“Candy is Dandy…but Liquor is Quicker.” ~Willy Wonka


Japanese Hot Tub

Now THAT’s a Hot Tub

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” ~W. C. Fields

“O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil.” ~William Shakespeare, or, any one of the misinformed and less creatively inclined leadership in the modern US miliary

“Wine is bottled poetry.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

The 'mo lights the 'mo better.  Regardless of the design....

The ‘mo lights the ‘mo better. Regardless of the design….

11922362203_bf0595c424_b11921945005_dd3ac4247c_bThe Itoman Peaceful Illumination Festival “Lights of Peace” is one of Okinawa’s most popular winter holiday events, drawing 50,000 visitors each year.  The venue, located in the south of the island near Itoman City, is beautifully if not haphazardly decorated with ~1.3 million lights, roughly representing the Okinawan population, and carrying the island’s hopes for peace through the night skies.  This year, as part of our New Year Day outing, we visited the 15th annual illumination, after spending the daytime hours at the nearby Okinawa Prefectural Peace Prayer/Memorial Park.

The Itoman Farm "Gift Shop," full of Liquid Holiday Cheer!

The Itoman Farm “Gift Shop,” full of Liquid Holiday Cheer!

img06wineI quickly and excitedly realized, however, the stroke of genius of the illumination’s hosts deciding on holding such an event.  You see, the venue is actually the “Itoman Wine Farm” (糸満観光農園), and although there is a small cover charge for admission to the illumination (250 yennies each), and without doubt their festival is a fun-filled, holiday-spirited family event, I couldn’t help but notice that they were doing a rather brisk wine and wine-related paraphernalia business on not quite the side, but front-and-center! image06p Jody and I were both surprised to find a winery here on Okinawa.  Having spent four years living among the people here, I had never come across or even heard of an indigenous wine made and bottled on the island.  However, Jody and I also both know that almost all places, no matter where you are, make and offer their own wine – although Florida and their local moscatos are barely edible – so shame on us for being so dumbfounded! img05 christs-sake

Sake:  Higher-End Beer Goggles

Sake: Higher-End Beer Goggles

Wine is usually made from fermented grapes, but can also be made from other fruits (fruit wines) or honey (meads).  Wines made from other such produce are named rather directly:  rice wine, pomegranate wine, apple wine and elderberry wine, for instance.  The term “wine” can also refer to starch-fermented or fortified beverages having higher alcohol content, such as sake, which most people immediately think of when they conjure up plans and schemes of imbibing in Japan. Sake or saké is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, sometimes called “rice wine.”  However, the brewing process for sake is much more akin to that of beer, converting starch to sugar for use in fermentation.  So, in this sense, sake is not really a wine at all….  Sorry for raining on your alcohol-infused mental Far Eastern parade.  And to make things even more confusing, the Japanese language uses the word sake (酒, “liquor”) as a reference for most any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called sake in the West is usually here termed nihonshu (日本酒, “Japanese liquor”).

Okinawan Awamori, snake included.

Okinawan Awamori, snake included.

176759899_58cdf77ac4_z11412436355_31c144b435_bOn Okinawa, however, there is an obscure yet popular adult-oriented potion uniquely indigenous to Okinawa:  Awamori (泡盛).  It’s made from long grain rice, and is product of distillation rather than brewing, which makes it more like hard liquor than anything else.  All Awamori made today is from Thai rice, since local production in Japan is no longer sufficient to meet domestic demands (how shameful!).  Awamori is typically 60–90 proof, although the hanazake brand can be as high as 120 proof, making it flammable.  In any case, for all Awamori, the distilled result is typically aged in traditional clay pots to improve flavor and imbue a level of “mellowness.” The most popular way to drink Awamori is with water and ice.  When served in Okinawa, it’s usually accompanied by a container of ice and carafe of water.  Traditionally, Awamori was served in a kara-kara, a small earthen vessel with a small clay marble inside, which would make a distinctive kara-kara sound when the pouring vessel was nearly empty; it is very bad form and rude in Japan to pour from an empty vessel.   While still found on Okinawa, these vessels often now lack such distinctive clay marbles. All of these leads me to a funny tangent….

Drinking with the Boyz! I'm partially hidden at far left....

Drinking with the Boyz, circa 2000! I’m partially hidden at far left….

After months of this, I certainly could use the drink.

After months of this, I certainly could use the drink.

Mayumi - I'm surprised she still speaks to me!

Mayumi – I’m surprised she still speaks to me!

My first time on the island, between 1999-2001, I was the Officer-in-Charge of a detachment of air traffic controllers and operational air intercept specialists that I would serve with for six months at a time.  When not underway, they would live at the Habu Hilton on Kadena Air Base, and of course were a very long way away from home with little here to make them feel homey, let alone welcome.  So, for every det I hosted, I would hold at least one large party at my home, especially around the holidays and the middle of summer.  I, of course, would offer Okinawan Awamori for toasting.  Awamori here is sold in the coolest bottles, and in one-upmanship with Mexico, they have replaced that piddly little worm of same Latino fame with…a full-sized Habu pit viper snake.  Chew on that (before swallowing)!!  Not knowing any better, I would serve the Awamori like one would serve tequila, and my det Sailors, being on detachment and being sailors, would task me to keep up with them while shooting the shots.  Yes, alcohol was yet to be ordained another “Great Evil” in the service, although it certainly was seen already by the leadership as a lessor demon.  So, we would drink, laugh, eat, and drink some more.  And, we all had the worst hangovers the next day, the kind that put you down on the couch for most of the day!  It wasn’t until years later, when I was having dinner with a friend who was married to a Japanese woman Mayumi, that I learned my mistake.  When I took a shot of the Awamori I had ordered at the higher-end Japanese restaurant we found ourselves enjoying in South Beach (Miami), she was literally aghast at my behavior!  She explained that Awamori is to be savored and enjoyed, not gulped, and should always be cut half with water/ice, and then sipped….  It’s hard sometimes to not be the ugly American, even when you try.

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img02yimage01uThe Itoman farm, however, makes neither sake nor Awamori.  It does produce, however, several varieties of fruit wine, including acerola, passion fruit, and Sparkling versions of each, all made with produce grown locally on-island.  The Okinawans believe that acerola wine prevents aging and rejuvenates the skin, while passion fruit wine helps relieve fatigue.  I could’ve used some of this wine to cure my Awamori-induced hangovers.  If I had only known.

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Although no tours were being offered during the illumination, I understand they are available during more normal business times and hours.  Of course they do offer free tastings (some things are the same ‘round the world) in their traditionally red-tiled “wine house,” and have a nice souvenir shop where they of course peddle their wines, but also offer jars of fruit jams and spreads made out of local ingredients like sweet potato, acerola, pineapple, and passion fruit, to name a few.

