Soybeans and Shadows: Myths of Spring


“We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.”  ~ Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth


It’s indeed strange how myths East and West can and do converge.  Take, for instance, the idea of the end of winter and beginning of spring, which for each direction, basically comes down to soybeans and shadows.

Let me explain.

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

Setsubun bean throwing festival at Zoujouji Temple3Setsubun is a traditional Asian ceremony with origins from the Chou Dynasty of China (introduced to Japan in the 8th/9th centuries), designed to dispel demons at the end of winter/beginning of spring, and is usually observed on 3 February.  The practice of scattering roasted soybeans (豆撒き mamemaki) to drive away any malcontent demons that might have been lurking during the cold winter months is one of a number of magical rites performed to ward off evil in Japan.  The term setsubun originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as setsu (節), but has come to be specifically applied to the last day of the setsu called daikan (大寒, “great cold”), which also corresponds to the eve of risshun (立春, “the first day of spring”), the New Year’s Day of the ancient lunar calendar and the traditional beginning of spring.  Since risshun and the traditional celebration of the New Year fell at about the same time, setsubun became associated with rites of purification and exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing oneself for the coming year and the spring planting season.  Mamemaki originally began as an imperial event, but later mixed with indigenous customs of throwing beans at the time of rice-seedling planting during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867).  To this day, in many places in Japan, setsubun rites include those associated with forecasting the year’s crop and spells for a plentiful harvest.

Sounds crazy and superstitious, right?  But no more than our own Groundhog Day….

I chose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

I choose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

Groundhog Day, on the other hand, is celebrated on February 2nd, just one day apart from its counterpart in the East, and is to a harbinger of spring.  Amazing how ancient time-keepers managed to independently align these events based on the sun and moon!  According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a gopher emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early (he doesn’t see his shadow); if it is sunny, the gopher will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.  Given this tradition, setsubun seems not so silly, and, in fact, seems to be a lot more fun!


P5211316ONIDuring setsubun soybeans are roasted (peanuts are becoming more popular) and placed in a small wooden box of the type used for measuring rice or sake.  The “fortune beans” are scattered inside and outside the house or building by the male head of household to the common chant of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (鬼は外! 福は内! “Out with demons!  In with good luck!”) and the sound of slamming doors.  It is customary for family members to eat the same number of beans as their age for good luck, and then one more for the year ahead.  In more recent years, especially in the Kansai region of Japan, famous temples and shrines host well-known personalities born under the Chinese zodiacal sign for that year that help throw beans at evil spirits during “demon dances.”

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun hats.

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than…say…top hats.

The celebration of Groundhog Day in America began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it has origins much deeper into ancient European lore wherein a sacred badger or bear was used as the prognosticator of the weather, in preparation for the planting season…much like setsubun is tied to early farmers!  By the way, it also bears (pun intended) similarities to the Pagan festival of Imbolc, the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar (lunar-based, just like that of China), which is celebrated on February 1 and also involves weather forecasting.


So, spring this year – and each and every year – comes down to customs and traditions East and West:  Soybeans and Shadows.  But, if we take a step back and really look at culture, custom, tradition, and even religion, we can find many more similarities than differences.  It seems that the human condition is inescapable; we all, ‘round the world, live around the same physics, share the truly international language of math, endure all the same trials and tribulations of life, and embrace very similar metaphysical wants, hopes and dreams.  We all need to strive and remember that we all much more the same than we are ever different.


Punxsutawney Phil, however, seems to be accurate only 39% of the time since 1887 on the length of winter.  I, for one, will embrace the myth of throwing soybeans to ward off evil rather than depend upon the myth of a shadow for the warmth of spring.

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.  That myth is more potent than history.  That dreams are more powerful than facts.  That hope always triumphs over experience.  That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”  ~Robert Fulghum

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


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 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!

O Christmas Half-of-a-Tree!!

“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:  the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  ~Burton Hillis

“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”  ~Larry Wilde quotes

“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree”  ~Charlotte Carpenter quotes

(See Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan for even more fun Japanese Christmas music)

Everyone seems to almost instinctively know what a Christmas tree is, and that is now no different here in Okinawa than say, in Duluth, Minnesota.  Such icons universally consist of a decorated tree (usually an evergreen), real or artificial.  But how many of us really know or understand the roots (pun intended!) of The Christmas Tree?

