Hatsumode:  New Year’s Shrine Visit


“Church is who we are, not where we go….” ~Unknown

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Shrine Entrance

Shrine Entrance

Jody and I headed out with every intention to visit our local Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Eve – one of the most important dates to celebrate in Japan and much of the Far East – to hear the ringing of the shrine’s bells.  Futenma Gongen is just a short drive from where we live, and a Shrine that Jody can see from the Navy Hospital on Camp Foster where she works.  However, with me coming down with a serious case of the flu/respiratory infection, we opted instead to visit the shrine as most Japanese do, in the few days following New Year’s Day.  After all, it is bad form in Japan for anyone to go to “church” impure and soiled with sickness….

Talisman for the New Year

Talisman for the New Year, including evidently lucky-dice!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-proud-celebrationsHatsumode (初詣) in Japan is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead.  Some of the most popular shrines (shrines are Shinto in Japan) and temples (which are Buddhist here) organize festivities with stalls that sell food, provide carnival-type games for this kids, and offer souvenirs and sweets like you might find at an old-tyme American county fair (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oils for more).  And yes, I did have to get a great big bag of cotton candy, just as popular here as anywhere else in the world.

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Each year the shrine puts up a large ornately painted wood plaque with the New Year’s zodiac. This Year: Year of the Rooster!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-leaving-ema-wmWe went off to see the shrine for the first time during the afternoon of January 2nd.  Luckily we approached it from the direction where people queued up for entrance, and after passing a line extending at least a kilometer, we decided to come back on a more…reasonable day.  No doubt god understands.  Returning a couple of days later after Jody got off work we found the shrine still bustling with people, but with really no lines at all.  While this probably doesn’t meet the strict intent of visiting by the 3rd, we weren’t alone; there were plenty of Japanese doing the exact same thing!

Jody's Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

Jody’s Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-tied-fortunes-wmPart of such a visit usually involved purchasing omikuji, which are fortune-telling strips of paper, selected by reaching in and hand-drawing one out of a large box of bound fortunes.  Jody and I each selected our fortunes, and after reading and sharing what lay in store for us (pretty much all good, like most fortunes), we left ours tied on wires strung near the shrine’s special pine tree.

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new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-new-year-talismans-2-wmThere are also a whole slew of talisman and lucky charms that can be purchased for a small donation, all of which promise to offer increased safety for drivers, prosperity in business, healthy babies for pregnant women, and even good exam results for students!  Of course most focus on love and health, rightfully so.  Jody and I decided to purchase two ema, small wooden plaques on which prayers can be inscribed.  One was to leave at the shrine with our prayer welcoming in the New Year, and the other to take home to add to our collection of ema we’ve collected from across Asian over the last 3.5 years.

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Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

Prayers are also offered at the shrine or temple’s main altar.  After throwing some coins into a tamper-resistant donation collection box which can be found in front of every altar no matter how large or small, parishioners than grab a thick robe hanging down nearby and swirl it around to ring a connected bell a few times.  Finally, the faithful bow twice, clap their hands twice in front of their chest, pray, and when finished, bow one more time in respect prior to leaving.  Luckily for us Westerners, this procedure is pretty much the same at either Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples.  This time around, since the Shrine remained a crowded buzz of activity, Jody and I passed on offering prayers at the altar.

Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-new-year-arrownew-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-turnip-headed-arrow-bulbFinally, we selected our New Year Kabura-ya (鏑矢, “turnip-headed arrow”).  This represents a particular type of arrow used by the samurai class of feudal lords of long-ago Japan.  Originally a way to announce approach and send messages, the bulbs on these arrow heads were designed to make a particular sound when fired.  Over time legend grew that such jangles could chase away bad kami, basically evil spirits.  Today, even carrying such an arrow, or placing it in your home can ward against evil spirits.  Our arrow rests safely and purposefully near the entrance to our condo.

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It’s true that church is not where we go.  While Jody and I are neither Shinto nor even church-goers at home, there is value is maintaining such positive, almost secular traditions, that are hinged at welcoming a future full of health and prosperity.  Church is, in fact, who we are and will be in the coming New Year of the Rooster 2017.

