cadence to it. They’re basically learning how to talk like train announcements (NOT MY VIDEO), except all the time. Broadcasting Club are usually the ones who preside over such public events as Sports Day, giving the play-by-play over loudspeaker. The club at our school is particularly good, having been to the national finals at NHK (Japan’s BBC) in Tokyo. There is a LOT more to it than just speaking slowly, and it’s tough to explain what makes it so special, but think about how professional recordings sound, and how difficult it actually is to emulate that.

Baseball

If you didn’t already know this, you might find it interesting that baseball is actually the #1 most popular sport in Japan. It is so popular, that some of my coworkers were actually surprised that baseball is also a favorite in America. They thought they were the only ones.  It also has a surprisingly long history– for example, the local baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, has been around since 1935.

Hiraoka Matsuri: A Japanese Festival

The beating of drums can be heard from miles away. Dozens of men chant and carry around a taikodai, a mobile drum platform as heavy as a car. It’s to celebrate the local god’s birthday, and it’s quite a spectacle to behold.

This festival was in Hiraoka, my girlfriend’s hometown. Each taikodai represents a different section of her hometown, so they are all uniquely decorated, and carried only by residents of that part. Taikodai roughly translates to “drum platform,” conveyed on large logs and housing, of course, a big drum in the center, where several men also sit and beat on it. They parade up and down the pathways of Hiraoka Shrine, to the adulation of many townsmen and women alike, who’ve been attending this festival since they were children.

IMG-1471.JPG

It was Packed with a capital P– shoulder-to-shoulder wherever you went. There were at least a dozen taikodai, and as each one went down the street, the other residents would follow. There were designated leaders on both sides, and when they blew their whistles the men would turn the entire thing around. Wow, was it impressive! You can tell just how heavy these are, from how much you can see the carriers struggling. It’s so miserable that it’s tradition to get drunk, because how else can you carry a freaking car on your shoulder? On top of that, the shrine grounds were built into a hill, so you get to see them do a half-drunken, completely human-powered, about-face turn on a 30-degree incline! More than once, some men would lose their footing and they would sway side to side, pushing the crowd into each other and almost knocking over food stalls. It was awesome.

Speaking of food stalls, if you will allow the comparison, a lot of the festival reminded me of LA County Fair, or American county fairs in general. There were whole grilled squids, takoyaki (fried balls of batter with octopus, topped with Kewpie mayonnaise and a teriyaki-like sauce), okonomoyaki (savory cabbage pancakes, usually with pork, squid, and a fried egg), yakisoba (stir fried noodles in soy sauce), karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken), freshly-baked rice crackers, castella (Japanese sponge cake), taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries often stuffed with sweet beans or custard) and hell, even corn dogs and French fries. Point is, there was a heck of a lot of traditional Japanese comfort and junk food, and there were even booths to catch goldfish and various games like shooting galleries.

IMG-1430

Of course, it is all to honor the local god to whom Hiraoka Shrine is home. A dazzling spectacle, steeped in hundreds of years of tradition.

image_6483441
A closeup of Rika’s hometown taikodai.

Japanese Sports Day

This last-last Thursday (13th) was Sports Day, where the entire school comes together to kick each other’s asses at various activities and… sports. It’s a national tradition practiced from elementary to high school, basically a random (but meticulously well-planned) opportunity for kids to relax and have fun. At my school, this repertoire of revelry ranged from relay races, to dance competitions, to my first time witnessing the Japanese game called kibasen (cavalry fight).

The entire school was divided into four different teams, in this case into colors. Sports Day begins with these teams marching onto the high school track, wearing matching headbands and waving flags made by the students themselves. When I say marching, they really are marching– high knees to a military-esque anthem played by the band. The Japanese, prefecture’s, and school’s flag were raised on the flagpole, and then each sports team marched onto the track, dressed in their appropriate equipment and uniform. It was INCREDIBLY aesthetic, like something out of The Great Escape but without the Nazis.

greatescape2.gif

I can’t tell you why it took me two weeks to get around to posting, so since I already forgot half of what happened, here’s the highlights:

Kibasen (“cavalry fight”)

kibasen.gif
Blue manages a last minute hat-snatch, clinching the victory!

Three people under you serve as the horse, carrying you on their shoulders as the cavalryman. It’s basically chicken fight, but with a cooler name and even higher stakes. The match takes place inside a small circular ring, and the goal is to either push your opponent out or to snatch the bandanna off their head. For safety, both fighters are surrounded by teachers to spot and catch anyone that may fall off their “horse.”

Tug-of-Pole

IMG-1264
Left: poles won. Center and right, teams fighting over poles.

Two teams stand across the field from each other. In the middle, several long metal poles. The starting pistol fires, and the teams do battle to try to pick up and retrieve as many poles as possible. Once they cross their own line with a pole, it’s theirs. They are rather large, so you need several people to pick one up and maneuver it.

Mass Calisthenics

masscal.gif

Another moment that makes you go, “damn, Japan is aesthetic,” the entire school did exercise in unison to music. It was mesmerizing to watch.