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Christmas trees have long been traditionally decorated with foods widely available, such as apples and nuts, but today can consist almost of anything with strong emotional or sentimental value, but often include garland, tinsel, and candy canes.  In the 18th century candles were often added, which then morphed to modern lighting with the wide introduction of electricity.  An angel or star often tops the tree, usually in representation of the Star of Bethlehem (from Jesus’ story).

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

Our current cultural and religious custom of the Christmas tree comes from 15th and 16th century devout Christians (including the reformist Martin Luther) who resided in the area of Europe now associated with modern Germany.  However, what most of us may find rather surprising is that the Christmas tree didn’t acquire popularity beyond this area until the second half of the 19th century, or well into the mid-to-late 1800s!  The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree” (or Tree of Life), especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.

Original Sin.  It's her fault.  Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

Original Sin. It’s her fault. Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

tumblr_mxnxjvkXQ61qdg05vo1_500While the origins of the modern Christmas tree are clear and undebated, there are a number of speculative theories of such custom and tradition prior to the 1400s.  Such icons are frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter pagan rites and rituals.  Such use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands has long been utilized to symbolize eternal life by widely diverse cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  Thus, a type of “tree worship” became common in ancient times and thus was common among the pagan Europeans when Christianity started to sweep the continent.   And, luckily for us, the rite and ritual survived the pagans’ conversion to Christianity (mostly through its continued use as the “Tree of Paradise” stage prop in the popular Paradise Plays of the 11th century), and became decorations for the house and barn alike (sometimes as wintry homes for song birds at Christmastime), and were sometimes used at the New Year to scare evil.

Now that's a tree, Japan!!

Now that’s a tree, Japan!!

I hope she doesn't celebrate ANY other holiday....

I hope she doesn’t celebrate ANY other holiday….

Given this backdrop, and having no tangible ties to any particular strong religious tradition (I think of Christmas and all its trappings, including the trees, as more symbolic of a generalized spirit of love and giving), we decided to leave all our more conventional holiday decorations at home during our move to Japan.  Sure, we brought a Santa hat and our stockings (we both still have our Mother-made stockings from our childhood!), but not much else, including our tree.  We decided to let the spirit of Okinawa and our living space dictate a new holiday rite for me and Jody.

When space is an issue....

When space is an issue….

First thing we had to do was find a tree.  Not a real one – those are hard to come by in Okinawa, a relatively remote sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, but an artificial one.  But, we had to contend with our relatively low condo ceilings, along with a want for space.  On top of this, we find out that the initial artificial tree shipment to the base exchanges sold out in mere days…and, of course, we missed what only could’ve been a mad rush for trees.  Lucky for us we meandered one afternoon into the base craft shop looking for extraordinary ornaments for our as of yet unsourced tree, and behold:  a room full of artificial, pre-light, small-ish Christmas trees!  Expensive ones, but we were in luck.

Whole or Half:  You Decide

Whole or Half: You Decide

11491260433_bd0d618afe_bWe actually found (and purchased) a “half-tree.”  And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like:  a half of an artificial tree, with a stand that will support its lopsidedness, but which also has an anchor point/hook high up on the trunk in case you have to deal with, say, an unruly cat who may decide to climb the tree when no one’s looking….

Charlie Brown's Tree, the Japanese interpretation

Charlie Brown’s Tree, the Japanese interpretation

11491247796_7593c905da_bThe tree works perfectly in our place!  It is maybe 6.5 feet in height, and since it’s only half a tree, we were able to push it back into a corner to conserve space while allowing us to fill in the visibly accessible part of the tree that much more.

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally-sized box!

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally sized box!


11491176634_19e24c83fc_bFor decorations we went with our initial Asian, Japanese, and Okinawan-inspiration.  So, our ornaments consisted mainly of origami art (cranes, butterflies, and angels), paper crafted shapes, wooden dolls, miniature obis, and other flirtations with the Far East.  These, combined with the minimalistic white lighting of the tree, results in a quite unconventional appearance by most western standards.  We love it!