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Happy New Year from the Kings!

Toshikoshi:  New Year Noodles in Japan


“Noodles are not only amusing but delicious….” ~Julia Child

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Jody and I are lucky to have a delicious udon noodle restaurant, Marukame Noodle, just a few minutes away, and even more fortunate to have a terrific excuse to head out on New Year’s Day to feast on a steaming bowl of fresh Asian pasta in a savory broth:  “Year-Crossing Noodle”!

Marukame Noodle, Okinawa

Marukame Noodle, Okinawa

Toshikoshi (年越し蕎麦), or “year-crossing noodle,” is a traditional Japanese noodle dish eaten, for some on New Year’s Eve, and for others, on New Year’s Day.  And although yes, I admit, the noodles are usual of the soba variant, I find myself preferring the much thicker and almost chewy Chinese udon as the noodle of choice.

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The tradition of eating noodles around the New Year became common during the Edo era (1603-1868) in Japan.  When soba noodles are made, the dough is stretched and cut into a thin, elongated form, a geometry said to represent a long and healthy life, while the buckwheat plant (source of many Japanese noodles) being a rather hearty plant that can survive severe weather represents strength and resiliency.  And cutting the noodles while eating symbolizes a wish to cut away all the misfortunes of the old year in order to commence the New Year anew and refreshed.

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However, the noodles should never be broken, cut or shortened during cooking.  And there are other various traps that could result in a backfire; don’t eat right at midnight (you’ll not be able to cut ties with the old), and don’t eat while temple bells are ringing (the bells are supposed to cleanse of evil and sin, and you wouldn’t want to consume any!).  Jody and I, having a late lunch/early dinner on New Year’s Day, were pretty much free and clear of any complexity.

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Given all this positive symbolism (see Welcome Spring and the New Year for more), why tempt bad karma and NOT slurp down some tasty noodle soup at the New Year?  Steaming hot, Jody and I topped ours with nuggets of fried tempura batter (actually the leftovers of frying tempura meats and veggies), a slew of freshly-sliced green onions, and with sides of tempura chicken, shrimp, and vegetables.  Yummy!

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Happy New Year, friends!  I hope you had an amusing and delicious meal of your own to help invite longevity and health for you and yours.

Cherry Blossoms: Budding Beliefs of Traditional Japan


“The individual is ephemeral, races and nations come and pass away, but man remains. Therein lies the profound difference between the individual and the whole.” ~ Nikola Tesla

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“Ooooh, oooh, cherry blossom, sakura HAI!!” Setsuko proclaimed just about every time she spied a cherry tree readying to bloom. Her expression was like that which could be found on any American kid’s face on Christmas morning. Except Setsuko is Okinawan, and she’s almost 71.

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The Okinawans and Japanese have a deep-rooted love affair with cherry blossoms. Festivals honoring the blossoms are widely held, complete with a carni-like atmosphere reminiscent of our tri-county fair back home. In fact, it’s one of the few times on Okinawa that cotton candy is easily found. And lucky for me, during this time of year it’s even easier for me to devour!

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491413-bigthumbnailA cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Cherry Tree, Prunus serrulata. The blossoms are referred to as sakura in Japanese. The blossoming begins in Okinawa in January and spreads north as warmer temperatures slowly walk into higher latitudes throughout the spring, reaching Kyoto and Tokyo at the end of March or the beginning of April. A few weeks later they finally spread into higher altitudes and to Hokkaidō, the northern most of the Japanese main islands.

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japanese_cherry_blossom__by_ging3r295-d45w2odThe Japanese and Okinawans pay particularly close attention to blossom forecasts each year. The many festivals celebrating the flowers arrival are carefully planned around such predictions, and people here in this island-nation turn out in huge masses at parks, shrines, temples and castles with family and friends to hold flower-viewing parties. Hanami (花見, “flower viewing”) or sakura matsuri (“cherry blossom festival”) celebrate the beauty and evanescent nature of the cherry blossom, a custom which dates back many centuries in Japan, possibly to as early as the third century CE.

