Archive for the ‘Festivals’ Category

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…

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.


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.

Aomori Nebuta

August 12, 2009


Last year Julie and I arrived in Aomori in time for the last day of Nebuta.  We wrote about it here.  This year, we were actually able to participate.  Our friend Britni, visiting us from the States, was able to join us as well.

Before I post more pictures, here’s a little more background information.  Nebuta is a summer festival held in Aomori Prefecture every year.  There are various Nebuta festivals and parades but the most famous is held in Aomori City during the first week of August.  Basically, every night a parade rolls through town with floats of warriors made entirely out of paper.  Participants wear traditional costumes, dance, yell, and play music.

Our group was part of the section that jumped up and down and yelled “Ra-say ra, ra-say ra, ra-say ra-say ra-say RA!”  It’s sort of a nonsensical phrase.  The purpose of chanting it, along with the dancing, is to wake people up from their summer sleepiness.

I’ll post videos of both Aomori Nebuta and Tachinebuta in Goshogawara tomorrow.

Where have we been?

August 10, 2009


We haven’t posted in a while and with good reason.  Two weekends ago we were busy planning for an English barbecue at our apartment.  Our friend in town who teaches English privately to elementary and junior high school students invited approximately fifty people over for hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, and soda.  Yes, that’s right, we celebrated the 4th of July…in August.

A few days before the big barbecue, our friend Britni arrived from the States.  As you can imagine, we’ve spent a lot of our free time showing her all the good things Aomori has to offer.  Since it’s August, this included participating in the famous Aomori Nebuta festival, watching the brilliant Tachinebuta festival in Goshogawara, attending a tea ceremony, exploring Hirosaki Castle, meeting Julie’s coworkers, meeting our ALT friends, watching wacky television shows, and of course, eating delicious seafood and ramen.

On top of all that, I helped out at an English camp for junior high and high school students in Aomori City over the weekend.  When I wasn’t running English activities I was running around in the gym playing basketball, American football, and wall ball (a game I taught them how to play).  It was exhausting, but a ton of fun.

Highlights of English Camp

Eight other ALTs attended English Camp this summer.  In addition to running activities, we were each put in charge of a group of ten students who competed against other teams in various English activities.  This included writing and performing a skit with props.  My team, team Ultraman, had to write a play incorporating the phrase “Does he have influenza?”  In the skit, Winnie the Pooh invites his friends over for a Halloween party where they decide they should go skiing later.  Two months later, they go skiing, Pooh gets lost, rescued, and it is feared he has influenza.

The main activities I was in charge of included an English logic puzzle and a shopping simulation.  Of the two, the shopping simulation was my favorite.  A Japanese teacher and I sold Alaskan products to students including totem poles (badminton poles) and bear meat (sold by the kilogram).  Towards the end of the simulation, my coworker would steal an item.  I’d wait for my students to yell “Help!  Help me!” and then I’d chase after the teacher and arrest him with some toy handcuffs.

But my favorite part of the weekend was just hanging out and talking with students.  As far as camp counseling goes, I’m not the kind that exudes enthusiasm and effervesces Fun! and Excitement! everywhere I go.  I take a much quieter approach and try to get to know the students.  It’s a balance.  Those rowdy leaders are certainly necessary for a successful camp but I think having a few people take a more subdued approach helps make it more inclusive.

Look for more updates on the blog soon.  I’ll be typing up posts for Nebuta festivals in Aomori and Goshogawara soon.  Tomorrow I’m attending a Go tournament for the teachers of Aomori Prefecture so I’ll be sure to post a few pictures and comments on that as well.

As I alluded earlier, Julie will be sightseeing with Britni in Kyoto and Tokyo this week.  When she gets back, I reckon we’ll have even more blog entries for you to read.

Culture Festival

July 27, 2009


This weekend my school held their annual culture festival all day on Saturday and Sunday.  Ordinarily I might complain about working on the weekend, but when your only major responsibilities include judging a karaoke contest and talking with students and teachers in the hallway, I’d say it hardly qualifies at work.

In fact, we had a blast.  The past few days have been packed with karaoke, fried food, jaw-dropping dance routines, weird skits, garage bands, fashion shows, club displays, drama club performances, funny speeches, and even a haunted classroom.

I wish I could post pictures and videos of the events, but out of respect for the privacy of my students I can’t.  Intead, here are some photos that are in no way reflective of the culture festival, but I hope you find them interesting nevertheless.

My new favorite pencil. I used this for karaoke judging.

Flowers on the walk to and from work.

Our students are now on summer vacation but we have to continue going to the office for work days along with the rest of the teachers we work with.  It’s ok though.  We have more than enough to keep ourselves busy.  For instance I’ll be running a few activities at a summer English camp in a couple of weeks.  Julie and I also have listening tests to write, lesson plans to create, and a friend from the States will be visiting us at the end of this week.  We’re also hoping that we’ll find more time at work to study Japanese and converse with our coworkers who will be slightly less busy than usual.

Aomori Rock Festival

July 21, 2009


Over the weekend Julie and I drove to Tsugaru City on the Western side of the prefecture for an all day rock festival.

We mostly wanted to go because one of our favorite bands from Japan was scheduled to play in the afternoon:  Eastern Youth.  Eastern Youth strike a nice balance between noise and melody.  Their music is cathartic but very listenable.

They played a great set — a nice mix of old and new material.  The highlight for me was “Into the Sandstorm,” which was the first Eastern Youth song I’d ever heard and is still one of my favorites.

The other bands we saw were also fun to watch and listen to.

Interesting enka/rockabilly/storytelling solo act.

The Beaches. They played a fun set of reggae dance rock.

Neatbeats. 60s style garage rock.

Mari, the lead singer from Tsushimamire. They probably gave our favorite performance of the day.

Not pictured:  the King Brothers.  During the last song of their set, the lead guitarist climbed the scaffolding of the stage, about twenty feet off the ground.  He then jumped off, not into the crowd, but back onto the stage, did a ninja safety roll, and immediately picked up his guitar and began playing music again.