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img01qimg01yThe Itoman Wine Farm is almost directly across the (main) street from Peace Prayer Park, making it an easy side-excursion.  The huge white windmills are nearly on the farm and are a key landmark to look for since they are simply unmistakable anywhere near the area.  There is plenty of free parking.  Miniature golf, pony rides and horseback riding, and greenhouses hosting fruit trees and local fauna can all be sampled as well daily from 10:00am through 6:00pm.

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Oh, and when it came time to leave the illumination well into the dark, we noticed some odd light beams shooting straight up skyward from the vicinity of the Peace Prayer Park.  We ventured to see, and what we stumbled upon was the “2nd Peaceful Searchlights,” where the park became wrapped in the solemn still and silent darkness, with five powerful beams of light projected skyward breaking through the atmosphere; each beam honoring the victims of the Battle of Okinawa from the five different countries and regions engaged in that conflict:  America, the United Kingdom, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.  Lining the pathways of the park were literally thousands of circular battery-powered LED lights, each placed by hand, marking the way.  Only in Japan could such things be left open to the public without fear of being stolen, kicked, thrown, or otherwise molested.

And we hadn't even started drinking.  Yet.

And we hadn’t even started drinking. Yet.

Jody and I came home with I believe 4 or 5 bottles of Okinawan wine.  While we haven’t yet to partake of this find and discover what poetry this Okinawan potion portends, we are so very joyful to have a winery here to call home.  Our outing, complete with the Tomori Lion encounter (read about that here), our day on Mabuni Hill (an upcoming blog), along with the experience of an Okinawan holiday illumination and peaceful searchlights, was rightfully and wonderfully the Far East Fling flirtation with the first day of the New Year here in Okinawa, Japan.

Ride 2014 Like you Mean It, Jody!!

Ride 2014 Like you Mean It, Jody!!

McDonald’s American Vintage Campaign: I’m Lovin’ It!


There is ANIME for everything in Japan!!

There is ANIME for everything in Japan!!

“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.”  ~Carson McCullers

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”  ~Peter De Vries

“Too much has been forgotten in the name of memory.”  ~Don DeLillo, Americana

50s-fads-skirt-200x250Remember the good’old days when everyone was young and innocent and all was right with the world?  When poodle skirts flowed and showed curvy calves, and neck scarves and bobby socks completed a look….  When school-produced and chaperon-provided “Sock Hops” dances were held in gyms across the country…and “The Twist” defined a decade?  When red & blue 3-D glasses were common in theaters across the country, and pointedly, women’s bullet-bras shaped the standard of what was alluring?  When beatniks were not quite cool, but would never be found at the faddish American drive-in….

And women unfortunately "knew their place...."

And women unfortunately “knew their place….”

Those are some of the things I think about when I consider “American Vintage.”

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american-vintageWell, McDonald’s in the Far East is flirting with all-things Americana, particularly with their new “American Vintage Campaign,” unveiled through a 1950s American Diner menu recently released here in Okinawa.  In a phrase, McDonald’s Japan is attempting to take the nostalgia that many in the East have for most things West, and cram it into sandwiches and on top of fries which neither resonate with our prototypical ideal of an American Diner, nor with the food of that time!

Fonzie would at least be cooler than Obama....

Fonzie probably would benefit from Obama-Card….

dreamNow, when an America thinks of a 1950s Diner, what may come to mind?  Perhaps “Happy Days” and “The Fonz.”  Or, perhaps, you might think about a classic period true American Diner or the time, a la James Dean and Marilyn Monroe (and the other strap-hangers and wallflower that make up that iconic night crew).  And the standard American vintage meal of the period is easy enough to conjure up:  a no frills burger, fries, soda, and perhaps a malted milkshake….

True Vintage Food, Americana Style

True Vintage Food, Americana Style

the-fonzdb-2However, here in Japan, they are…doing it wrong.  As least partly.  For instance, the signature “American Vintage Diner” items seem to consist of two sandwiches and special-order french-fries.  The burger – the “Diner Double Beef” – is anything but American Vintage!  Check out the layers of oddly unique Asian-inspired flavors and textures:  a double beef burger on “graham” buns (???), with Chicago-style steakhouse sauce (whatever that is), fresh onion, cheddar cheese, and get this – an egg, AND, wait for it…

The Diner Double-Beef!!

The Diner Double-Beef!!

Mashed potato sauce!  Yummy.  In fact, so oddly delicious (I’m told) that Inside the Actors’ Guild has invited a new word for it:  scrumtrulescent.

The Actors' Guild Can't be Wrong

The Actors’ Guild Can’t be Wrong

diner-honey-mustardhBC255DDCThere is also a crispy chicken sandwich – the “Diner Honey Mustard” – with, yes, you guessed it, honey mustard, in addition to bacon, cheddar, and lettuce.  Now that seems more like it, I mean, more something like we would find on a diner menu.  Although mustard of such sauciness may have been a wee-tad spicy for the conservatism of the McCarthy-era 50s.  However, it wouldn’t be weirdly Japanese if they got even this one (and just one), just about right; both sandwiches are served with what they call “Classic Fries,” which, in the Far East interpretation, is presented as a build-your-own fries box, complete with processed cheese product to be squirted directly from a plastic packet, then topped with a sprinkling of “bacon-flavor topping.”  We all should be smart enough to know that such a phrase only means artificial bacon flavoring infused into the most unappetizing parts of the pig…which I’m told doesn’t taste or feel like bacon bits at all.  I can honestly say that in my nearly 48 years on the planet I never encountered such a concoction at a Micky-D’s!  Anywhere in the world for that matter.

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funny-Ronald-McDonald-girl-cute12063680024_1ff019f119_bHowever clever McDonald’s in Japan has been with their vintage-themed décor, it still can’t quite bring one to consider either the establishment or their newfound food as anything close to an American 1950s diner.  They have reproduced some classically delightful Americana posters and prints, and in some instances, have made clever use of space, color, and shape.  For instance, turning the waste bin into a jukebox is a stroke of genius, as is covering their service counters with a loud, McDonald’s palette infused checkerboard pattern.  They also offer an American Vintage tee-shirt, which I’m sure will sell “real good” (note the vintage grammar in the photo at left), as most things American do here in Okinawa where our western influence is at extreme.

The Hippest Trash Cans Around!

The Hippest Trash Cans Around!

Count'em, FOUR thumbs up!

Count’em, FOUR thumbs up!

12063655374_33c9c0ff06_bIn all fairness, I can’t say that I’ve tried these menu items.  And my heart and arteries thank me for, daily.  Oddly enough though, I do frequent McDonald’s here in Okinawa about 1,000 times more than I ever did back in the Motherland.  Fountain sodas are hard to find in Okinawa, where everything is canned or bottled, and the Western-style breakfast they offer simply can’t be beat when pressed for time or confounded by a lack of orange juice at home….  The food franchises here are especially clean and well attired.  The service, like most anywhere else in Japan, is friendly and impeccable, and amazingly fast compared to our standards of fast-food at home.  All these things combined make a trip to the Golden Arches quite refreshing here in the Far East, so much so that I was the one to ask the wife to stop by in order to pay homage to this vintage campaign!  That said, though, the true downfall of Japan isn’t going to come through scarce natural resources, a failing economy, or a slow cultural death brought on by over-indulgence on manga, anime, and coffee and comic overdoses.  Rather, it’s going to be through good’old vintage health problems brought on by the “MegaMac!”  My Gawd look at that monstrosity!