The Kings hangin' with the Ryukyu King at Nakijin Castle

The Kings hangin’ with the Ryukyu King at Nakijin Castle

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, sakura blossoms WMJody and I attended one of the more scenic areas to view sakura on Okinawa, a flower viewing festival at Nakijin Castle just outside of Nago on the Motobu peninsula of Okinawa. The castle ruins, perched high on a jungle-covered ridge overlooking the East China Sea, serves as a dramatic backdrop for the festivities. A large greenspace just outside of the gusuku is set with a stage for traditional music and dance, highlighted against theatrically lit castle walls. Inside the ramparts, the pathways are lined with glowing candles every foot or so, while up-lights illuminate the cherry trees lining the bastion’s ancient entryway.

500bd93475ed790b6ce79ad9a88ae44bOkinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, up close and in full bloom 2 WMIn Japan, cherry blossoms sometimes symbolize clouds as they bloom en masse, but more often they are a central and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition steeped with Buddhist influence, embodied in the concept of mono no aware dating back to the 18th century CE.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, Jody in the sakura light

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathways 2 WMLast year Jody and I attended this jubilee on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the very start of the 2-week sakura matsuri period in late January. Although the blossoms were not yet in full bloom, there were very few people in attendance, making for a rather peacefully pleasant visit to the fortress.

The surprising line waiting to go in!

The surprising line waiting to go in!

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathway at dusk WMThis year we went on the last weekend of the viewing period and on a Saturday night, arriving about ninety minutes before sunset. We bought our tickets (cheap!), had a quick bite to eat, and headed into the ruins, showing some friends (new to the island) the ropes. As the sun set, Okinawan music wafted across the stone-fitted walls, filling the wintery cold winds with soft sounds of the island as multicolored lights illumined the trees and bulwarks alike. The cherry blossoms themselves were bathed in bright white to ensure their full brilliance. The festival became a fest for all the senses.

The Castle's Main Pathway

The Castle’s Main Pathway

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, up close and in full bloom WMMono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things” but also translated as “an empathy toward things” or “a sensitivity to ephemera,” is a Japanese phrase which acknowledges an awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō). This acceptance of the transience of all things lends a gentle wistfulness to the Japanese. The fleetingness of the blossoms, their extreme beauty and quick death all have often been associated with mortality. Thus, sakura have become richly symbolic, constantly appearing in Japanese art, song, manga, anime, and film.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, colored walls WM

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, sakura blossom closeupWhat we didn’t realize, however, was just how many Japanese and Okinawans partake in such festivities. Attempting to leave the castle through its main cherry-tree lined footpath, we were jammed shoulder to shoulder with frolicking picture-takers, cooing and “aaaaah-ing!” with every firing of a camera flash. The going was slow, and upon exiting the fortresses’ exterior rampart, we realized why: there were literally thousands of people standing in line waiting to get in!

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathways WM

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle Jody enjoys the blossomsDeciding to thaw ourselves before our one hour and forty minute drive home, we stepped into a local soba house and were lucky enough to get a table for two with no waiting. Warming our bellies with steaming pork broth and the thick savory noodles of Okinawan soki soba, we laughed at how we ourselves had acted just like Setsuko upon seeing the dramatically-displayed cherry blossoms.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle blossoms in bloom WM

But unlike sakura matsuri mono no aware, Okinawa and its commemorations have become a permanent part of our souls.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, Jody with sakura

Timeless Townhouse: Our Machiya Stay in Kyoto


 井の中の蛙大海を知らず, I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu: A frog in a well does not know the great sea. Or, people are satisfied to judge things by their own narrow experience, never knowing of the wide world outside.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entrway on the small alleywayWanting to avoid being narrow American frogs overseas , and equally desiring a more authentic stay in Kyoto, Jody and I elected to stay in a traditional Japanese machiya called Seuin-An, “Blue Cloud Hut.” Seuin-An is a historic Kyoto townhouse were the essence of the Japanese tradition of Geisha was taught: dance, music, tea ceremony, flower arrangement and more were handed down here for generations from teacher to the young ladies who chose this mysterious world as their way of life. While it has been renovated to provide more comfortable quarters to guests, it still retains a cozy machiya’s spirit, esthetic, and beauty of these wonderful traditional Japanese townhouses.

