Tashmioo’s Tomb: Please Pray for Him


“A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.” ~Greek Proverb

“We know little of the things for which we pray.” ~Geoffrey Chaucer

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

“Tashimoo,” the large white sign, sized and placed to be easily seen from the frequently traveled road on Torii Station, began. “Please pray at this blacksmith’s tomb because he made tools for farmers.”

I had driven by this “tomb” probably at least 50 times, and with each pass, my curiosity grew. Who was this blacksmith, and who was responsible for placing and maintaining this sign on an active United States Army station? And where exactly was his tomb at this site? All it appeared to be was a small rise in the ground, serving as root foundation for a very large shade tree and associated sub-tropical jungle.

Deciding to stop and explore his resting place on foot, I realize that this tomb appears to be very old, and basically has been reclaimed by nature. Oddly situated next to a modern American style gas station where a woman was loudly vacuuming her car, I can find no real trace of what I would consider an Okinawan tomb, at least not like those ubiquitous turtle-back mausoleums seen all over the island.

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Turtle-back tombs are exactly one of those things that make Okinawa…oh so Okinawan. They line hillsides along the coasts, prime property for what in essence are neighborhoods of the dead. But they are not seen in other parts of Japan; they were introduced only in the Ryukyus through Okinawa’s long and prosperous seafaring tradition with China.

Turtle-back tombs or turtle shell tombs (Japanese: 亀甲墓, kamekō-baka) are a particular type of tomb commonly found in some coastal areas of China’s Fujian Province and in Japan’s Ryūkyū Islands. In the original Chinese form, the tomb main chamber’s roof is made to look like the carapace of a tortoise. A vertical stone tombstone bearing the name of the deceased is placed where the turtle’s head would be, and serves as the “door” access to the burial vault.

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in  China

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in China

In the Ryūkyūan island chain, the turtle-back tombs are thought to have been introduced from China in the late 17th or early 18th century, but there are academic claims that reach back to their origins in Okinawa to the 15th century. The Ryūkyūan version has the same overall shape and layout, but on a much grander scale. Whereas in China the tombs are for individuals, in Okinawa the enhanced size of the body of the “tortoise” serves most often as a family tomb.

Why a turtle? In China, the turtle has long been considered a sacred animal. The reptile’s shape, with its flat plastron (the belly of the turtle) below and its domed carapace above, is said to represent the universe, at least as it appeared to ancient Chinese. But the interpretation in the Ryukyus has the tomb shaped to resemble a woman’s womb. One of the Eastern Buddhist ideas surrounding death is that it is only another form of rebirth, or a means of returning from whence you came.

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, broken burial urns WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown and reclaimed WMBy the 20th century, the turtleback tomb became the predominant burial chamber in most of the Ryūkyū Islands. These tombs contain a burial vault, where bones of many generations of a particular family could repose. In the long-standing tradition of burial in Okinawa, a coffin and body are placed in the central part of the tomb and the vault is sealed with a massive stone. The newly deceased remains there for some number of years until wholly decomposed. At that point, the bones would be washed, usually by young female relatives of the deceased, placed into a large earthenware vessel, and stored on shallow tiered shelves lining the back and sides of the vault’s interior based on seniority. Larger tombs offer up to 150 square feet of burial space.

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, large shaded tomb WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown tomb WMThere are large preserved tombs on Kadena AFB, complete with placarded information. Stopping there one day, I find a substantial picturesque tomb and a brief, generalized explanation describing the aged, intriguing structure. Although the signage claimed that the tombs were still being utilized today, a closer inspection of their interiors clearly shows that no one is home, living or dead. I can only imagine, perhaps, that the family was whipped out in totality during the Typhoon of Steel which occurred here back in 1945….

Empty Tombs

Empty Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

That spring, during the Battle of Okinawa, many Okinawan civilians sought refuge from naval and air bombardment of the island inside their ancestors’ tombs (as they also do for typhoons). Later, many of these tombs were also used by the Imperial Japanese defenders of the islands in essence as reinforced fighting positions. (See Turtle Back Tombs for an excellent overview of the role the tombs played in WWII) Pre-invasion military analysis of Okinawa included instructions on the explosive firepower required to destroy such tombs. When you consider the propensity of the Japanese to use the tombs in military roles, grave danger emanated from the literally thousands of turtlebacks that dotted the island of Okinawa.

