Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Memories of Japan: A Visit to a Shintō Shrine on New Year's Day

Somewhere near Nishinomiya, in the Greater Osaka area
on New Year's Day.  It looks like this small shrine is
deserted, but it wasn't.  People just very kindly
cleared the area for the few seconds it took my
father-in-law to snap the picture.
Today is Tuesday, December 31, 2013.

My first New Year visit to a Shintō shrine was in January 1978.  Yes, dear, that is before many of you were even born. 

For the occasion, I wore a woolen kimono with jacket (haori) that had been made for me.  For some reason, my mother-in-law thought I would look good in fall colors.  Oh, well... My obi (sash) was a deep red color, as a bright red would have been unbecoming for a married woman. Under the front part there is a stiff board with a little pocket that I could put my train ticket or a bit of money in.)  My sandals (zōri) were made of patent leather with white soles and reddish thongs.  The white tabi socks with split toe were warm enough.  The "purse" didn't go with the outfit, in my opinion, but it was borrowed from my mother-in-law, and that's what she had.  (I could just as well have brought a pretty paper bag in which to carry my essentials for the day.  Hindsight is such a wonderful thing.) 

Underneath the kimono I wore a two-piece under-kimono tied with a separate belt and detachable white collar (eri).  Younger women wear their eri collar tied a little tighter at the base of the throat, and the back is supposed to stick out a bit to show off the nape of the neck (a part of the body that is considered sexy – don't ask).  For older women, the eri is tied a little more loosely in front so the V-neck is slightly lower, and the back of the collar hugs the neck a bit more (but never completely).   The haori jacket has ties in front to keep it from flapping around. 

Some of you may have heard of jackets called happi ("happy" coats).  I guess you could say that the difference between haori and happi is that haori are made to match a particular kimono, while a happi is a separate item of clothing.  Happi are made of cotton and worn in the summer, only when attending festivals.  They were originally worn only by servants of the rich and powerful, and they always displayed the "family crest" (design) of their employer.  Today the crest is often the logo of some company.

Dressing in a kimono can be done by one person, but it's much easier to do if you have help, which I had from my mother-in-law.  The kimono itself is always much longer than you are tall.  You put it on your shoulders and check to see that the back seam is straight down the middle of your back.  Then you pull the kimono up so that the hem is just above your feet and wrap the kimono around your body.  It's very important that you put the right side on first, then overlap that with the left side, so the open seam goes down your right leg.  If you don't, you are putting the kimono on "backward," and this is a funeral custom!

You hold the extra material just above your waist while someone ties your kimono shut at the waist with a thin tie called koshi himo that ties in the front.  You smooth the extra material over this tie, then take another wider tie called a datejime belt on top of the excess material, making sure the material is smoothed down around the waist and hips.  Over this, you put your actual obi, with a stiff board in front called a makura that is placed just under the sash, so that it will not wrinkle in front.  The back of the sash is pulled up and looped over to form a "drum." in back.  For summer yukata, the obi gets tied into a bow, but a lot of girls use an "instant obi" tie in back that is sold with sashes for summer.  The instant obi reminded me of the kind of modern men's tie that is already tied for you and it just has little hooks that attach to the collar. It had a wire thingy that you used to hook the bow into the back of the obi, then you could tie it around your waist in front and tuck the ties under the main obi.  Click here for some pictures of a woman putting on her kimono.

For a silk kimono, there is also an extra piece of pretty material (obi age) that is tucked in around the top of the sash, but allowed to peek out a bit in front (apparently this is also considered kind of sexy).  Over the middle of the sash another decorative cord (obi jime) is tied.  Also, when wearing a silk kimono, over the basic undergarments, you wear another under-kimono that can be washed, unlike the outer kimono, which can only be spot-cleaned. The under kimono is worn to protect the outer kimono from body oils and sweat that will damage the kimono fabric. 

My ex-husband's woolen kimono and jacket were worn over long underwear (you can see the top of his white undershirt), and his sash (obi) was a kind of black chiffon material.  His wooden footwear are called geta, and he wore them with black tabi socks.  I had some geta, too, but I wore them only in summer, with bare feet when I put on a cotton kimono called a yukata.

This picture was taken by my father-in-law, who went to the shrine with us.  My mother-in-law stayed home that day. We didn't go to a very large shrine, just a small one not far from home.  

