Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category


July 6, 2010


I suppose it was inevitable, but Julie and I have recently started collecting records.  We were finally convinced after hearing the sound quality of some albums on vinyl that our friend played for us a few weekends ago.  I don’t think we’ll take it too seriously or anything but over the years to come I imagine we’ll gradually accumulate some of our favorite albums and spin them while we relax at home.  

Of course it’s also fun to go digging around for old, forgotten records.  We were able to do just that in the tiny town of Hiranai and the following week in the city of Hachinohe.  

Here’s the recycle shop in Hiranai with the records.  I can’t remember if we’ve blogged about this place before or not, but it’s absolutely amazing.  All sorts of antiques, toys, clothes, and appliances.  You can find anything from cooking utensils to traditional wooden dolls to bed frames to analog synthesizers to a kanji printing press.    And, of course, there is a huge cache of records.  


Stuff we found:  


Takeshi and the Blue Jeans. This is without a doubt our best find. On this record the band plays surf rock versions of traditional Japanese folk songs with the electric guitar carrying the melody. So why does the album cover look so rebellious? Well, when these guys were making music, the electric guitar was pretty controversial. I’ve read reports that an attempt was made to ban the instrument from being played in public places (though obviously those efforts were in vain).  

Takeshi and his band were heavily influenced by the Ventures as were thousands of other young people in Japan in the ’60s.  In fact if you look close enough you can see the Ventures logo on the headstock of the guitar.  The Ventures continue to play hundreds of shows in Japan every year.  They’ve sold more albums in Japan than the Beatles.  Later this month I’ll get a chance to see them live in Misawa.  


Theme from the show "God Mars," an animated robot show that aired from 1981-1982.




Our main find in Hachinohe was a collection of Ishida Ayumi 45s.  Julie and I became fans of Ishida a couple of years ago.  


One last story about the recycle shop in Hiranai.  While were browsing the aisles I came across a set of four records that appeared to be a collection of nationalistic/military songs from the early 1900s through World War II.  The set was in perfect condition and included several photos and some sort of informational essay that accompanied it.  We couldn’t believe we found it.  It was like finding an important historical document and made the other records we found seem like 40 year old candy wrappers.  

So we brought it to the counter and then owner said, in Japanese of course, “Oh this record.  Was it over there?  Oh, I see, well, I’m sorry about it’s not for sale.  It’s my personal record.  Sorry.”  

It was disappointing but at the same time he can appreciate that record in ways we’ll never be able to so it’s just as well.  We’re just glad it won’t be tossed into the trash anytime soon.


Towada Art Center

July 5, 2010


So last month we finally got around to visiting the art center in the nearby city of Towada.  Here are some photos we took outside the building.  Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the cool exhibits inside but we definitely recommend paying the price of admission to see them in person.

The only other thing I’ll add before posting pictures is that on this day it was extremely hot and we gladly gulped down some iced coffee later at the art center’s cafe.  Our barista was one of our friends who is something of an artist herself.

Also, the people who made all this stuff are apparently pretty famous.










Japan’s Holiday Season

December 14, 2009


As you may recall, last year around this time we set off for a whirlwind tour of Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, and Miyajima.  If I remember correctly, we never got around to writing up a proper post of some traditions of the Japanese holiday season.  This school year I’ve been tutoring at lunch and last week one of my students prepared a report (in English, of course) about various customs and traditions surrounding , primarily, Christmas and New Year’s.  Here are some highlights.


Christmas in Japan is a largely secular holiday focusing on gift giving and spending time with family.  Along with Halloween it’s becoming more commercially popular each year.  Surprisingly one of the biggest traditions is eating KFC for dinner on Christmas Day.  Recently a coworker of one of our friends said “If you want KFC on Christmas, you better get up early and order it in advance.  Otherwise, you’re out of luck.”  Afterwards families usually eat some sort of Christmas cake.

Children who receive gifts on Christmas usually have their presents set next to their bed while they sleep rather than underneath a Christmas tree.