Militarized Tombs 2

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

14560717418_1a6bcfc297_bUnfortunately, war often presents just such dilemmas: should the destruction of local culturally significant sites be avoided at the risk of increased casualties, or should they be leveled to discourage their use and save as many of the invasion force as possible? The way it went, it is the Okinawan people who suffered most. And doubly so. The Japanese, who cared nothing for the welfare of the Okinawan people, occupied, militarized, and sacrificed this island chain as a way to simply slow the Americans down on their march northward to the Japanese homeland. The Japanese were directly responsible for the destruction of almost every important Okinawan cultural relic, either by their own hand or by placing such sites in the crosshairs of the American invasion force. The desecration of tombs – many which were destroyed on the mere suspicion of being military strongholds or hideouts – was a terrible and lasting affront to the Okinawans.

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

In Okinawa, where highly superstitious and spiritually attuned people actively engage in ancestor worship, the tomb is not only a place for resting the dead, but a place of tangible joy and transcendent comfort for the living.  One such event is known as Shiimii. Each spring at the beginning of the third Lunar month (the Okinawans still use the traditional Chinese measure of time to mark cultural events) Okinawans participate in memorial services of a sort for their ancestors. But these observances are much less solemn that you might think. The practice is, of course, based on Chinese traditions passed along to the Ryukyus with the Chinese tombs. During this festivity, blood relatives gather at tombs in a family reunion, but one which includes both the living and the dead. The entire site is cleaned and neatened; weeds are pulled, trees are trimmed, bushes cut back and debris and trash removed. Irritated forebears, upset at the tidiness of their eternal home, are believed to cause illness or even death when their descendants don’t take good care of the family tomb or participate in important annual ceremonies which take place there. See Banzai for more on the rituals and rites of honoring the dead in Okinawa.

Buddha Standing Guard

Buddha Standing Guard

Once the site is presentable, a brief ceremony is held which includes prayers and the burning of imitation paper money for the dead to use in the coming year. Then a picnic is enjoyed at the tomb. Family members unpack special Okinawan ceremonial foods like mochi, fruits and pork, along with beer, saké and awamori. Offerings are made first to the resident ancestors, and then the extended family consumes the rest graveside. Children are seen laughing and playing while the adults appreciate their adult beverages. Often a strummed sanshin, the traditional Okinawa three-string instrument, offers a musical background where time-honored folk songs are sung in hogen, the local dialect. This joyous time, one which strengthens and reaffirms kinship and ancestral ties, is cherished by the Okinawans.

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

But there’s less and less of the turtleback tombs being constructed on Okinawa. More recent trends, given the exorbitant cost of purchasing land and building large kamekō-baka are to build gables, smaller tombs that more resemble a shrine or small home than animal. And given the reduced floor space available, cremation is now the norm.

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

Okinawa Apr 2015, Tori Blacksmith Grave, bones shells and urn fragmentsTashimoo, the blacksmith of Yomitan, had neither. His tomb is crudely formed by stacked chunks of ancient coral. Moving up into the manmade elements of his hillside grave, I spy fragments of earthenware and what appears to be bone fragments, possibly animal, but maybe not, scattered in a leveled area immediately against a small coral wall. The site, adjacent to a busy road serving the base’s gas station and across the street from the construction site where the new base headquarters is going to be, is quite shaded and tranquil.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

And he still has people stopping to pray. In my few moments of silent contemplation of this man’s life – and death – I focus the very nature of his tomb and the fascinating Okinawan interpretation of the circle of life. And I reach a necessary conclusion.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

We all can only hope to be as lucky to be so well-remembered.

Geishun (迎春): Welcome Spring and the New Year!


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

The New Year is perhaps the most important time of the year in Japan, akin to the way the West views Christmas. At the end of the year, the Japanese traditionally say, “I wish you will have a good new year,” or in Japanese (formally), “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai (よいお年をお迎えください).”