My Hearts Hurts from Just Looking at it....

My Hearts Hurts from Just Looking at it….

Would Huggy-Bear Approve?

Would Huggy-Bear Approve?

That could be BBQ sauce on his head.

That could be BBQ sauce on his head.

However, it gets even BETTER!  This vintage campaign is actually a set of three battling bites of Americana:  “1950s American Diner” now playing, “1970s Soul Food,” and “1980s Pop Culture Cuisine.  If you think they have missed the mark on American 50s diner food and feel, wait until the “Soul Food” menu comes out at the end of the month.  On tap will be the Huggy Bear “Hot & Groovy Chicken” and “Hot & Groovy Beef.”  At least they’ve been uber-creative with their entrée names….  It remains to be seen if they will inadvertently offend those Americans who insist of being African as well.  The overall campaign ends at the beginning of March when their 1980s Pop Culture Boy-George “American BBQ Chicken” and, you’ll never guess, the “American BBQ Beef” will have been served since the middle of February.

Demotivational-Posters-McDonalds-5

Stay tuned for those delicious developments.  I can already smell the humor and fun!

Which do YOU prefer??

Which do YOU prefer?? More importantly, which would WIN?!?!

meanwhile-in-japan-mcdonalds-kfc-funnykevinbolk2

Okinawan Kijimuna: Mythical “Red Power!!”


Lucille-Ball

“Once in his life, every man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead.”  ~Lucille Ball

“While the rest of the species is descended from apes, redheads are descended from cats.”  ~Mark Twain

“Red Power!”  ~Eric Cartman, South Park

sp___red_power_by_s3shs3s-d3kznez

myth-gingers-dont-have-soulsRed hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein.  At least that’s what scientists want you to believe.

Red hair is really because such people are born soulless….

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Alina, Cindy’s daughter

Now, I can say this (and other things about redheads), without fear of repercussion or reprisal.  You see, I have some near and dear Gingers in my very own family:  my beloved cousins Suzanne, Cindy, and her daughter, Alina.  I can assure you, besides being three of the prettiest women I know and being some of the very best human beings on the planet, they all have souls.  Not sure if they were there at birth though (wink).

Red Hair and Green Eyes - Cindy is Beautiful, inside and out

Red Hair and Green Eyes – Cindy is Beautiful, inside and out

ginger-kid-106953-530-804Red hair occurs naturally in only 1–2% of the humanity, and occurs more frequently (2–6%) in people of northern or western European ancestry, and less frequently in other populations – like those of Asia.  Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England have the most redheads. Scotland leads with 13% having red hair and ~40% possessing the recessive redhead gene.  Ireland is next with ~10% redheads, and ~40% carrying the gene.  The U.S. of A is harder to gauge, but let’s take the average of the estimates and say ~4%, which, in total numbers, gives the United States the largest redheaded population at about 12 million.  Now that’s some Red Power!

Red Hair is common in Japanese Anime

Red Hair is common in Japanese Anime

video%20games%20clouds%20trees%20redheads%20long%20hair%20game%20cg%20gym%20uniform%20necklaces%20running%20shorts%20ponytails%20o_www_wallmay_com_92In the Far East, flings with genetically-based red hair are rare, and can really only be found in the Levant, Turkey, the Caucuses, Northern Kazakhstan, and among Indo-Iranians.  The use of henna on hair, along with more modern western hair dyes, are both common in Asia, even if red hair isn’t.  However, such dyes result in various rather unnatural shades of red.

That's *probably* not her natural hair coloring....

That’s *probably* not her natural hair coloring….

Malachi

Malachi

Throughout history, redheads – “ginger,” “auburn,” and “strawberry blonde” – have been feared and revered, loathed and adored, degraded and exalted.  No other single human trait has provoked such a dichotomy of feverish emotions in so many others.  Prejudice and suspicion has always confronted the redhead, along with an almost worldwide belief of fiery temperament, an artifact of the Scots and Celts being such fierce and notoriously violent warriors.  And things appear not much different here in Okinawa….

Only a redhead would turn her own mother into a bear.

Only a redhead would turn her own mother into a bear.

The Kijimuna (キジムナー) are well-known wood and tree spirits, sprites or fairies of Okinawan mythology native only to the Ryukyu Islands. They are said to look around three or four years old and covered in red hair.  They are believed to live in trees, most commonly large banyans called gajumaru, which gives such trees a rather special place in Okinawan’s hearts.

Okinawan Kijimuna Tree Fairy

Okinawan Kijimuna Tree Fairy

010In fact, my first time on Okinawa, in 1999, an officer I was stationed with here was having serious plumbing problems in the home he was renting not far from where we elected to live out in town.  When the plumber’s reports were finally translated, it was found that the large banyan tree in their tiny yard had expressed its roots all through the home’s underground plumbing.  When we in the west would most likely haul up and out a tree causing such problems, here in Okinawa, such a course of action was simply out-of-the-question:  the tree would stay; the innards of the house would be dug up instead.  You know, least they disturb and anger the Kijimuna….  To keep the spirits in the trees, however, many such gajumaru near homes and schools will have nails driven into their trunks.

It appears this one used the nails...to build a home.

It appears this one used the nails…to build a home.

ijimuna are described as being child-sized, they are said to have unusually large heads topped with red hair, which sometimes covers their whole bodies.  Often they are depicted as being red all over, hairy or not.  Being excellent fishermen, they only eat the left eyes of their easy and abundant catch.  Another name for the kijimuna is bungaya, which means roughly “Large-Headed.”  The Kijimuna can be very mischievous, playing pranks on and tricking humans, but are generally innocent and friendly.

A Different Perspective on Kijimuna.  They really dislike octopi....

A Different Perspective on Kijimuna. They really dislike octopi….

kijimuna_fears_tako_by_chichapieOne of their most well-known tricks is to lie upon a person’s chest, making them unable to move or breathe, a condition known as kanashibari.  And even though they have been known to make friends with humans, such relationships don’t last and often go sour.  The kijimuna dislike people passing gas while riding on their backs (as odd as that sounds), and absolutely hate octopus, with which humans often have to drive kijimuna away after relationships have turned!