11491244823_1861dafb41_bBut, to top off our tree, we wanted truly spectacular and of local custom and tradition.  What we found was perfect for the occasion:  a Hanagasa.  The Hanagasa is a brilliantly colored, flowered-adorned hat worn in many areas of Japan, but here the Okinawans have developed their own particular tradition regarding this type of headdress.  Worn by Okinawan women performing a dance called Yotsudake (“four bamboo,” referring to the bamboo castanets played by the dancers), the large and unique silk hat features a gold-trimmed design of a stylized lotus flower and ocean waves, set against a backdrop of blue skies.  It’s mesmerizing to watch one dancer on her own with her slow, graceful movements; it is breathtaking to see five or six woman so adorned move as one.

...Cleo waits patiently....

…Cleo waits patiently….


11491181675_17fb20f702_bWe found a smaller version of the Hanagasa designed for display on dolls, and it worked perfectly to complete our tree.  Like the symbolism that a topping star may hold for others, our Hanagasa makes for an unforgettable sight, and its harmonious flowers seem to sway in time to the carols we often play in the background, things which should remind us all of the beauty, resilience and connectedness that we all share, with each other, and with every other living thing, during this spiritual time of love and giving.



11615344235_28dcdd1a5c_bMerry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays.  Whatever YOU prefer to say, please don’t forget to pause your daily grind, express your thanks to those that deserve it, be giving to those that need it, and let Love and Hope win for just a few fleeting moments as you gaze upon your own tree, or other perhaps more appropriate symbolic icon of the season.


How are you celebrating Christmas this year??


Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan

“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.”  ~Edna Ferber

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”  ~Benjamin Franklin

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.”  ~Carol Nelson


Christmas is one of the holidays that has most changed in Okinawa since my first here in 1999.  Back then, while not uncommon to see some Christmas items in the major department stores in December, it was uncommon to see wide-spread Christmas decorations and certainly surprising if a western Christmas carol was heard, especially in English.  Almost 15 years ago, what actually struck us most in terms of western traditions that had been imported to Japan was how utterly westernized weddings in Japan had become!

Andy Williams - an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

Andy Williams – an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

However, this Christmas in 2013 has been a real shock…in a pleasant yet strange 9-volt battery-on-the-tongue kindda way.  We are astounded at just how much more of our Christian holiday that the Okinawans and Japanese have smuggled from the West.  From the standard Christmas carol cannon in English played in almost every commercial venue (Rudolph is much more enjoyable in Japanese for some reason), to the sheer amount of stores, organizations and segment of the populace choosing to actively participate in seasons greetings, one could argue that our holiday spirit thrives innocently and cheerfully  here in Okinawa, Japan.


However, what exactly does that spirit mean??

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ....

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ….

Seriously, it's almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

Seriously, it’s almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

For starters, Christmas here is not religious in nature, much like their “Christian-themed” weddings, the ones complete with crosses and long-trained white flowing gowns.  In a cliché, Christmas here is…for lovers.  It is a couples’ holiday (but becoming more family oriented), much more akin to our Valentine’s Day than of any other type of spiritual ceremony or ritual.

“Single Hell, Single Hell….”  It would make a nice seasonal ring-tone.

But think about it this way; replace the notions of a Christmas turkey and caroling through illuminated neighborhoods…with buckets of “Christmas Chicken” and well-dressed lovers on a date partaking in a local holiday “illumination” and you’ve got it about right.

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving....

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving….

If it's good enough for JAL....

If it’s good enough for JAL….

You see, in the 1970s, KFC – yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken – started to aggressively market itself as the chicken of choice as the culinary Christmas craving, which has become a much more broad representation of our (western) holiday.  It worked; when we visited KFC about two months ago, there were already large in-store displays about ordering holiday meals, and the statue of Colonel Sanders out front (which all the KFCs have here) was already in a Santa costume.  It’s odd to think about the God of Chicken (the Colonel has successfully approximated deity status in Japan) as a surrogate for Santa, but in a weirdly Japanese way, that’s exactly what he is here!