Meiji Jingu on New Year's Day
I remember the trains, streets, and the shrine itself being very crowded.   Millions of people visit a temple on New Year's Day.  One of the biggest shrines in the country, Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, had 3.2 million visitors in January 2010, for example, and the other four major shrines in Japan had nearly 3 million visitors each.  That's a lot of people, and that doesn't even count the millions who (like me), went to smaller, local shrines.  Because of the crowds, you end up spending a lot of time standing in line: waiting to get to the altar to pray, waiting to buy omamori (good luck charms), waiting in line to make a votive offering and write your wish on a pine board, or waiting to have your fortune (omikuji) printed.

Omikuji.  I couldn't read mine.
If your omikuji predicts bad luck, you can fold it up and tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds so that the prediction will not come true. If it is good, you can still tie it to a tree to increase your luck. The upshot is that there are an awful lot of omikuji tied to trees at the shrines. The omikuji tells you about various areas of your life, such as business and love.  Sometimes a good luck charm automatically comes with the omikuji. I sometimes wondered whether it would be economically more productive for the shrine to give people a bad fortune, so that they would buy a charm, too, or feel like giving a bigger offering, but of course I never said that to anyone, as it would have been rude.

When you make a votive offering, you get a little pine board and a marker, and you write your wish on the board, then leave it on a special display wall at the shrine.


Tying omikuji at the shrine
Votive offerings in the shape of torii gates

You get a pine board for your votive offering on which you can write your wishes,
then leave the board at the shrine.

I no longer remember what my fortune said.  I couldn't read it in any event.  I don't ever remember making a votive offering, but other people I knew made them.  High school students prayed to pass the university entrance exams.  Married women that I knew prayed for a baby.  University students about to graduate prayed to get a good job with a big company that would "take care" of them for life.  Some businessmen I knew prayed for a promotion at work.

Business people praying at Kanda Shrine in Tokyo. 
The white masks are worn when you have a cold that
you don't want to give to others.  Photo credit: BBC News
Speaking of work, on the first day back at work, many Japanese businessmen make a visit to a local shrine in the morning to pray for success in business.  Here is a picture of business people making a visit to the local shrine in Kanda, a section of Tokyo. 

The day pretty much passed in a blur, and by the time we got home I was so tired that I had to take a long nap.  My mother-in-law sympathized.  She knew how hard it is to walk with little mincing steps in a kimono, and that you can't really breathe deeply in a kimono, either, because it's tied pretty tightly.  I think I did a pretty good job of posing for the picture, though.  My feet are slightly pigeon-toed, which is the way you are supposed to stand in a kimono.  I threw every other picture of my ex-husband out except this one, not because I wanted to remember him, but because I wanted to remember myself on this particular day.  :-)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Memories of Japan: New Year's Day Customs

Gantan means New Year's Morning
Today is Monday, December 30, 2013. 

Celebrating the New Year in Japan is so important that the list of special customs seems to go on and on forever.  When I arrived in Japan, it was just after the New Year had been celebrated, so I had a year to get accustomed to the country, the people and the customs before I was subjected to the whirlwind that is often referred to as "New Years Days."  If you're new to Japan at this time of year, I sympathize, for it surely must feel like information overload to you. Sometimes I felt like asking, "Is there anything you don't have a custom for?  Am I breathing the right way?"

I've already talked about some of the foods for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, but I left out a couple, so that's first on the list.  You may remember that I wrote about pounding sweet rice into mochi in a large wooden mortar on New Year's Eve.  Mochi is made from the short-grain, polished, glutenous rice the Japanese love so well.   

To make mochi, you wash the rice and let it soak overnight.  Then you cook it and let it cool slightly.  You pour the cooked rice into the mortar and pound it with wooden mallets.  This is a two-person job.  One person pounds while the other keeps the mochi wet and turns it every so often.  The two people have to coordinate their work, or risk injury with the heavy mallet.  When the rice is completely gelatinous,  the sticky mixture is then shaped into little round mounds and left to dry a bit.  The mochi can then be used in decorations or eaten.  If you want sweet mochi, you use sweet rice flour (mochiko) instead of cooked rice.  You mix the flour with water into a thick paste and cook it on the stove or even in a microwave.  

Fresh, soft mochi is delicious, especially if it's slightly sweet, and I came to love not only the taste, but the texture, as well.  Once mochi hardens and if it is kept for a while, mold can develop on it, but you can scrape the mold off with a knife and eat it anyway, no problem.  This is not something you want to try with other types of food, but with mochi, it seems to work OK.