Like much of Japan, orthodontic care is not a priority for the Kijimuna

Like much of Japan, orthodontic care is not a priority for the Kijimuna

vampire-redheads-factSuch beliefs related to redheads do seem to permeate many cultures.  The ancient Egyptians played both sides, exalting many redheaded pharaohs while burning gingered-maidens.  The Greeks believed that redheads became vampires at death; isn’t that the plot of varied and highly successful teenybopper movies of late?  The Romans paid a premium for red-haired slaves, a symbol of strength and vitality.  During the Spanish Inquisition, known for its objective due process and impartial judges, red hair was literal evidence of hell’s fire, and usually was extinguished by being burned as a witch.  In the Middle Ages – not a rich period of enlightenment, redheads were associated with the Devil; it was thought that a child born with red hair was conceived during a woman’s “time of the month…”.  How silly; astrologers have all but proved that it’s primarily due to the undue influence of Mars-rising….

She knows why.

She knows why.

ron gingerBiblically speaking, red figures supremely.  The Hebrew “Adam” can mean “to be red” or “ruddy,” but in all fairness this probably refers to skin color rather than hair.  Judas Priest – not the band, but the original poster boy of zealotry gone bad, sometimes has red hair.  And, the original bad gurl Mary Magdalene is often portrayed the same way (but with no biblical reference to her hair color).  Similarly, red hair has been thought to be a mark of a beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration, both positives in my ‘lil black book…which if they came in red I’d own one.  It is a common belief that redheads are highly sexed.  Oh behave!  Are redheads bad, or are they just drawn that way??

BOTH

BOTH

Of course anything seen as evil in the world couldn’t be comprehensively described without some reference to the Nazi’s, who, as the logical stewards of developing the master race felt that ginger-kids shouldn’t wed or reproduce.

Too late.  A breeding pair.

Too late. A breeding pair.

Such beliefs, if unchecked, can give rise to “gingerphobia” (fear of redheads) or “gingerism” (prejudiced against redheads).  Redheads are sometimes disparaged with the moniker “carrot-top,” and for one, it seems discretely applicable.

The pictorial definition of "Gingerphobia"

The pictorial definition of “Gingerphobia”

So, if clichés are to be believed, while brunettes may be smarter, and blondes may have more fun, neither are wrapped so tightly in mystery and intrigue that they become an enigma enveloped within an enigma.  And, in an ironic twist of time and Mother Nature, most redheads go from red to blonde to white, with hardly ever a grey hair to show.  So, while the rest of you color-challenged cohorts start covering your grey in your 30s or 40s, those redheads that have been the center of so much drama will remain gorgeous, but with time, as strawberry blondes.  Karma is a wonderful thing.

Maureen O'Hara:  Timeless

Maureen O’Hara: Timeless

The kijimuna however, do not age.  And as long as there are flourishing banyan trees and tall-tale telling grandmothers in Okinawa – less any proximity to octopi – the bungaya will live on, fiery as ever, forever.

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(Read more myths about red hair here)

Biker Life in Japan: Big Similarity, Small Difference 大同小異 (daidō shōi)


The Anime Version of Me and Jody as Bikers in Japan

The Anime Version of Me and Jody as Bikers in Japan.  At least my eye color is close….

“And I to my Motorcycle, Parked like the Soul of the Junkyard Restored, a bicycle Fleshed with Power, and tore off up Highway 106, continually Drunk on the Wind in my mouth, Wringing the handlebar for Speed, Wild to be Wreckage Forever” ~James Dickey

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”  ~Hunter S. Thompson

Me on my Honda Steed in Okinawa, 2005

Me on my Honda Steed in Okinawa, 2005

“Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.” ~Unknown

bikeI am a biker.  Well, let me correct that:  I own a large American cruiser, and I love to ride.  I am, however, part of the more modern movement of bikers and biking, unlike that of Easy Rider or Sons of Anarchy:  Older, mostly law-abiding, white-collar professional, and with the disposable income it takes to live the life, comfortably.  And at first glance things seem, as usual, weirdly dissimilar, In Japan, it is really…Big Similarity, Small Difference 大同小異 (daidō shōi).

Japanese Bosozoku:  No Hell's Angels!

Japanese Bosozoku: No Hell’s Angels, and the only anarchy is in the hairstyles!

Bōsōzoku (暴走族, “reckless tribe”) is a Japanese youth subculture associated with illegally customized motorcycles, in which mufflers are removed in order to make as much noise as possible.  Bōsōzoku also engage in dangerous or reckless driving, such as weaving in traffic, not wearing motorcycle helmets, speeding through congested city streets, and running red lights.  Hardly gang-like behavior by American standards.  But keep in mind that driving in Japan is taken much more seriously, as is breaking the law while driving.  When bōsōzoku go on group rides, led by a ride captain like we bikers do in the US, the Japanese police often dispatch a police vehicle to trail the group and help prevent any possible incidents.

“I’d rather be riding my motorcycle thinking about God than sitting in church thinking about my motorcycle” ~Unknown

My Ride...back home...in storage...for 3 long years....

My Ride…back home…in storage…for 3 long years….

My biker-life started in Okinawa back in 2005.  After separating from my then wife (now ex-wife), I found myself abandoning many of the restraints that had rather artificially held me back from doing many of the things I had always envisioned myself doing.  How many of us get caught up in kids, our jobs, and the roles to fulfill and the molds to fill that others and society set for and expect of us?  Most.  A radical shift in mindset – like that of an imminent divorce – sometimes is what it takes to redirect one’s life to a more true and…dare I say “interesting” path, one at least where preconceived notions and attitudes can be rejected.

Grease 2, Who's That Guy?  He's Bōsōzoku!!!

Grease 2, Who’s That Guy? He’s Bōsōzoku!!!

In Japan, bōsōzoku members have been traditionally almost always under the legal age of 20, and their anti-establishment attitudes and lack of respect for authority set them apart from the normal straight-laced teenager in Japan.  Many dedicated and hardcore members have often moved on to become low ranking members of the truly organized crime gang/syndicate in japan, the yakuza.  Now those guys constitute a gang, by any standard.

Uncle-Sam-Biker-Large

I didn’t get my first bike until I was 39, well over the legal age, when I too found myself full of anti-establishment attitudes and lack of respect for authority, which most certainly set me apart from most card-carrying, gun-toting, conservative Christian Republican Officers that made up the majority of the US military’s officer corps.  While I learned to ride dirt bikes at a very young age – without even wearing shoes or a shirt, let alone a helmet – and continued to enjoy 3-wheeling long after they were no longer made (‘cause, you know, they are too dangerous, which also means they are a BLAST!), I kept the urge to bike at bay for my entire married life….

My Bestest Biker-Bud and Mentor:  "T"

My Bestest Biker-Bud and Mentor: “T”

The first bōsōzoku started popping up in Japan in the 1950s when Japan’s automobile industry started to explode and blue-collar work and jobs became very regimented. These early hooligans were known as kaminari zoku or “thunder tribe,” and were molded on British counterculture rockers of the time.  Most came from lower class families and joined up for many of the same reasons people in all countries join gangs:  dissatisfaction with the system, government, or just their place in society (socio-economic status).  Just like anywhere else, people joined to feel like they were part of something bigger while at the same time sticking it to the man.  Hell, I feel that way most days, given the state of America’s “authorities.”