New Year’s Traditions

New Year’s is easily Japan’s biggest holiday of the year.   My student told me it is common to thoroughly clean one’s house on New Year’s Eve in order to feel clean within yourself as you prepare for a new start.  Once the work is done, it’s time to relax.  Before and for a brief period after World War II, children would often spend New Year’s playing with tako (a kite made out of paper and bamboo), koma (a kind of spinning top), and haigoita, a sort of badminton-like game where the winner gets to draw a picture on the loser’s face.  It was also common to build kamakura, a sort of igloo-like snow house for recreational use.

Nowadays people find other ways to spend freetime during the holidays.  Shopping is probably the most popular activity as many businesses advertise special end-of-the-year deals.  I imagine it’s similar to Black Friday in America after Thanksgiving, but with less stampedes.

But there’s much more to New Year’s than consumerism.  Obviously it’s a time for family and renewal.  Sometime between the 31st of December and the 3rd of January, most people in Japan take time out to visit a temple where they offer a bit of money and say a prayer.  It’s also common to send New Year’s postcards in the mail to family and friends.  However my student told me that younger people tend to send text messages over their phone rather than take the time to mail postcards.  As communication towers and satellites are bombarded with messages, it can sometimes take several minutes to send your midnight New Year’s greeting through your phone.

Puns of Good Fortune

Many symbols of New Year representing good fortune and happiness stem from puns.  Tai (sea bream) is popular because it is in season and it is a pun on the word medetai, which my student told me means “happiness.”  Similar puns exist for a vegetable called konbu and apparently ebi (shrimp) is served because of pun involving the word for “longevity.”

Also, if you have a dream simultaneously featuring Mt. Fuji, hawks, and eggplant, it is very good luck.  The reasoning again is because of puns.  “Fuji” sounds like “buji” which means “safe.”  Hawk is taka and means clever and strong.  Nasu (eggplant) is a play on the word for accomplish or success, also pronounced nasu.

My student told me about other aspects of the holiday season like decorations and food, but it’d be better to wait and explain that stuff when we have pictures available.  Perhaps in the weeks to come we’ll show you what mochi cake, noshi, and kadomatsu look like.  In the meantime, enjoy Christmas, New Year’s, and the other holidays of the season.


November 1, 2009


On Friday I went to school dressed as Abraham Lincoln and gave away pennies and candy to teachers and students in my free time.  Students would come up to me as I roamed the halls and ask me, “Trick or treat?”  After I ran out of pennies I searched my pockets to see if I had anything else to give.  I found a plastic baggy with tiny pieces of paper containing random English words.  It was from a lesson we did a while back on parts of the body.  For the rest of the afternoon, whenever a student would ask me for Halloween candy, I would give them a piece of paper that said “face” or “knee” or “ankle.”  Their response?  More often than not:  No thank you.

I got a rock…

Happy Halloween?

October 13, 2009


I know it’s a little early, but I thought I’d share this photo of a spider I took outside after a (wonderful) classical guitar concert we went to.  If you look close you’ll see a few other spiders hanging out along the side of the web.  You might think those are baby spiders, but they’re actually males and the large one is the female.  There’s some interesting Japanese folklore associated with this spider that you can read about hereJorogumo is its name in Japanese.

Alright, so maybe that’s a little creepy.  Here’s a nice antidote for the jorogumo.

Go Update Continued and Culture Day Photos

October 13, 2009


Well, the big Aomori Go Festival has come and gone.  I ended up on a five person team composed of people who work for an electric company in a nearby town.  If I had to sum it up concisely, I would choose three words;  humbling, exhausting, and fun.  Humbling because I realized how much I need to improve.  I won one game out of four and the mistakes I made in the games I lost were pretty embarrassing.  But it was also a lot of fun and I learned a lot from my mistakes.  With that said, it was exhausting in part from all the Go playing, but mostly on account of dealing with the language barrier all day.

It was especially nice to see some familiar faces at the tournament and meet other people around the prefecture who play Go.  A few of the people I met helped us out on Friday at Culture Day; a day long seminar for participants in the JET Program to learn more about Japanese Culture.  This year our prefectural organization decided to give a Go presentation.  Three high level Go players, including one of the top 2 or 3 players in the prefecture, gave introductory presentations while my friend Aaron translated their words into English and I provided some analysis during demonstrations.  Pictures below.

Playing a game at lunch before the presentation.