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Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, bamboo garden and entrywayMachiya (町屋/町家) are traditional wooden townhouses found throughout Japan, but typified in the historical capital of Kyoto. Kyoto, largely spared the devastating fire-bombing campaigns of World War II, retains many old and quite historic wooden buildings, including many machiya. These townhouses, along with Japanese nōka (farm dwellings) constitute Japanese minka architecture of “folk dwellings.” Machiya have a long history spanning many hundreds of years, and traditionally housed chōnin (townspeople), primarily consisting of urban merchants and craftsmen. The plot’s linear footage along the street was in the past a visible index of wealth, and typical machiya plots were only 15-20 feet wide but over 60 feet deep, leading to the nickname “eel bed.” Machiya is written using two kanji: machi (町, “town”), and ya (家 or 屋) meaning “house” (家) or “shop” (屋) depending on the kanji used.

Main Living Area

Main Living Area

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, asian Japanese living room accentsThe typical Kyoto machiya is a long, narrow wooden home, often containing a small courtyard garden. Machiya of the past incorporated earthen walls behind wood lattice works and baked tile roofs, and were usually two stories high. If used as a shop, the front of the structure served as the retail space. The remainder of the building is then divided into the kyoshitsubu (居室部, “living space)” composed of divided rooms with raised timber floors and tatami mats, and the doma (土間), an earthen-floored space that contained the kitchen and passage to storehouses.

Master Badroom

Master Badroom

Multiple layers of sliding doors are used to moderate the temperature inside; closing in the winter offers some protection from cold, while opening in the summer offers some respite from heat and humidity. Machiya homes traditionally also used different types of screens, using woven bamboo screens in summer to enhance airflow but block sun, while solid screens were used in winter to retain more heat.

Functional Kitchen

Functional Kitchen

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, functional kitchen 2On a sad note, between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of the machiya in Kyoto were demolished. Roughly 40% of these were replaced with new modern houses, and another 40% were replaced with high-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, or modern-style commercial shops. Of those machiya remaining, over 80% have suffered significant losses to the traditional appearance of their facades in a process called kanban kenchiku (看板建築, “signboard architecture”); they retain their basic machiya shape, but their facades have been completely covered over in cement, which replaces the wooden lattices of the first story and earthwork walls of the second, along with losing their tile roofs.

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Asian bedroom lamps and skylightsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Japanese wall hangingsJody and I were lucky enough to be able to experience this corner of a quickly disappearing tradition in Kyoto. Stay at Seuin-An was an experience neither of us will soon forget; imaging who may have passed through its doors and contemplating the full range of Far Eastern humanity that the structure encompasses allowed us to make a much stronger connection to not just Japan, but to our collective and shared pasts. In a phrase, we Western frogs managed to jump from the well of our narrow experience to see the wider world of Kyoto beyond.

Bathing Room

Bathing Room

I ended up writing a review for Trip Advisor, which is included here for your review. You may note my sensitivity to the owners, who seemed to be quite insulted with any type of less than good review online. It’s interesting to note that my review did not solicit any response, which I am pleased about, as anyone wanting to stay at Seiun-an. Read on…if you’d like.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, upstairs futon and tatami

“A Diamond…in the Rough” (3 of 5 Stars)

I’m going to try and write this review without having the owner get overly defensive while hopefully portraying our stay accurately. After all, that is the point of Trip Advisor.

This home COULD easily be 4 stars…with just a little bit of work. If I could on this site I would have rated the home as 3.5 or even 3.75 stars (instead of the 3 I did rate it). We enjoyed our stay, and the location of the home is excellent. And, it does give one a personal, authentic experience of living in Japan. Let me explain.