“Most motorcycle problems are caused by the nut that connects the handlebars to the saddle.” ~Unknown

My FIRST Bike, which I never rode....

My FIRST Bike, which I never rode….

That first thunder bike of mine was a brand new Harley Davidson Sporter 883, purchased through military sales on Okinawa in the summer of 2005.  However, I quickly found out why I was so anti-establishment and had a problem with the lame military authority on the island:  in the Navy, during your first year of riding in Japan, you are limited to a 400cc-sized engine, and you couldn’t take passengers.  WTF?  Sure, the military will put you in harm’s way on purpose, but oh no, they don’t trust you a bike for a split-second.  The bike purchase was refunded before I ever took ownership, but lucky for me, I found a perfect substitute that would pass the size muster:  a Honda 400cc Steed, a miniature cruiser, liquid-cooled, and fast as lighting!  I can neither confirm nor deny whether I took passengers on my motorcycle in Okinawa, but let’s just say it made for a GREAT date machine (wink)!

My Modern Mainstream Biker Buds Back Home

My Modern Mainstream Biker Buds Back Home. You can’t be scary wearing a scarf….

"666" - As Evil as my Rides Get

“666” – As Evil as my Rides Get

In the 1980s and 1990s, bōsōzoku would often embark on massed rides, in which hundreds of bikers would cruise together slowly en masse down an expressway or through the suburbs.  The motorcyclists would run toll booths and ignore police attempts to detain them, blocking traffic and waving imperial Japanese flags (once outlawed in Japan) while creating an unbelievable uproar with their illegally modified mufflers.  The bikers would sometimes smash the cars and terrorize or assault any motorists or bystanders (especially gaijin) who got in the way or expressed disapproval with the bikers’ behavior.  Basically, like thugs and hooligans everywhere, these gangs were an annoying pain in Japan’s collective ass.

“People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it’s safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs” ~Unknown

img035

In Okinawa, in 1999, I remember hearing these biker “gangs” roaming the city streets, it seemed, between about midnight and 4 am.  Seriously, it’s like what’s written above:  they were really not tearing around or speeding all that much.  Rather, they were more interested in revving their engines while in neutral, moving slowly through the streets, but making a terrific racket.  I was told, at the time (and I cannot confirm this from any other source), that the bikers (and car gangs as well, which are very similar in all aspects) had informal agreements with the police that they (the gangs) wouldn’t be harassed if they did their riding late at night when traffic was minimal and the roads basically clear.  Obviously the police don’t live anywhere close to the roads frequented by these hoodlums, or those times would be changed!

That is certainly NOT an American Biker's ride.... He's not even color-coordinated!

That is certainly NOT an American Biker’s ride…. He’s not even color-coordinated!

Bōsōzoku historically have modified their bikes in peculiar and often showy ways; while they start as an average Japanese road bike, they quickly are transformed into something that appears to combine elements of an American chopper and a British cafe racer.  Loud paint jobs on the fenders and gas tanks with motifs such as flames or kamikaze style “rising sun” designs are commonplace.  The bikes will often be adorned with stickers and/or flags depicting the gang’s symbol or logo.

“No matter what marque you ride, it’s all the same wind.” ~Unknown

Look closely and you'll see my (sexy) guardian angel.

Look closely and you’ll see my (sexy) guardian angel.

176450172_930bc6730e_b176448878_a7aeffabde_bMe – my bike in Okinawa was adorned with bumper-stickers, namely Bettie Page pinups!  Yes, that’s right; I have always had a thing for the 40s, and felt that I was born in the wrong time and era.  From the fashion of the time, the defined roles in society, to the men’s men that served in WWII, I am drawn to that time.  And to the era’s pinups….  Okay, yeah, so Bettie is from the 50s, but you get my point!  And besides, Bettie was very anti-establishment for her time, and the fetish aspect of her demeanor fit mine oh so well.  I came to think of her as my own protective “angel,” except one dressed in black.  Wearing fishnets.  And carrying a whip.

BosoZoku-01

02WWII_Japanese_Kamikaze_Pilot_by_yehXiminThe stereotypical bōsōzoku are instantly recognizable, adorned with a jumpsuit like those worn by manual laborers or a tokkō-fuku (特攻服, “special attack uniform,” a reference to the uniform worn by Japanese Kamikaze pilots of WWII), a type of military issued overcoat with kanji slogans and rising-sun patches.  The tokkō-fuku is usually worn open with no shirt underneath, and baggy matching pants are tucked inside tall boots.  A tasuki is also usually worn as a sash tied in an “X” crossing the torso, again in emulation of Japanese World War II fighter pilots.  Leather jackets – the international symbol of bikerhood-dom, often embroidered with club/gang logos are commonplace.  Finally, the signature elements of the gangs include long hachimaki headbands complete with battle slogans (more reference to WWII), and most impressively and rather ridiculously, pompadour hairstyles, a mutation of what we would relate to as a greaser/rocker look.

I guess helmets are clearly out of the question....

I guess helmets are clearly out of the question….

“A zest for living must include a willingness to die.” ~R.A. Heinlein

A good biker-bud of mine in full leathers.  Where's the Rising Sun, Jim??

A good biker-bud of mine in full leathers with 37 pieces of flair. Where’s the Rising Sun headband, Jim??

7167144030_7358e0745a_bI got my first leather riding vest while on Okinawa, and it is still my only one.  I swore I would never own chaps, but my first winter riding changed my mind in about 1.3 seconds at 60mph in 40 degree weather.  No, I don’t adorn myself with symbols, slogans, or gratuitous graffiti of most any sort.  I covered the back of my leather vest with the largest American flag I could find; years later, the front was minimally adorned with my retired Navy status, along with a succinct history of my service.

The drink:  very unbiker-like....

The Big-Gulp: very unbiker-like….

bos_1In Japan in the last decade, membership of the bōsōzoku has fallen from an all-time high of 42k+ in 1982 to an all-time low of barely 9k members across 500 gangs nationwide in 2011.  This is certainly due in part to new laws giving police more power to arrest groups of reckless bikers which have resulted in many more prosecutions.  It seems that the distractions of the modern world have also taken their toll on gang interest.  In a virtual alternative, which avoids the necessity of risk, arrest, and a large outlay of cash – and those silly hairstyles – modern Japanese youth seem more likely to vent their angst in aggressive and violent games like Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza.  Thus, being just the basic thugs they are, and finding themselves under new threat and distraction, the bōsōzoku started becoming less brazen in their ways, which has resulted in much less of the aura of being an anti-establishment gang cool enough to which to belong.  Many now even drive what would be considered large scooters, and ride in much smaller groups.  They even now dress much more main-stream.  And wear helmets.  And are older…and more professional.  Sound familiar??  Sometimes the only way to tell bōsōzoku today is that you can hear their bikes long before you can see the “gang.”  Such a modern morph on rebellion is a far cry from the gangs’ origins.  Whatever the reasons, thankfully, being less interesting to young counter-culture thugs, the gangs have become equally less annoying…and the streets have become much quieter.