Although we’ve been flirting with the New Year as the world always does for the whole of December, the Year of the Sheep is fully upon us. And, being the Far East Flirts that Jody and I are, we celebrated differently this year than we did last (See Candy is Dandy but Liquor is Quicker to read about our past flings).

This year Jody and I took another island-hoping jaunt to another remote near-by island (see Tropical Trek to read about another), this time Ie (pronounced “Eeee-A”) Island. Taking the military up on one of their pre-arranged good-deal tour packages, we embarked on our 2-night stay at a Japanese “resort” over the New Year’s. And our journey – and the festivities were both full of surprises.

Celebratory Dinner!

Celebratory Dinner!

The Japanese New Year (正月, Shōgatsu) is an annual festival in Japan, similar to others celebrated elsewhere across the globe. Since 1873 the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the western Gregorian calendar on January 1, or New Year’s Day (元日, Ganjitsu). However, much of Okinawa, being much more closely aligned throughout history with China rather than with the Empire of Japan, still recognizes their New Year as the contemporary Chinese lunar New Year, which varies based on the moon but usually occurs in late January or sometime in the first half of February. It’s a pretty good convention; why have only one New Years in a year when you can have TWO?!?

Finding ourselves on Ie Island in the heart of a very elderly and rural population, the customs and traditions surround the Welcoming of Spring (which the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrates) were well represented, and in which we eagerly participated.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year...and beyond.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year…and beyond.

The night of the countdown, the hotel served us fresh dishes of buckwheat soba noodles, to be topped off with steaming broth. The stretching and consuming of the long noodles are representative life stretching well into the future. Although feasting on soba noodles is traditionally done after ringing in the New Year, our resort made the traditional dish available starting at 10pm. Of course, after our Korean BBQ feast that only started just a couple of hours prior, we had to literally find the room in our bloated bellies, else we tempt the darker side of fate in the coming year.

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Bubbly makes everything better.

Bubbly makes everything better.

The hotel offered typical Japanese fun and games during New Year’s Eve in a bonenkai party of sorts (read Bad Year? Fogetabout it! for more on how the Japanese dismiss their troubles of the past), to which such fanciful fun is typically reserved. We missed the – and here I am not kidding – the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game, and interrupted the “Guess what’s in the Box” amusement with our late arrival. Although I was the first to win at bingo, just before midnight Jody and I retired to our room for a more private countdown and personal kiss (or two).

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, explanation at the YYY ResortIe Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, broth, taro, spinach and rice cakesNew Year’s Day, however, came with a whole host of celebratory events. January 1st and 2nd are generally regarded as feast days throughout Japan, and our hotel didn’t fail us in this regard. A hugely popular dish made and consumed during the day’s festivities is ozōni (お雑煮), a soup centered around mochi rice cakes. Our soup at breakfast was served with soft-boiled taro and some fresh spinach, topped with a salty clear broth.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, pounding rice for mochi rice cakes on New Years

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody pounding rice for rice cakesHowever, it’s not just the consumption of mochi that is important; it’s the actual creation of the cake from raw rice that’s the heart of this long-lived ritual. In Japan rice is more than food; it’s considered a sacred grain. According to Shinto belief, the ritualistic act of creating mochi invites kami (gods and spirits) to visit. The mochi themselves are thought to contain the presence of kami; and as such they represent perfection and purity and are believed to imbue the eater with these qualities. The ceremony involving these cakes starts with boiling sticky rice (餅米, mochigome) and placing it into a wooden bucket-like container called a usu (臼). The rice along with large, heavy wooden mallets called kine (杵) are both hand-patted with hot water so the rice won’t stick. Using these kine held high overhead, two or more people take turns pulverizing the rice, a cadence being necessary to avoid simultaneous strikes.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, dusting mochi rice cakes with flour WM

After a period of beating, the rice is turned and folded by hand, and then beaten once again. This rhythmic cycle goes on again and again until the rice becomes a sticky white dough, when it is finally transformed into spheroid-like solid dumplings. Although the dough is usually made before New Year’s Day, the hotel allowed the guests to participate in this important tradition on January 1st itself. Served as kinako mochi and coated with brown sugar powder and soy flour, such treats are eaten specifically for good luck in the coming year.