The mochi you can buy from the store often comes in the shape of a thin rectangle.  Except for New Year's, most people just buy their mochi from the store.  Mochi can be eaten by itself, if it is fresh and slightly sweet, but it's often used in other dishes. Sometimes sweet azuki beans are put into the center of a mound of mochi, or you can make sweet azuki bean soup with pieces of mochi in it.  Delicious!

The most auspicious dish you can eat on New Year's Day is
o-zōni, a consomme type soup with mochi and vegetables.  In Eastern Japan, the soup stock is dashi, which is clear or slightly yellow in color, made from flakes of dried bonito fish or kombu (seaweed) and soy sauce.  In Western Japan, the soup stock is made from white (light colored) miso paste, so the stock looks a little cloudier.  (Miso is a paste made of fermented rice, barley or soybeans.)  In Eastern Japan, the mochi is grilled first, before being put into the soup.  In Western Japan, round mochi are boiled.  In areas of Japan where rice is not grown much, tōfu (soybean curd) is used in the soup, instead.  

The spiced sake is heated and drunk in the three
cups on the little stand.  Sake is always drunk warm.
Source: midorisyu
Another thing to do on New Year's Day is to drink o-toso (屠蘇), which is spiced sake.  This is drunk in a more "medicinal" than recreational way, in order to flush out the previous year's maladies and to lead a long life.  The characters used to write toso  (the o at the beginning is an honorific), mean "defeat evil spirits."   O-toso is drunk as a family, using three sizes of cups, starting with the smallest, which is passed around to each person, who takes one small sip.  In China, the youngest person in the family drank first, to test the drink for poisons, but in Japan, the head of the household takes the first sip.  In the second and third cups, different varieties of the drink are made.  This custom is still done in Western Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe), but not so much in the east. 

New Year's badminton  羽根つき - hane tsuki
The shuttlecock for Japanese badminton is
made of brightly-colored feathers stuck into
seeds.  These are called hane.

The paddles for the badminton game are called hagiota.

There are some traditional games played on New Year's Day, but some of them seem to be dying out.  A form of badminton used to be popular, and if the weather is OK, they may do some kite-flying out in the country, but for city folk, the most popular game played anymore is a card game called karuta (a Japanese rendition of the Portuguese word for "cards").  The cards are small and printed on thick cardstock paper.  There are different types of karuta games, some involving knowledge of poems, and others are more of a matching type game.  Children play a form of karuta where the cards have hiragana characters on them  (Iroha Karuta or "ABC Cards").  

Kite flying, or tako-age, is still popular in some areas.

Hanafuda cards.  Click to enlarge.
The kind of karuta I played was called Hanafuda, or "flower cards."  The deck has 48 cards with four cards representing each of twelve "suits," one for each month of the year.   Each month is represented by a different type of flower or plant. Point values can be 1, 5 or 20 points. Cards with pictures of animals or scenes mean those cards have a higher point value.  The game is played by three players who try to match cards from the same suit.  To determine who deals first, each player takes a card, and the one with the earliest "month" deals first.  There are variants of the game played with more players and rules that make it a little harder to match cards.  Like all popular games, the rules vary slightly from area to area and from family to family.

Fukuwarai game
Another game that reminds me of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey is called fukuwarai (福笑 "lucky smiling face game") is also a traditional Japanese game. A blindfolded person tries to place eyes, eyebrows, a nose and a mouth on a printed poster face.  The image is from someone who played the game in Japan.

In a previous blog, I told you that there were different ways to wish someone a Happy New Year before and after New Year's Day.  The most common way to say Happy New Year anytime after midnight on New Year's Eve is to say Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. ( 明けましておめでとうございます。) The first word is a verb, "to open," so you are congratulating someone on the opening of the year, which is why it is said on or after New Year's Day, but not before.   It is very important when you see someone for the first time on or after New Year's Day to wish them a happy new year.  This is done until about the middle of January. 

First sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
There are a number of traditional "firsts" that Japanese people like to pay attention to.  These include hatsuhinode
(初日の出) the first sunrise of the year, which some people celebrate by climbing a mountin on New Year's Eve so they can see the sunrise from the top of the mountain.  Mt. Fuji is a tough climb, but even those who are not "mountain climbers" can do it, with the right shoes and gear, and there are rest stops along the way, albeit fairly primitive. If they live near the coastline, many Japanese go to the shore to view the first sunrise.  