“Young riders pick a destination and go….  Old riders pick a direction and go.” ~Unknown

Modern Bosozoku:  older, wiser, more mainstream, but not much quieter!

Modern Bosozoku: older, wiser, more mainstream, much less hair care product, but not much quieter!

The streets here ARE quieter, but there are still those bikers who ride throughout the night, revving their engines over and over, but going nowhere fast.  Although an American bike might say that it’s the journey that counts over the destination, in Japan it’s all about the cacophony of the journey!  It doesn’t bother me much; they do not frequent our neighborhood, and can only be heard in the distance.  Actually, I smile when I hear them, as I remain bike-less here on Okinawa – for now – and miss my Steed from back in the day, where I too could ride, with my knees in the breeze, my machine tuned for torque, a mere twist of my wrist providing that sense of freedom and independence that comes from riding cageless….

“A motorcycle is an independent thing.” ~Ryan Hurst

The only kind of riding Jody and are I enjoying of late....

The only kind of riding Jody and are I enjoying of late….

Like biker gangs in the United States, which too have suffered a downturn and decline much like that experienced in Japan, the biker-life here has gone much more mainstream.  Which leads one to potentially ponder:  what do you think about this dying subculture?  Will bōsōzoku ever completely die out?  If so, should their corner of Japanese culture be preserved?  And have they served an interesting and important enough part of Japan’s society to one day gain a popular resurgence (think Easy Rider and Sons of Anarchy in terms of popularity in the United States)?  Or, are they a mere nuisance that deserves to be smothered once and for all?

“Never trade the thrills of living for the security of existence.” ~Unknown

Bike Quotes

Whatever happens to biker gangs ‘round the world, life is too short not to ride.  Sometimes, when one looks down a long, straight road, or when one crests that high hilltop which allows spying the twisting asphalt disappearing into the horizon’s haze, the road – like life – seems to never end.  But you better believe both do.  Do what you really want to do.  And do it today.

Whatever that happens to be for you, to me, it’s better in the wind.

It's Better in the Wind

It’s Better in the Wind

Tattoo You? Round Two.


“The phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies, and still defying fortune’s spite; revive from ashes and rise.” ~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

“She said, ‘a tattoo is a badge of validation’.  But the truth of the matter is far more revealing.  It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”  ~Jimmy Buffett, Beach House on the Moon

“Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix” ~Christina Baldwin quotes

The Japanese Phoenix:  Hou-ou

The Japanese Phoenix: Hou-ou

dragon-and-phoenixThe Arabian-Western phoenix we are all familiar with has a close analogy in Asia.  Dating in China from the 11th Century BC, the Chinese Far East Phoenix is known as Fèng Huáng or Feng Huang (鳳凰), and in Japan, the creature is referred to as the Hō-ō (鳳凰) or Hou-ou.  The Kanji for “Phoenix” is made up of Feng 鳳 representing the male phoenix, yang and the sun, alongside Huang 凰 representing the female phoenix, yin, and the moon.  In Asia, the (female) Phoenix is often portrayed with a (male) dragon, either as mortal enemies or as blissful lovers, the duality of roles adopted by couples at varying points in their relationships.  Adopted as the symbol of the imperial household, particularly the empress, this mythical bird represents, in general, fire, sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity.

Chinese Fèng Huáng in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese Fèng Huáng in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

KairoPanel_Hou-ou_8150clipAccording to legend (mostly from China), the Hō-ō appears very rarely, and only to mark the beginning of a new era — the birth of a virtuous ruler, for example.  In other traditions, the Hō-ō appears (nesting) only in peaceful and prosperous times, and hides itself when there is trouble.  As the herald of a new age, the Hō-ō descends from heaven to earth to do good deeds, and then it returns to its celestial abode to wait the start of the next, new time.

I am inked, and inked with a Far East Phoenix.  My original tat is of origins and impregnation while stationed previously in Okinawa (Japan), with a genesis that took years to finally coalesce (read about it here:  Tattoo You?  Absolutely).  Although my ink is positioned to avoid daily public exposure and consumption (generally speaking), it is also positioned so that I, for often long periods of time, forget about it…as odd as that sounds)…until…someone asks me about it.  Or my wife has to scratch that certain spot of my back which happens to coincide with the Phoenix’s tail, which can result in Nirvana (I think everyone should have an itch and spot like this)!  Only then is its presence reaffirmed in my psyche, and more often than not, I’m only too happy to share my story (usually abridged, depending on the audience).  That’s the whole point of a tattoo, isn’t it?  To graphically tell a personal story?

A temporary tat I got in 1999 to freak my mother out!  It worked....

A temporary tat I got in 1999 to freak my mother out! It worked….

EhafHWhich brings me to an interesting tangent.  How many of you out there know someone who has a rather generic or dare I say “mundane” tattoo?  You know the kind I’m talking about:  the dolphin on the ankle, or the rose on the shoulder-blade, or worse, some form of Asian kanji writing anywhere on the body….  I bet if you stop and really take stock and inventory, you can come up with at least two or three people, given the popularity of tattooing today.  This can be a fascinating insight to these particular people:  if one is not going to take great care and great pains on placing permanent art on one’s most personal and irreplaceable canvas, what other areas of life come (and go) so easily?

I considered Bettie Page for a long time.  What a silly story that would've made!

I considered Bettie Page for a long time. What a silly story that would’ve made!

Worse, think about those people you may know that have a tattoo, maybe an ornate design or some really intricate ambiguous layout where meaning is hard to grasp and any story remains hidden.  To me, these make the best kinds of ink, the kind that make people wonder, contemplate, and finally, inquire.  But what if that (ink’d) person refuses to tell their story?  Why graphically display such symbology if only to keep it locked away inside.  I know someone like this – not well and have never asked – but I don’t hesitate to conclude that there isn’t really a story there, at least one with any deeper meaning, and this, in my opinion, is why these types of people with ink hide behind their “art.”

soup tatoo

By the way, a word of caution here:  after having lived in Japan for my 6th year, and having seen how badly and hilariously English and Japanese can be translated back and forth, please take a moment or three decades to reconsider that kanji character you have so badly been wanting (see here). Or, to make this much more plain, look at how silly pedestrian English words would appear as tattoos on Asians….  ‘Nough said.

if-the-japanese-tattooed-english-words-on-themselves

But back to MY story surround MY ink.  As you may recall from my previous blog on the subject, I was able to successfully translate conflicted and dark feelings into permanent art to adorn my body, initially back in 2005.  The biohazard design I ended up selecting symbolized such feelings succinctly, yet in a way that translated directly onto my skin.