Breaking open the New Year's sake barrel.

Breaking open the New Year’s sake barrel.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin toasting the New Year with sake fresh from the opened barrelIe Island New Years 2014-2015, toasting the New Year with sake in a traditional wooden cup (masu)Traditional Japanese culture also makes frequent use of sake as a way to observe special events, and is perfect for toasting a New Year. Our sake was served to us from a freshly opened large timber barrel and presented in a traditional small square wooden cup called a masu. Sipping our generous portions of chilled sake on a blistery cold and windy New Year’s Day definitely helped keep us – or at least our spirits – warm and toasty. As rice represents the soul of Japan, sake brewed from rice represents its very essence.

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

There are also a whole plethora of things to celebrate as the “first” of the New Year. Perhaps foremost of these firsts is the “first sun” (hatsuhi) or “first sunrise,” which Jody and I celebrated (or attempted to) together from the top of Mount Gusuku, the highest perch on Ie Island affording a full 360 degree panoramic view of the East China Sea and Okinawa Island. Although the previous day’s 300 step hike up the steep slope was under clear, blue skies, the overcast and scattered rain showers of New Year’s morn kept the disc of the sun well-hidden; our first twilight will just have to suffice!

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody looking for first sun hatsuhi on top of Mount Gusuku

We were still able to share a few quiet moments together in silent contemplation on that mountaintop, only to be broken by our “first laughter” (waraizome). In Japan, like most any place else on the planet, starting the New Year with a smile is considered a very good sign. And this year, I plan on smiling more than ever. So, from the Far East Fling to you and yours,

Happy New Year!

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

あけましておめでとうございます。

510516661

Like a Surgeon: Japan’s Obsession with Surgical Masks


“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”  ~ Oscar Wilde

“I got the bill for my surgery. Now I know what those doctors were wearing masks for.”  ~ James H. Boren

Who wants to ear an ugly, bulky mask when you can plug your nose??

Screen-shots from Bladerunner.  Look closely and you'll see today's streets of Tokyo.

Screen-shots from Bladerunner. Look closely and you’ll see today’s streets of Tokyo.

The movie Blade Runner contains sweeping street scenes that include scores of surgical face-masked pedestrians densely crowding the rainy, dark streets of a futuristic metropolis that appears to be a sleazy hybrid between Hong Kong and New York.  Although many of us probably didn’t pay it much attention, some way, somehow, Ridley Scott foresaw a future where “normal” street people would attempt to protect themselves from the effects of ever-increasing population density playing out in a dystopia:  the inevitability of zombies, uhm. I mean disease.

surgical-mask

Now THAT is a mask!

Now THAT is a mask!

For those visiting Japan from the West, the shear proclivity of people in Japan to publicly wear surgical masks can be quite confusing and intimidating.  Jody and I, on our trip to Kyoto last week, saw hundreds of people wearing disposable face masks pouring out of train and subway stations each morning and afternoon, in a scene that is more reminiscent of 28 Days Later than real life.  An immediate thought:  what do they have, will I become a zombie, and holy crap!  Should I be wearing one too?!?  Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of exaggeration, but for those lacking flirtations with the Far East, the whole surgical masks being worn in public can be at best strange, and worst, scary.  The other only options are to club those suspicious of carrying disease, as we were all taught to do by Shaun of the Dead.

If the masks don't work, the clubs will.

If the masks don’t work, the clubs will.

bigAlthough I remember seeing the masks both times I lived in the Far East before (1999-2001, 2004-2005), the use has skyrocketed since those times.  It seems there were two turning points concerning wider mask use:  the 2009 swine flu (Kobe, Japan) and the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster (country-wide fear of nuclear fallout).  Both these events helped stimulate a degree of public panic and establish the masks’ role –rightly or wrongly – as the frontline protection of the public.  However, even before 2009, 72% of manufactured Japanese masks were sold for personal use, compared with just 16% in medical applications and 12% in industrial settings (Ohmura 2008).  Approximately 10-12% of Japanese use surgical masks in public and at work, of course adjusted for season and pandemic outbreaks.