First visit to a shrine on New Year's Day
Another first is hatsumōde (初詣) is the first visit of the year to a Shintō shrine, although some people do visit a Buddhist temple, instead.  Most people do this on the first, second or third day of the new year.  People buy new omamori (lucky charms) and bring the old ones back so they can be burned.  (I always kept mine, however.)  At the shrine, people pray for good health and good fortune in the new year, which doesn't take long.  They basically stand in front of the shrine and clap their hands a couple of times, then bow their heads toward their clasped hands.  They also generally make a small monetary donation to the temple that they visit, but the crowds are so fierce that some of them have to throw their money into the box over the heads of others.  If any money doesn't make it into the box, it will be picked up later – the Japanese are honest that way.  I'll talk a bit more about the custom of visiting shrines in a future post. 

First smile of the new year
The first laughter of the year waraizome, is a good omen.  They have a saying, 笑う門には福来る。"Good fortune and happiness will come to the home of those who smile."  Playing the fukuwarai game described above is a good way to get people to smile and laugh.

The first dream hatsuyume (初夢) is also important, as the dream traditionally fortells the dreamer's fortune in the coming year.  Since Japanese often spend the night of December 31 without sleeping, the first dream is often not seen until the night of January 1.  This is why January 2 on a traditional Japanese calendar is called hatsuyume.  It is particularly good luck to dream of Mount Fuji, a hawk or an eggplant.  (The word for eggplant is a homonym for the word "to achieve.") 

First calligraphy of the year, for kids and adults

The first letter exchanged in the new year is called hatsudayori and the first calligraphy that you do in the new year is called kakizome.  I imagine that nowadays the first letter custom is dying out, but perhaps the young people remark on the first email or the first text message. People get together in big groups in gymnasiums to do the first calligraphy of the year. There are events for children and for adults. 

Girls dress in silk kimono with the
obligatory fur stole on the first day
back at work.  Long sleeves are worn
by single women.  Married women
wear shorter sleeves.
The first day back at work in the new year is shigoto-hajime 仕事始め, and people often dress up for work in traditional kimono or their very best suit the first day back after the new year begins.  When I worked at Berlitz, the secretaries all came wearing kimono. 

The first practice of any of the martial arts is called keiko-hajime  稽古始め.  The first tea ceremony of the year, hatsugama 初釜,  is often given by the tea master for all of his or her students, and it is a full one, including a meal as well as tea and sweets.   The first shopping sale of the new year is called hatsu-uri 初売り.

First tea ceremony

The Emperor and his family have already greeted people on the occasion of the Emperor's birthday, which occurs on December 23, but in 2014 they will once again wave to the people from their balcony in the Imperial Palace on January 2, 2014 sometime between 9:30 am and 2:30 p.m. The gates are closed to visitors after 2:10 p.m.  The family will make several appearances. 
  • First Appearance: Around 10:10 a.m.
  • Second Appearance: Around 11:00 a.m.
  • Third Appearance: Around 11:50 a.m.
  • Fourth Appearance: Around 1:30 p.m.
  • Fifth Appearance: Around 2:20 p.m.
Crowds wave to the Imperial Family

The first and second appearances will be with the Emperor and Empress, the Crown Prince and Princess, and other adult members of the imperial family.  (By this I think they mean other members of the family of the Emperor's generation.)  The third appearance onward will also include Prince Akishino (brother of the Crown Prince) and his family, including their daughters and their son, who will one day inherit the throne. I assume that the Crown Prince's daughter will also be included in the third appearance onward.) 

Starting on the second of January, many people travel to visit relatives and friends, or more formal visits to a special teacher or mentor to ask them for their help in the new year.

First sale of the new year.  Notice the huge bags called fukabukuro
or "lucky bags."  The retailers make them big on purpose.
Stores were never open during the first three years of the new year when I was there, but recently, some department stores have been holding sales on New Year's Day.  That's quite a change in routine, but with the economy the way it is now, I can well imagine retailers feel it necessary, since so many Japanese are out and about on these days, and free to do some shopping.   Nowadays shops give out fukubukuro (福袋, lucky bags) in early January. Small outlet stores as well as big department stores give these out.  Even Mr. Donuts in Japan does it.  The bags contain a variety of the shop’s products, but you have to buy the bag in order to look at the contents. 