The biohazard motif I had settled firmly on held the central idea of man being his own worst enemy, but also could so easily be extended to include those wars, conflicts and smaller upheavals we all find omnipresent in our daily lives.  However, what started as a personal yet metaphysical conflict mostly within myself quickly morphed into a wider outside battle at the time my ink started to dry, philosophically speaking, as my marriage was liquefying down the drain.  Thus, my original tat became, somewhat on purpose but mostly a result of collateral damage, tied excessively to the pain and suffering of a disintegrating 16 year marriage and 18 year relationship.

DVNCb

And although that original tat did serve as a visible mode of attaining a form and depth of corporeal catharsis, I reached a point in my life where I no longer wanted to forever and always associate the pain of ink with a past marriage which had, in totality, become toxic.  Although these memories remain with me today, they certainly all have, at worst, faded, but at best, they have in many cases surrendered to exactly what most feelings are:  a contemporary reflection of only a temporal phase of life.  So, sometime after divorce in 2006 my consciousness started to almost immediately drift.  And finally, in roughly 2010, it had traveled far enough away from my initial viewpoint for me to again seek a change (for the better)…and new transformative ink, on top of the old.

Bad Transformation; I'm not sure which one is worst!

Bad Transformation; I’m not sure which one is worst!

I started to re-research a refreshed approach to morphing my art to something which would better match my now-current story.  And that story is a much different story than that told by my ink back in 2005.

I have recovered from emotional devastation of the destruction of a previous marriage, and the bitter betrayal of someone who once was loved and cherished.  I have recovered from the financial disaster of divorce and the irresponsible deficit spending that followed; only just this month (January 2014), can I claim once again that I am debt-free, the first time since 2005…although the witch continues to get a portion of my military retirement.  I have accepted the tragic loss of my status, influence and proximity as a father to my children during their adolescent years.  And, most importantly, I have found the love of my wife, a woman who is truly my equal (except for blogging – WINK!), and who loves me easily and unconditionally the way we all deserve to be loved and equally cherished in life.

Phoenix

So, again, the central question of inking:  graphic design!  My life has always revolved around flying, literally as long as I can remember.  I am a pilot, flew in the military, and continue to skydive today.  I also am enamored with myth and legend, particularly when it comes to their symbols and symbolism.  I almost immediately thought of integrating a Rising Phoenix into my biohazard symbol to show rebirth, resolution, resolve, and recovery.

untitledimagesIn Greek mythology, a phoenix (Ancient Greek φοίνιξ phóinīx) is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn.  Associated with the sun and most likely of Egyptian origin, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.  As part of our collective myth and legend in the Western world, the phoenix symbolizes renewal and resurrection.  It’s interesting to note that many cultures have formed independent analogues of the Greek/Egyptian phoenix, including those of Persia, India (Hinduism), Russia, Turkey, Tibet, China and Japan.

I am NOT a graphics artist....

Rough Ideas: I am NOT a graphics artist….

After toying around with various designs and layouts for about a year, and researching the myth as well as how others had translated such ideas into art, I began my graphics design in earnest.  I decided to avoid the more ornate and flowery, colorful phoenix portrays, and instead pursed a more minimalistic tribal style.  Finally, when I had narrowed my choices down, and after finding a tattoo artist (and service) I was confident and comfortable with, I was able to finalize the new blueprint.  The tattoo artist here was indispensable; knowing both the medium and media, he was able to make some fine tweaks and additional recommendations on transforming my “permanent reminder” to match yet another temporary feeling….

Finalized & Stylized Design

Finalized & Stylized Design

Thus, my artistic upgrade was completed in two phases:  the bird itself fencing in the original biohazard tattoo, followed by the flames and biohazard re-treatment which together give rebirth to the creature (and my new lease on life), while subsuming the biohazard symbol itself…along with a tainted past.  My new era ensues.

Phoenix Risen, Phase 1

Phoenix Risen, Phase 1

We all need a harbingers to help announce and illuminate new eras throughout our lives, when the old have become stale and cumbersome.  Change is the only constant in life, and if you let it, affirmative change can serve as the egg for your very own phoenix.  Together, you both can rise from the ashes, no matter how bad you think the destruction may be.

Phoenix Risen, Phase 2

Phoenix Risen, Phase 2

Thankfully for me, my harbinger resides with me, mostly out of sight, but always there in spirit (and the mirror if I really look).  And while this permanent tattoo certainly serves my current temporal views and feelings more appropriately today, you may note that the tattoo is offset and asymmetrical, a reflection of the nature of life itself….  BUT, in a more pragmatic sense, because I’m leaving room for an old Far Eastern-influenced tattoo idea that continues to congeal the more time I spend in Asia….

Stay tuned for that development.

(...but here's a hint!)

(…but here’s a hint!)

Bad Year? Forgetaboutit…by Bonenkai!!


“Do not anxiously hope for that which is not yet come; do not vainly regret what is already past” ~Chinese Proverb

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.” ~Chinese Proverb

new-year

If you thought Halloween and Christmas were big now in Japan (see Cosplay in Japan and O Half-a-Christmas Tree), the end of the year and the New Year that follows are simply a celebratory season of festive fun and occasion, often to an elaborate degree.  Although traditionally the period around New Year’s in Japan (お正月 oshōgatsu) is one of the times in the year for family to formally come together, the holiday has a far larger and longer cultural and temporal reach.

1327469918663_6268088The New Year in Okinawa is actually celebrated twice, first based on the Gregorian (sometimes referred to here as the “baby New Year”) and then by Lunar (Asian) calendars, which seldom if ever coincide.  Although the Japanese have used our calendar for official and cultural New Year’s celebrations since 1873, here in the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the seat), a separate cultural New Year is still celebrated based on the Chinese New Year, widely throughout broader Asia, as a remnant of Okinawa’s close historical ties with China throughout the ages.  Unfortunately for us, we’ll be in Kyoto for the Chinese New Year.  But fortunately for us, we’ll be Kyoto!!

Japanese businesses and employees often hold festive bonenkai (“forget the old year parties”) throughout December, and similar shinnenka parties are held in January to welcome the New Year.  These are not formal events, but more traditional social get-togethers, were intoxication is expected and a night’s indiscretions are customarily forgotten at work the next day.  This is one idea the West needs to import from Japan!

There's probably some indiscretion here....

There’s probably some indiscretion here….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is also during this time that houses and some personally-owned businesses are cleaned in an ancient Shinto custom called susubarai (“exorcism or purification of the soot,” sometimes referred to as osoji), a chance to purge physical spaces of the last vestiges of the old, passing year in order to start anew with a clean slate.  We were surprised at just how extensive these cleanings could be – many of our local businesses were closed but not idle; we could see all their furniture piled up outside as the inside underwent its ritualistic cleansing.