Relay Races

IMG-1048

No sports day would be complete without a relay race. There were several events, from good old-fashioned relay sprints, to jump-rope running, tire dragging, three-legged races, to the much anticipated teachers vs. students. I ran 100 meters in the relay myself, but sorry to say the teachers were no match for the best of the track-and-field kids.

Tug of War

IMG-1081

Another classic, it’s no-frills, honest-to-God tug of war.

Besides these, there was also a dance competition, where each team performed their own choreography, mass jump-rope to see how many the whole team could skip without messing up, and even an awards ceremony at the very end. It was a great day, a great spectacle to watch, and we got to enjoy a day of no class to boot.

I regret to report that I have no idea which team won.

 

Well, What’s It Like?: Academic Edition

This week, I finally started teaching. School officially began on Monday the 3rd with the opening ceremony, where I gave a speech in both Japanese and English to the entire school, i.e. hundreds of students and dozens of teachers. That was the first time in my life speaking to so many people at once, but it actually went better than I imagined it would.

Typhoon 21 (aka Typhoon Jebi) hit on Tuesday and threw a wrench into the school schedule. It did nothing to the Hyogo prefecture where I live, but unfortunately, it absolutely devastated Osaka to our east, tearing roofs off buildings, throwing a tanker ship into a bridge and shutting down KIX Airport, flipping over trucks, spinning Ferris wheels, and smashing rubble into power lines.

Wednesday was my first day of class. It started horribly, with me losing my shirt on the way to school. Incredibly luckily, I have the nicest vice-principal on Earth and he let me borrow one of his spares, lest this disgustingly underdressed man be allowed to teach young, impressionable Japanese youth. I taught two periods, and also led my first of ESS Club’s (English Speaking Society) weekly meetings. My only task was to introduce myself, so I prepared a PowerPoint presentation about myself that was also a game.

The kids at my school are very shy (at least when it comes to English), but they are also very friendly and at least somewhat enthusiastic about me. As is the culture, I was almost always given a respectful bow and konnichiwa whenever a student passed by me. After the opening ceremony where I introduced myself, however, in addition to konnichiwas I am now getting hellos, usually accompanied by giggling if they’re girls. Anyways, like my previous post about things I’ve noticed, here’s some things I’ve noticed about school culture specifically:

  1. Students clean the classrooms and teacher’s rooms. It’s done around 3 PM every day at my school, presumably before the last period starts. Look anywhere and you’ll see kids pushing around brooms and armed with washcloths.
  2. Kids have VERY long days. The school was active even during summer vacation, because club activities and sports practices still run in summer. When school’s in, extracurriculars are Monday to Saturday for them. Students may even sleep at 1AM regularly, because they have club activities, after-school programs, and then homework.IMG-1006
  3. Every single door in the school is a sliding door. Whether a classroom, the staffroom, bathroom, or someone’s office, it’s all fusuma, baby! Hey, it saves space, after all.IMG-1004
  4. You wear indoors-only shoes when inside the school. I know I already mentioned this, but c’mon, nobody reads all of my posts. We have guest slippers with the school name in gold lettering for any visitors. I have my own shoe locker at the entrance and change every time I arrive.
  5. Napping at your desk is allowed. It’s not celebrated, but when even the vice-principal is napping at his desk, you bet that your beauty sleep will be left undisturbed.
  6. You use special office language. When you arrive, you say good morning to everyone as is the norm. When you leave, you say osaki ni shitsureishimasu (sorry to be leaving before you), to which the standard response is otsukare sama deshita (lit: “you must be tired”, but figuratively it means “hard work today!”). It’s actually not awful banter, it’s polite and respectful language that is standard in Japanese offices.
    IMG-1005
    The left seal is my name in Japanese, which I use for most things, and the right seal is in English, which I use for things like letters and postcards.
  7. You use a seal (stamp) instead of your signature. Instead of signing on official documents, you use a stamp of your name. It may have an intricate design so it’s not easily copied, and you may own different ones for different purposes: perhaps one for casual things, and another for super-official things like getting a mortgage or signing contracts. Every day you come in, you are to stamp your seal in a sign-in book so your school knows you showed up that day.
  8. No one says bless you. This is not unique to Japan– it just isn’t done in Asian societies. Sneezes are followed by silence. The lack of blessings may eventually lead to death.
  9. Technology is an eclectic mix of old and new. This is unique neither to the countryside nor to schools. Most schools still have chalkboards in the classroom. We have chalkboards in the teacher staffroom. Our computers are on Windows 7, everyone is on Internet Explorer and Yahoo!, and we still use fax machines. But then again, we also have HDTVs in the hallways. A lot of things still done on paper, which leads me to…
    IMG-1013
    I have been there for one month. Since then, I have received 33 handouts and 3 booklets.
  10. PAPERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The amount of paperwork is ludicrous. You still get the class schedule for the week on paper, announcements on paper, warnings about flu season on paper, the school newsletter on paper, and so on and so on. If you want to do anything administrative-related at all, you better believe there’s a form for it. Basically, imagine if every single email in your work inbox was instead individual pieces of paper.
  11. No AC or heating in the classrooms and hallways. It comes partially from the mentality of conservation. Although for some reason, during winter, kids aren’t allowed to wear gloves and scarves inside either.
  12. You can’t drink or eat while walking through the hallways. This includes water.