Two other new year activities I will talk about in a future post include New Year postcards and money envelopes given to children. :-)


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Memories of Japan: Gift-Giving Season

Today is Sunday, December 29, 2013.

There are two main gift-giving seasons in Japan.  One is at midsummer, and the other is at year end.  Both of them drove me a little crazy.  Gift-giving in Japan is so fraught with custom and expectation that it can be like a land-mine for foreigners.  My experience brought me to the point where I am seriously nervous about receiving gifts at all, even today.
Notice that she's carrying the package in
her left hand.

Since both midsummer gift season (o-chūgen お中元) and year-en gift season (oseibō お歳暮) work the same way, I'll explain both at the same time.  Midsummer gifts are given on July 15 in the Kanto area (Eastern Japan, including Tokyo, Kamakura, and Yokohama), and on August 15 in the Kansai region (Western Japan, including Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe).  Year-end gifts are given on or around December 20.  If you choose to give only one gift per  year, it is given at year end.

You always carry packages this way when you are
wearing a kimono.
These gift-giving seasons are not holidays or celebrations; rather, they're expressions of a Japanese sense of giri, or obligation.  The sense of obligation is huge in Japanese culture, a weight under which everyone lives from birth to the grave.  The Japanese like to say that these gifts are debts of gratitude, but a lot of individual Japanese, when speaking strictly for themselves, rather than for their culture, will tell you that these gifts are more of a formality than a true expression of gratitude.  The standard way they are sold, chosen, and presented illustrates how much of a formality (as opposed to an expression of the heart) they really are.  One doesn't give handmade things or items of sentimental value on these occasions.  The gifts are strictly practical, and all of them are store-bought.

Midsummer and year-end gifts are given to doctors, teachers, your boss, certain co-workers, clients, and anyone else that you feel (or "should feel") gratitude towards.  One lady told me that many doctors in Japan have one whole room in their home where they store presents like these, because they get so many.  I could well believe it.  

Two muskmelons, ¥10,000, about $95.00
As a teacher, I got a lot of presents from my private students.  Most of the gifts were things like cooking oil, dried mushrooms, dried seaweed, green tea, and selections of fruit.  One year I got two huge muskmelons.  You have to understand that melons are insanely expensive in Japan, and two huge ones must have cost the person at least 10,000 yen.  At that price (and at the exchange rate at the time), I calculated that if you cut the melon up into a certain number of bite-size pieces, it was about 50 cents per bite.  Seriously.  When I got the melons, the first thing I did was give one to my neighbor across the hall, Mrs. Tanaka.  She cut hers in half and gave half to her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Isegawa. Everybody had a few bites.  I once got a Sony Walkman from a doctor's wife; that was the most thoughtful present I ever got, and I used the heck out of it.  

Student giving teacher a monetary gift
I also got monetary gifts at midsummer and year-end, and I'm talking big money, here.  I used to haul in anywhere from $600 to $1500 from various people.  The money was always given in a special envelope.  (They don't like to handle cash, probably an idea that had its beginnings in the fact that merchants were the lowest class of people in Japan during the feudal era, and merchants are the ones who handle money the most.)

In English, we often say, "It's the thought that counts," but that's not necessarily true in Japan.  The value of the gift is important, too.  The value of midsummer and year-end gifts in Japan is supposed to be in proportion to the "debt" of gratitude you feel you (should) owe, as well as to the importance of the relationship in your life.  Gifts are generally priced anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000 yen, but the average gift costs about 3,000 yen.  (At today's exchange rate, ¥2,000 is just over $19 and ¥100,000 is just over $950.   ¥3000 would be a little under $30.  Obviously, if there's a doctor who has saved your life, you're going to give him as expensive a gift as you can afford. A business client whom you wish to impress would also get a fairly pricy gift.  During my time in Japan, I often got gifts ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 yen, but then, back then, the economy was booming.  Things are a little different now, with Japan's economy still wallowing in a long-term slump. 