That's a pretty detailed...and full chicken schedule!

That’s a pretty detailed…and full chicken schedule!

BentOn-Christmas-cake-2013Another culinary holiday tradition here centers on a “Christmas Cake,” which is generally a store-bought (see a commercialized theme going here?), white cake topped with strawberries and often other garnishes which spank of the season, resulting in the prototypical red, white and green colors which visually represent Christmas so well.  At least where it snows and there are evergreen pines, which for the geographically challenged, does NOT include Okinawa.  Here in Okinawa you will find a small, local bakery in almost every neighborhood, and these shops literally pump out these cakes during this time of year.  I’ve heard rumors that the Okinawans compare people without a love on Christmas as about as sad as a leftover, unsold Christmas Cake:  while still attractive on the outside, stale tasting on the inside!  Lovers, such revolting people….  Let them eat cake!!

So we did.  With ice cream.

So we did. With ice cream.

Creepy Christmas Character

Creepy Christmas Character

Finally, one of the biggest things to do on Okinawa during this season is to visit an “illumination,” one sure way to tell that winter is at hand on a sub-tropical Pacific island!  These events are held all over the island, from private venues, to the major resort hotels, to some of the more popular themed and touristy attractions.  Illuminations provide a true glimpse of just how the Japanese interrupt our traditional and long-standing Christmas culture, complete with accurate if not humorous portrayals of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, along with all the other Christmas elements and characters you could ever imagine…and then a few more.

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Winter WonderlandWe attended the Okinawa Zoo Children’s Land “Christmas Fantasy,” an annual, one-of-a-kind holiday spectacle held the week before and after Christmas.  Here the landscape, in the middle of dense urban sprawl, is truly transformed into a wintry (or at least chilled & rainy) wonderland, where snow blowers produce snowfall on the walkways, pictures can be taken with real snowmen, and the kids can even go sledding or spoil for a snowball fight.  Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Churros in Japan!!They also host a “unique” laser show which is both weirdly corny and wildly fun as only the Japanese can produce.  While it rained steadily in a blowing gale the night we visited, the park remained crowded with couples well-dressed and clearly on more formal dates; it’s amazing the places that Japanese women will and do wear heels.  Carnival and state fair-like games, food and candies were plentiful, and I was soooooo excited to have our picture taken with a true Japanese Santa…who was tucked away, hidden in a dark alcove that built our suspense…who turned out to be…white…American…and from the Lancaster Dutch Country in Pennsylvania!

Frosty's been eating a little too much sushi....

Frosty’s been eating a little too much sushi….  Look it’s even snowing (wink)!!

Not Japanese.

Not Japanese.

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Japanese cuties pose with SantaYep, as we entered the tent for our turn, I peered with all my might to see what the Okinawans would put forth as Mr. Claus.  Would he be worthy?  How would he sound with a Japanese accent?  Could they find a guy larger than life, or at least over 6 foot and 200 pounds to properly pull off the rule?  As all these queries were racing around my head right alongside the sugarplums (and who knows what those are anyhow?), I hear, in a distinctly mid-western yet American accent, “Merry Christmas.”  What a tick!!  What the frack?  I respond, “Hey, that sounds mighty American!”  The response, which tinkered on stealing Santa away from me AGAIN, was, “Yup, straight from the Dutch Country in Lancaster County….”  What are the odds….

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

We had planned to attend the Itoman Wine Farm “Peace Illumination Festival” in Itoman City today, but the weather kept us away as of publishing (winter storm…less the snow and ice, oh, and loss of power and whatnot).  This annual event hosts the largest illumination at 1.3 million lights, representing the population of Okinawa, which carry the people’s collective hopes for peace to the world.  Itoman City and the entire southern part of Okinawa Island were subjected to fierce battles at the end of World War II and were the scene of horrific carnage, and the area is dotted with peace monuments such as the Himeyuri Monument and Peace Memorial Park.  Thus, this festival recognizes the awfulness of a savage past while displaying a radiant hope for the future.

A Christian Angel in Okinawa...riding a banana?  Wow!

A Christian Angel in Okinawa…riding a banana? Wow!