This is an old home, in mostly original style and layout, and that should be clear to anyone renting or staying. That was exactly our point in renting this type of accommodation – for a more authentic experience while traveling and staying in Japan. Expect the home to be cold and drafty in the wintertime, with the bathroom floor being VERY cold. The heat on the 2nd floor sleeping area works well (one wall unit and one floor electric radiator), and is very comfortable at night. Only one pair of slippers is provided in the home, but no robes, which would be a very nice touch since one has to go downstairs at night to use the only toilet in the home. The toilet is a modern Japanese one, with a welcomed heated seat!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The tub is fantastic, a deep-soak iron barrel sunk into the floor. However, the small plastic-framed bathroom mirror is much too small and is miss-hung for it to be of any use at all. My wife ended up using her iPad camera on herself, turning her iPad into a de facto mirror at the living room table. The sink installation is rather haphazard and lacks any sort of refinement; there is no medicine cabinet or other storage areas in the bathing room (sink & shower being separate from the toilet).

The lighting takes a few moments to figure out, and while adequate, we had numerous lights that were burnt out, including the outside light, two hallway lights (we replaced one with the over-the-stove hood light), one accent light in an art/panel area, and there was a broken and missing light fixture in the living area that resulted in quite an eye-sore. We only asked for the outside light to be fixed, since we are not fans of having people enter our living spaces while absent, but it is also not much to ask that lights be operable before we take residence. And there was no explanation for the broken fixture, which really detracted from the appeal, look and feel of the living room.

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

The living area furniture is not dark wood like in the website photos, nor is it located where it is as pictured there. It is however very functional, and there is plenty of room downstairs for eating and socializing.

While I understand the sliding doors are old and fragile in the home, the sliding door to the kitchen is very tough to use, and constantly was getting jammed. It is not really on a track, and is heavy to move, lacking any type of handle. We kept it closed most of the time though since heat downstairs was a constant issue in the middle of winter. The kitchen is functional.

There is really no weather-sealing or insulation at any of the doors, and this causes the draftiness of the downstairs area. The heater downstairs (one wall-mount and one electric floor radiator) both ran on high full-time; they simply couldn’t keep up with the cold. If the entryway bamboo vented screens were backed with Plexiglas (or glass), and if the door to the outside mechanical area were sealed properly, this would be a much warmer residence.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entryway

Finally, there are some aesthetic flaws that interfere with the charm of the machiya. The patches in the rice paper doors are too numerous and visible, along with the damaged bamboo entry sliding doors. The bathroom sink area really needs some updating, which could be accomplished while keeping the experience “authentic.” The bamboo water “garden” in the entryway would, if functional, provide some terrific ambiance to the entire structure, as well as some soothing water sounds….

The owner-recommended café “Yamamoto” around the corner is an excellent choice, and was much easier for the taxis to find than the house’s address!

Like I said, this home is a GEM, but with some pretty rough edges. With some much needed attention, it would easily be a 4-star home, and with some further investment, much higher rents could be charged given the potential charm of the residence and its location. It’s a recommended place to stay, but be forewarned: if you are looking for western style kitchens and bathrooms, and if you want to be pampered with warmth, look elsewhere.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, photo collage of our accommodations in Gion

 

 

 

 

 

And I Think to Myself, What a Wonderful World….


Jody and I back in September 2010 when I had a Great, Big Secret

Jody and I back in September 2010 when I had a Great, Big Secret

“Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.”  ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

“Where there is love there is life.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

“Do all things with love.”  ~ Og Mandino

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see’em bloom, for me and for you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

I friend of mine recently “liked” a comment on Face Book, not an unusual action in the days of over-indulgent social media.  However, what is unusual about the comment on her page, a response from me to a posting of hers, was from early October…of 2010.  Do you realize how hard it is to move that far backwards through your wall?!?

I will Marry Her

Jody knew it too, hence the coy wink

Jody knew it too, hence the coy wink

As you can see, in it I divulged my growing devotion and desire to be with Jody.  Permanently.  Of course this “liking” comes on the heels of Valentine’s Day (VD), a quite romantic if unlikely notion.  But what makes this so very abnormally doubtful is I have no idea what possessed A to reach so far back into her FB postings to see or find this particular entry…if she was, indeed, even looking.