Most are sold for personal use.

Most are sold for personal use.

While it does afford some measure of protection from others, a surgical mask is actually intended to be worn by health professionals to catch bacteria shed in liquid droplets and aerosols from the wearer’s mouth and nose.  Surgical masks, however, are also used by the general public in heavily populated countries in East Asia, primarily as an attempt to reduce the chance of spreading airborne diseases.  In Japan, it is common to wear a face mask when ill to avoid infecting others in public settings.  Surgical masks are also widely used in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, particularly during outbreaks of disease, like SARS or bird flu.

Nursing students in Taiwan!

Nursing students in Taiwan!

Bosozoku, the long-lived Japanese biker gang, are known for wearing masks (see my blog on this gang here:  bosozoku).  However, I’m sure that their surgical masks are not going to be what gives them away as members of a biker gang (wink).  These bikers wear masks simply to conceal their faces; they aren’t wearing them for allergies or disease prevention, unless, of course, they are from a kinder, gentler, more socially considerate bosozoku chapter!  Since they are known to carry clubs, they would, however and ironically, probably be the best first-line and frontline defense against zombies!!

Biker's evil eye, over a mask-covered face.

Biker’s evil eye, over a mask-covered face.

However, a much more common reason for mask-wearing (and in fact the leading reason) is that the wearers are sick, and wearing a mask is expected as consideration of those around them.  Likewise, many people wear masks to safeguard themselves from others.  Still others try to protect themselves from pollen, pollution, and even radiation!  And people don’t avoid others wearing masks like they are zombie-plague carry creatures; actually, the Japanese basically consider it an insult and will go out of their way to avoid you if you are coughing or sneezing and aren’t wearing one.

Mask-wearer in Hong Kong

Mask-wearer in Hong Kong

Given the vast increase in surgical mask use in public, I do believe that this has become Japan’s culture of fear.  I actually have been looking quietly and silently for where the Japanese obsess in some negative fashion.  For example, in America, we have a culture of fear centering on our own basic safety:  we are afraid of terrorists, afraid of criminals, and indeed, many of us are afraid of our neighbors that we no longer know….  Japan knows little fear in that regard.  But every culture has an Achilles’ heel.  And all this time I thought it was the depravity of their manga!

Manga Mathletes - like me - will appreciate the equations on the blackboard.

Manga Mathletes – like me – will appreciate the equations on the blackboard.

3742312738_931b81a789However, mask use in Japan goes much deeper than simply as a write it off to one-dimensional fear.  For example, there are those in Japan who wear surgical masks because they are self-conscious about the way they look or have something they want to hide.  Women admit wearing masks when they have no makeup on, particularly on public transport.  Women (mostly) also state protection from the sun as another reason.  In March 2011, News Post Seven surveyed 100 people wearing surgical masks in Shibuya, Tokyo’s most popular fashion district, and found that roughly 30% were wearing masks for reasons wholly unrelated to sickness or allergies.

Clearly a fashion statement.

Clearly a fashion statement.

masuku-yasu3Further, the Japanese news program ZIP! recently aired a special segment about young adults who choose to wear surgical masks as fashion accessories.  In a rather unscientific study, the staff counted the number of people wearing masks as they walked down a Tokyo street and found that the number has increased significantly from levels seen a decade ago.  ZIP! also surveyed the reasons why, with some surprising results:

1.  They’re not wearing any makeup/want to hide their face, emotions

2.  To keep their face warm

3.  To make their face look small

4.  It comforts them

Or perhaps to demonstrate just how secure you are with your masculinity.

Or perhaps to demonstrate just how secure you are with your masculinity.

So, in this sense, wearing masks for reasons other than for health considerations has become much more popular, especially with young people in the last 4-5 years, enough so that it actually has become a fashion trend, promulgated by the media, and pushed by commercial interests.