Person-to-whom-Ochugen-and-Oseibo-are-sentWhile gifts are not exchanged per se on Christmas or in relation to our own gift-giving tradition as a spiritual birthday celebration, the Japanese do have an end-of-year gift giving tradition called oseibo.  But don’t confuse this with the mid-summer gift-giving custom called ochugen!  In Japan, it’s custom to give gifts – or have major department stores or the Post Office deliver them – in December (usually by the 20th) to co-workers, bosses, relatives, teachers, and close friends.  Generally, these gifts consist of traditional hams, fancy cooking oils, gift certificates, higher-end beer, gourmet coffee, Asian seasonings, Okinawan seaweed, and perhaps even seafood and unique fruit arrangements.  It seems everyone has their version of fruitcake!

Really, Beer??

Really, Beer??

The presents generally cost anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen (roughly $30-$100).  An interesting note about oseibo is that the most expensive gifts are usually reserved for bosses!  Talk about awkward by American standards:  “I’m sorry Naomi, your end-of-year gift wasn’t up to my standards, we we’re going to have to let you go….”  On each oseibo gift is placed a thin paper called noshi on which the word “Oseibo” is written.  The Japanese are, if anything, elegant and graceful in most ritualistic traditions they exercise.

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Although we are indeed “home” now here in Okinawa, well rooted and seeking our own niche, I can’t help but also feel homesick this time of year.  Although our Far-Eastern inspired Christmas “half-tree,” the subject of an upcoming blog of its own, was certainly wonderful to plan, shop for, and decorate with Jody, it was not shared with very many.  We did start a new traditional Christmas Even dinner by eating Sushi at Mihama’s American Village with a few close friends, something akin to the Parker family going out for Chinese Duck visa vie A Christmas Story…less the tragedy involving the dogs eating our non-existent turkey.  And while we do have Christmas lights up on our 5th story balcony, and as entertaining and wonderful the Okinawan illuminations are, I still find myself drawn to “home” and the culturally, spiritually rooted traditions that have become so ingrained over almost five decades.  Jody and I will always find ways to celebrate on our own as Lovers so often do.  Just know that our friends and family are sorely missed this time of year, a time when friends and families should strive to be together.  If not in body, certainly in mind and spirit.


So, in the spirit of the season wherever you happen to be, ring up some coworkers, cohort with your cronies, share an intimate moment with a loved-one, or just cuddle with a favorite furry friend.  Whatever you do, just do all you can to make sure you never become one of those dreaded leftover, unsold stale Christmas cakes!!

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake....

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake…from the Lucky Star 11 Anime Series.  Seriously.

A Kite Breeding a Hawk (鳶が鷹を産む)

“A kite breeding a hawk (鳶が鷹を産む),” meaning a splendid child born from common parents.  Of course no parent thinks of their children as common, but you get the point (hopefully).

My son, his wife (the Kites), and Baby Z, the Hawk

My son, his wife (the Uncommon Kites), and Baby Z, the Hawk

“God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.” ~Voltaire

“It takes a long time to become young.” ~Pablo Picasso

“Let them eat cake.” ~Marie Antoinette

Marie knew that cake held great value...for toddlers.

Marie knew that cake held great value…for toddlers.

I am a Grandfather.  Yes, I must put that in writing and mumble it to even myself.  It helps convince me that I am already that old!  My Granddaughter Elizabeth (“Baby Z” or “Eli”) just had her first birthday late last month, and after seeing the pictures of that mixed-cultural by still very American birthday celebration, I got to thinking about how the Japanese mark the occasion and recognize the milestone.

Me and my Granddaughter

Me and my Granddaughter

And, of course, like most other major life events, the Japanese have more formal and more rooted traditions and celebrations.

Thank you card for our gifts

A less formal thank you card

Totoro is my Granddaughter's fav!

Totoro is my Granddaughter’s fav!

In Okinawa, the first birthday of a child is marked by a celebration called tanka-yu-eh, meaning, loosely, “1 year old celebration.”  On this day the child’s family prepares a festive meal to share between relatives who have usually come from all around the island in order to celebrate together.  And, of course like most other aspects of cultural celebrations in Japan, this particular celebration becomes a much more regal and grand celebration when a couple’s first child is male.