7395685800_1894eb976f_bIt is, as I like to say, another example of how the universe unfolds pretty much how it should.  From my wedding vows, said to Jody more than 13 months after I proclaimed to A that I would indeed marry Jody:

“We are all children of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
and have a right to be standing here, in absolute love.
And whether or not it is clear to those here today,
no doubt for us, Jody, the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Vows at our Alter of Naval Aviation

Vows at our Alter of Naval Aviation

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A sentiment NOT associated with Jody, but my earlier mistaken marriage.

Jody and I have decided to adopt the Japanese approach to VD, and trust me, it does not involve the double-barrel shots of penicillin to the buttocks – been there, done that, “butt” (pun intended) the t-shirt had to be burned for infection control.  Rather, Jody is (hopefully) going to get me chocolates, we’ll walk down the block for a local and wine-infused dinner, and then stumble home to continue our celebrations.  In March, I get to return the favor, and then some, during “White Day.”

valentine

Here VD in Japan takes an interesting turn away from the West:  women traditionally do all the giving.  When chocolate companies originally started pushing the Western idea of VD in Japan, they focused on women as sole givers.  At the time, Japanese women were quite conservative in voicing affections, so the rather novel idea of surrogate chocolates was immediately and widely embraced.

I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

However, as a new tradition not yet ingrained in culture, customs surrounding Valentine’s Day in Japan have shifted.  In more modern times, women do give chocolates as a gesture of love.  But before you get too overly excited about receiving chocolates from a Japanese woman, realize that they also give chocolates to work colleagues and male friends – called giri-choco, literally “obligation chocolate” – as a gesture of thanks or friendship.  The concept of giri is very Asian; it is a mutual obligation that the Japanese follow when, if someone does you a favor, then you feel obligated to do something in return.  In this sense, it is not unusual for a woman to buy 20 to 30 boxes of chocolate at several hundred yen each (several dollars) for distribution around the office and to other male friends.

There's a Hooters in Japan??

There’s a Hooters in Japan??

The colors of a rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces, of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really sayin’, “I love you.”

Conversely, for that special man in her life, a Japanese lover can choose from various types of honmei-choco (“sweetheart” or “true love chocolate”) of much higher quality (and cost) than the obligation sweets.  And, even more recently, home-made treats have become even more popular, along with gyaku-choco (“reverse chocolates,” men giving women chocolates), and tomo-choco (“friendship chocolates,” very popular between young girlfriends).

Another New Trend:  Heart-Shaped Pizza!

Another New Trend: Heart-Shaped Pizza!

It’s clearly become a very popular day in Japan; more than half of Japan’s annual chocolate sales happen during February and March, when “White Day” occurs.  “White Day” was created in Japan in 1980 to help soften the guilt of males who received VD chocolates.  Exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, men who were lucky enough to receive sugar-infused gifts are given the chance to return the favor.  But, in a sexist twist that seems to have not been lost in translation, the expectation for these return gifts is to be of higher value than those purchased by women!

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more, than I’ll never know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Selfie at the Alter

Selfie at the Alter

6211305178_bb5798e566_bNo matter how you elect to treat your own VD, please strive to root your life in compassion and love.  It is a utopian ideal, but one worthy of our attentive focus and best effort.  To Jody, I rededicate my life to the You and the Me in Our Us, and finish this Valentine’s Day with the closing stanza of my wedding vows when I did indeed marry you, not so secretly:

“In the face of the sham, drudgery, and broken dreams of the past,
You have made the world – my world – a beautiful place.
Be we cheerful this day as we always strive to be happy.
I love you Jody, my Desideratum, my desired thing
Wife from this day forward.”
Yes! I DID marry that girl!!

Yes! I DID marry that girl!!

 

Yes I think to myself …….what a wonderful world.

~~~ Happy Valentine’s Day~~~

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Soybeans and Shadows: Myths of Spring


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“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

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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!

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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 than...say...top 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.

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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.

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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