There really should be a black mask to go with those formal gowns....

There really should be a black mask to go with those formal gowns….

According to info-gathering site Naver Matome, some women see the mask as not only a way to cover up their face on a bad makeup  or acne outbreak day, but also as an accessory that can make them more attractive in some sort of strange nod to the veils of times past of the middle-east dancing concubines.  “It gives you a mysterious appearance since only your eyes are showing,” says one high-school girl.  “Wearing a mask makes me look cuter!”  It also identifies you as a potential zombie….

Cute??

Cute??

However, surgical mask use in Japan may go even psychologically deeper than self-image.  “I don’t want to show others my true self,” “Since my face is covered, people don’t know how I’m really feeling. It’s comforting,” and “I don’t like having to create facial expressions for people” are some of the reasons given by Japanese high school students who mask-up.  Author Yuzo Kikumoto, author of Date Mask Izonsho, claims that many Japanese students wear a mask to keep from standing out among the crowd.  “They have an abnormal fear of showing who they really are to their peers.”  Wearing masks in public offers some degree of anonymity in social settings, a comforting factor to many shy and introverted Japanese.  In many school settings, surgical masks give young people another way to blend in with the crowd.

School students in Japan all part of the crowd.

School students in Japan all part of the crowd.

And, with any good democracy, there are strong and powerful commercial interests seeking to capitalize on this new fashion trend.  Check out Picomask’s “Design Mask Collection” for a sample of their stylish and colorful surgical masks, sold since 2010.

Designer Masks

Designer Masks:  <$7USD!

Now we're talkin'!  Wash & Wear.

Now we’re talkin’! Wash & Wear.

So why is mask use not as prevalent in the West?  Well, it’s because we in the states (and much of Europe it seems), know that it is actually touch which is the more important factor in disease transmission.  It is more likely that simply washing hands is more effective in relation to reducing the threat of disease; a 2009 Japanese survey showed less than half wash their hands regularly).  And, in this sense, there is a distinct lack of disbursed and publicly available hand sanitizer in Japan.

>Tom the Tailor offered nose and mouth protectors for 35 cents to keep people safe from influenza. The ad ran on Nov 1, 1918.Either way – mask-wearing and/or hand-washing – such risk rituals are, in my opinion, more likely to embed anxiety centered on disease rather than resolve such worries.  We are told, East and West, and made to feel, at least rhetorically so, that we are individually responsible for disease transmission:  stay home when sick, wash your hands, sneeze into your sleeve, wear a mask, and get your shots!  But such health risks are, in some significant part, beyond our individual control, making the assumption of our inherent responsibility for sickness just about as useful as the risk rituals that accompany them.

We too dabbled with masks...almost 100 years ago.

We too dabbled with masks…almost 100 years ago.

myso3_mamBut who wants to end up stumbling through the narrow, dark Gion alleyways of Kyoto foaming at the mouth and with a taste for brains?  Although many Japanese would probably be quick to agree that surgical masks are not that effective, masks are still better than nothing.  Worse, coughing and sneezing on a crowded subway without wearing one indicates to other potential zombies that you really don’t care much for their welfare…or their brains, tasty as they might be.  So, it’s not hard to see how medical masks have become commonplace, at least as an expected standard of Japanese social etiquette.

Sailor_Scouts_by_Soap_Commitee_by_Juliefan21

For more information and some sources:  http://www.japantoday.com/category/lifestyle/view/more-japanese-youth-wearing-surgical-masks-to-hide-their-face

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!

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!

11491201744_4091ecf2fc_b

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!

11491266983_124e0ceeed_b

11491139985_b7195dc61d_b

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….

11491192294_bf680c0017_b

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.

11616053176_0d47fc3ec6_b

11616012886_8cf685975c_b

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.

coexist-holiday

How are you celebrating Christmas this year??

Sakura-wishes-you-a-Merry-12-Days-of-Christmas___-itll-be-her-turn-soon

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

desktop2007111411949722mq4

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.

christmas-anime-69

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.

christmas-heart-holiday-lights-love-thumb-400x265-2426

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.