Shimenawa

Shimenawa

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu

Shimenawa are iconic here at this time of year.  Made up of sacred rope woven with straw decorated with white stripes of paper, these are topped with an auspicious Japanese bitter tangerine (橙 daidai).  Daidai originally means “several generations,” a reference to this fruit’s custom of staying on the tree for several years if not picked and its color returning to green in the spring.  Thus, they reflect wishes for good, long life through the years and generations of the family.  The completed talisman are then hung over entrances to mark dwellings as a temporary abodes of Toshi-Gami (New Year deities), which are gladly accepted.  Finally, kadomatsu (門松, literally “gate pine”), an arrangement of pine, bamboo and ume tree sprigs representing longevity, prosperity and steadfastness respectively, are often placed in pairs on either side of thresholds to welcome and temporarily house ancestral spirits.  We have a set outside our door, but I’m not sure anyone is visiting.  I do believe they help spiritually guide our directionally-challenged feline friend back to the correct condo door…since they all look exactly alike!  The doors, not the cats.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

New Year’s Eve (Omisoka) observances, while becoming more and more Western, are not nearly as party or drink0-oriented as ours.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to easily get a reservation at one of the nicer but smaller restaurants in our neighborhood just a couple of weeks ago.  The time just before midnight is usually quiet and reverent, although firecrackers are commonplace as an ancient Chinese tradition thought to ward off evil spirits.  There was a nice fireworks display given at our local American hangout, American Village, but which itself was not overly crowded or boisterous…by US standards.  Most traditional Japanese will visit their local shrine or temple at midnight.  Although we did share our late-night dinner with a fair amount of well-dressed and happy, young, and perhaps less traditional Okinawans, the urban seawall where we live was relatively quiet.

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Hatsumōde (初詣) is the first Shinto shrine or Buddhist Temple visit of the Japanese New Year, traditionally called for between the 1st and 3rd of January.  This visit is so important that the vast majority of businesses are closed during this period (29 December – 3 January) to allow their employees wide latitude for this visit, where wishes and prayers for the new year are made (the closest analogy to our New Year resolutions), new omamori (charms or amulets) are bought, and old ones are returned to the shrine so they can be burned (to release whatever spirits may reside in them).  Thus, there are often long lines at major shrines throughout Japan and Okinawa.  During the hatsumōde, it is common for men to wear a full kimono, a now very rare occurrence here, with many families making their pilgrimage in their finery.  The act of worship at the shrines and temples is generally quite brief and experienced individually, but more extensive domestic worship usually is included with family and relatives at home in a more intimate setting.

Anime character "Good Luck Charm Himari".  Not if you're on the other end of that sword....

Anime character Omamori (Good Luck Charm) Himari. Bad luck if you’re on the other end of that sword….

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

This is probably not a traditional - or Shinto - way to experience Hatsumode

This is probably not a traditional – or Shinto – way to experience Hatsumode

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, year of the horse placardWe decided to make our own tradition and visited one of Okinawa’s most popular Shrines the day before New Year’s!  I’m not sure this would meet the de facto assertions of the Shinto faith, but I do believe that God will understand.  By visiting early, we had ample time to explore the Shrine and its sacred cave (you must ask for entry, but does not require a guide), and contemplated our well-wishing for the coming year before drawing our fortune and leaving our prayers.

Readying for New Year Celebrations

Readying for New Year Celebrations

First we entered through the Torii – a timeless Asian symbol designating sacred ground, and conducted a cleansing ritual on ourselves, conveniently outlined by a picture board for the many foreigners who visit.

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, a written oracle number 26A common custom during hatsumōde is to buy a written oracle called omikuji.  The omikuji goes into detail about the coming year, but like most fortunes, they are vague and can be interrupted pretty much anyway one would like, thereby ensuring their continued popularity!  If your omikuji predicts bad luck you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in the hope that its prediction will not come true….

Jody's was Better

Jody’s was Better

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!  Dang, too late for us:  not knowing any better and basically playing monkey-see, monkey-do, we ended up tying our pretty ding-dang good fortunes to the strings surrounding one of the trees on the Shrine’s grounds….  I guess we need to return there, ASAP, to pull a fortune that we can take home and keep!!

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

ChionInBellThe times around midnight on January first are much more significant here as sonorous reverberations of cast-iron bells ring to coincide with the dawn of the New Year.  At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times (除夜の鐘 joyanokane) to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, and allow the Japanese to cleanse themselves of such trespasses of the previous year.  This is a ritual that we will make a point to take it next year.  I already can’t wait!

Jody's "First" Soba on New Years Day

Jody’s “First” Soba on New Years Day

Of course meals during this time are ritualistic.  A common meal on New Year’s Day in Okinawa is toshi-koshi-soba, literally “year-crossing noodles,” when the sound of slurping the long soba noodles helps to secure lasting good fortune for the eater’s family.  We, quite by accident, happened to have soba on New Year’s Day, and maybe, just maybe, this will make up for tossing our good fortunes at the shrine!

A Few Stylish Nenga

A Few Stylish Nenga

Nenga Postage

Nenga Postage

Sending New Year’s cards – nengajo – to relatives, friends, teachers, classmates, and co-workers is a very important custom in Japan.  The cards must be delivered after January 1st, and the Japanese Post actually accepts and holds New Year’s cards, marked “nenga“ under the postage, from mid-December for delivery starting on the 1st!  But they must never be delivered to a family in mourning who refuse to accept such New Year’s greetings.  See here for some really funny if not odd Japanese New Year greetings!!

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, celebration bannersCelebrating the New Year in Japan is also analogous with marking “firsts.”  Hatsuhinode (初日の出) is the first sunrise of the year, and many Japanese will drive to the coast or climb hills and mountains so that they may be some of the first to see the first sunrise of the New Year. Kakizome is the first calligraphy written at the beginning of a year, traditionally on January 2.  “First laughter” (waraizome) is an important to express at midnight.  First dreams (初夢, hatsuyume) are often recorded and retold, and “first letters” (hatsudayori), often in the form of haiku, are exchanged.  Shigoto-hajime (仕事始め, the first work of the New Year), keiko-hajime (稽古始め, the first practice of the New Year), hatsugama (the first tea ceremony of the New Year), and the hatsu-uri (the first shopping sale of the New Year) are all special events here that hold equally special meaning.

Equally as Important:  the FIRST cotton-candy of the year....

Equally as Important: the FIRST cotton-candy of the year….

Prayers and  Wishes

Prayers and Wishes

With all its ritual, tradition, and celebratory “firsts,” the New Year here is a grandiose reminder of the constant and relentless passage of time.  Such passage is welcomed, encouraged and embraced, warmly and spiritual in Asia.  However you decided to celebrate the New Year and time’s passage, and whatever you have resolved or wished, Happy New Year to one and all.

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

And please, whatever you do in this coming year, take heart the lesson of the opening Chinese proverb:  enjoy yourself this year.  Time’s passage can be insidious, but always relentless; more likely than not, it’s later in our lives than we all would like to think.

There is anime for EVERY occasion!

There is anime for EVERY occasion!