One of the central elements of the wider celebration is long-practiced ritual called tanka-uranai – the one year fortune-telling, designed to foretell generalized aspects of the child’s future.  This can also be referred to as erabitori (選び取り), or loosely “pick & keep an item”).  Certain items are placed on a tatami mat in front of the son-to-be toddler:  a Japanese abacus, festive red rice, a book, ink and ink stone, money, and in case of a girl a pair of scissors is added.  The baby is turned loose to make his or her way to the item of their choice; all the while, the eager and anxious family members hold their breath in attempts to contain their desire to influence the fortune!


Money. Smart kid. But will he keep it??

totoro_birthday_card_design_by_mikkimoo27-d5vck0zSo, the first item the child reaches for and touches – NOT the one he or she ends up with – prophesies potential for the youngster.  If the abacus (generally a calculator in more modern times), the youth will become a fellow mathlete (I have been accused of being worse!), which presages a strong business sense.  Red rice (or chop sticks) forecasts plentiful food throughout a long life or culinary skill, while a book or dictionary portends a studious nature leading to a solid education for the child.  Money or a wallet, perhaps the most obvious elements, predicts a life of riches, while the ink and ink stone divines a livelihood in writing.  Some families have also recently started adding a musical instrument as a way to forecast for talent (music, signing, acting), a ruler to predict successful homeownership, and a game ball or sports shoes to prefigure an athletic career.

More Fortune Telling

DSC_4701-1-550x365Finally, for girls turning one, scissors are meant to imply a future as a good housewife and mother, or, what I like to refer to as a “Domestic Engineer.”  Funny thing about sexism in Japan:  the kanji (姦) for kashimashii (noisy/boisterous) is made up of the symbol for “woman,” but not just one woman.  Not two women. No.  There are three women (three “woman” symbols).  What happens when you have three women together?  Of course, they get really noisy.  C’mon ladies; everyone knows that to be an absolute truth (wink)!


Happy Birthday in Japanese!

Happy Birthday in Japanese!

In wider Japan outside of Okinawa, there is also another tradition that is only once in a lifetime on hatsu tanjo (初誕生), or “first birthday.”  Although many if not most of our western birthday customs have been thoroughly adopted here in Japan, most Japanese parents continue to celebrate this special day with one or a pair of red-white birthday rice cakes, tanjo mochi (誕生餅).  Here in the Kyushu province of Japan, this particular cake is known as mochi fumi (餅踏み, mochi stepping), and the custom entails the birthday child stepping on the mochi wearing baby-sized waraji (草鞋, straw sandals).


Mochi Fumi and baby-sized Waraji for “Cake Stepping”

Unhappy Mochi Carrier

Unhappy Mochi Carrier

However, in the rest of Japan, this mochi is commonly known as shoi or seoi or issho mochi (一升餅).  In most areas of Japan, the children carry the mochi on their back or shoulder, either in a bag or bundled up with a furoshiki (風呂敷, wrapping cloth).  Issho is a unit of old Japanese liquid measurement equivalent to ~1800cc, so the mochi are crafted to weigh around 1.8kg (almost 4 pounds exactly), a pretty heavy load for a baby!  And, in a strange twist, some parents attempt to deliberately interfere or prevent their child from walking or crawling smoothly with light pushes, an early attempt at educating children about the bumpy ride of life, full of its ups and downs.  While this may seem an odd way to “happily” celebrate a first birthday, by carrying out this ritual, good-natured parents can extend their wishes that their child be blessed, throughout their life, with enman (円満), an affirmative word representing perfection, harmony, peace, smoothness, completeness, satisfaction and integrity.

The plastic bag is a...nice touch.

The plastic bag is a…nice touch.

For my Granddaughter, I too wish her to be blessed with plentiful and long-lasting enman.  But, I can’t help but wonder what she would have “picked and kept” if the tanka-uranai items were placed in front of her.  What would YOU want your precious one-year-old to choose??


Anything but scissors, right?!


Happy First Birthday, Baby-now-Toddler Z!!