Getting myself into trouble against a 4 dan (a player 12 ranks better than me).

There was obviously more to Culture Day than just Go.  While I was helping out with the Go presentations, Julie learned about Japanese ceramics, taiko drumming, traditional dance, and even got to wear a kimono.

Taiko drumming

Traditional dance

Julie preparing to try traditional Japanese dancing.

Traditional ceramics

So the day after Culture Day I ended up playing in another Go tournament.  This one was much more low key as it only included six people from the Go Club in Noheji.  I won two games out of five.  One of those wins was a significant milestone for me as I beat a player who was given two stones on the board against me.  Usually it’s the other way around and I get the extra stones.

Go Update

October 2, 2009


On the second Saturday of every month, my local Go club holds a tournament at the community center.  It’s a low key event.  At the most we have eight people show up and they’re all pretty much club regulars.  First place gets a plastic shopping bag full of tissue boxes.  People who take second and third get the same prize just with fewer boxes and if you participate at all you get two boxes of tissue.

Because of my low ability I was never able to play during these monthly tournaments, that is until last Saturday.  After attending the Go club regularly for about a year, I was finally invited to participate in the tournament.  Of the four games I played, I only won one.  This is partly because I’ve moved up a stone (or rank) again and thus didn’t receive as many stones on the board against some opponents as I normally do.  I’ve had a lot of success in Go the past month, but now that I’ve become a little stronger it looks like I’m going to have to learn through making mistakes again.  Which is fine.

On Sunday I’ll be attending a Go festival in Aomori City.  About 400 people from various parts of Japan will be there, too.  I managed to snag a spot on a five person team with a local electric company.  After the tournament we’ll be treated to a lesson from a professional Go player.  I’m stoked to say the least.

Anyway, once the tournament is over I’ll let you know how it went.  I’ll also include a picture or two.


August 24, 2009


On the third day of the Noheji Festival, we went to the beach with friends and watched a glorious fireworks show.  The guy who planned the performance choreographed the fireworks to music which pumped out of a big set of speakers on the sand.  My favorite melody was the “William Tell Overture.”

Also, in the middle of the show, we were given a brief lecture on fireworks.  During this time a single firework was sent into the sky and, after it exploded, someone would explain what kind of firework it was to the audience.  It was kind of cool.

Check out this video:

And these photos:

More photos here.

Noheji Gion Festival

August 24, 2009


In Japan I’d say just about every town has a festival or some well known event that takes place at the same time each year.  Every August, a few weeks after Nebuta, Noheji celebrates its Gion Festival — a four day event featuring parades, floats, food, fireworks, dancing, and music.

I think we’ve mentioned this before, but back in the day (in Japan this means hundreds of years ago) Noheji was a major shipping port.  We’ve been told that Noheji sort of acted like the middleman along maritime trade routes between Hokkaido and Kyoto (the old capital city).  As you can probably imagine, the sailors and merchants brought back some cultural elements of Kyoto in addition to goods and merchandise.

Nowhere is this more evident than the Noheji Gion Festival.  The Noheji Festival borrows heavily from the Kyoto Gion Festival.  The music, dancing, floats, and geisha style performers are all very similar.  Though to be fair, it’s not completely identical.

I mentioned earlier that just about every town has a festival.  The week before I was able to attend a festival in our neighbor town of Hiranai.  A person I was with explained the history of the festival and how its origins were rooted in religion.  He went on to add that nowadays people in Japan aren’t so religious and implied that the festival was more of a way to remember the past and the people who have come before us.  I think today’s Noheji Gion Festival serves a similar purpose.  People have been living in the Noheji area for hundreds years.  It seems the festival is an attempt to link this sense of history and tradition to the present.  Or maybe it’s just an excuse to have fun, eat fried food, and shoot off fireworks.

Anyway, on with the photos.

Tachinebuta in Goshogawara

August 16, 2009


A few days after Aomori Nebuta, we ventured to the Western side of the prefecture for tachinebutaTachi basically means tall.  Some of the floats pictured below are as tall as three story buildings.  Absolutely amazing.

This is what the landscape looked like on the way there.

Waiting for the bus.

Yes, that glowing tower is made of paper.

As always, more photos here.