I particularly appreciated gifts such as dried mushrooms and fruit.
What I got a lot of, though, was fancy soap.  I had so many bars
of soap that I never had to buy any of my own, ever.
How do you choose an appropriate gift?  Simple.  Go to any big department store and there will be an entire floor dedicated solely to midsummer or year-end gifts. If you're an American businessman who wants to impress Japanese clients, appropriate gifts include expensive cuts of beef, hothouse fruit, and alcohol such as brandy, quality whiskey and Bourbon, or a bottle of wine. (These things are all associated with foreigners.)  If you go to a Japanese department store, all you have to do is pick a gift in a given price range.  The store will take care of sending it for you, or they will do the wrapping so all you have to do is present the gift.  Japanese people particularly appreciate gifts from high-end department stores such as Saks and Neiman Marcus, and of course, these stores will also wrap and send gifts for you. Gift certificates are also OK.  There's a trick to the presentation, though.

This noshigami is for a midsummer gift, from someone named Yamamoto.

Noshi for gifts
On top of the gift package, the giver puts a thin paper called noshigami, decorated with a printed bow.  Actually the word noshi  (熨斗) means a ceremonial origami fold that is attached to gifts to express good wishes.  Nowadays, an image of noshi are printed right on the paper that goes around the gift.  Traditional noshi were white paper folded with a strip of dried abalone or dried meat, and considered a token of good luck. Now they seem to be red and gold, as well, and the dried fish or meat are left out.  Also, nowadays, the term noshi is generally used to mean the paper with images of a noshi and bow printed on it.   The presence of the bow comes from the fact that noshi were folded without any internal locks to keep the paper in that shape (unlike other origami designs).  Instead, a strip of paper or decorative cord was used to keep the folds in place.  The cord is called mizuhiki, usually a bundle of stiff string that is knotted in a decorative manner. Knotting a mizuhiki is an art form in itself.

The strings for mizuhiki are made of paper treated with a watery paste so that they will harden into a cord.  (The word mizu means "water.")  A dye is added to the paste to give the cords color.  Gold and silver cord is used for a high-class or quality event.  Red and white signifies a happy, good-luck event.  Black and white cord are used for funerals and burial ceremonies.  The colored cord is always tied so it is on the right and the white or silver is on the left.  

Mizuhiki knots
The way the knot is tied has meaning, too.  Musubikiri are tied tightly and not meant to be untied.  They are used for events which you wish to do once and never again, such as a wedding or a funeral.  Hanamusubi are a standard butterfly knot which can be tied and untied.  This knot is used for celebrations that occur again and again, such as birthdays and job promotions.  This is the sort of knot that is typically used for midyear and year-end gifts.  Awajimusubi are knots that are loosely wound into loops, so that if you pulled the ends of the cord, the loops would get smaller and closer together.  This knot is used to symbolize "growing together" (a business partnership or a wedding engagement), but it can also be used for get-well wishes because it involves "growing" better.

Loops are good luck symbols in Japan, because they are round, smooth, and come "full circle."  Cylindrical objects are bound with mizuhiki with one loop.  Flat packages use mizuhiki with two loops.  Wedding gifts typically have two or more loops.  For funerals, the loops are cut because there is nothing lucky about death.

Midsummer and year-end gifts are always wrapped with this noshigami paper that sometimes have a printed noshi and knot on it.  The word "o-seibo" or "o-chugen" is written above the bow, and the family name of the giver is written below the bow.

When you present a gift, you always tell the recipient that you are going to give them a gift. (Japanese people hate surprises.)  It's traditionally considered "modest" to tell the person that the gift isn't much.  A Japanese will give you an expensive and ostentatious gift, while saying, "Tsumaranai mono desu ga...," which is translated as, "This is just a trifle."

It's customary to refuse a gift a couple of times ("Oh, you shouldn't have...") but then accept with thanks.  The giver always gives the gift with both hands.  This is extremely important in Asia, even now.  The receiver always receives with both hands, as well.  Handing something to someone with one hand (even a business card) is considered inexcusably rude.  

Giving a gift while sitting on a tatami mat
If you are sitting on a tatami floor, you place the gift item (with both hands) on the mat directly in front of you, then slide it across the mat toward the person you are giving the gift to.  Obviously, you will not be sitting very far from the person when you do this, so there won't be any need to slide it all the way across the room.  You bow as you are sliding the gift toward the recipient.  The other person bows back but makes no move to receive the gift until it has been offered three times.  After that, the recipient pulls the package toward him/herself while thanking the giver profusely. The recipient then slides it to one side, using both hands, and the gift generally never leaves the mat.

Gift tied up in a traditional furoshiki
wrapping cloth
Japanese don't normally open a gift in front of the giver, but they will make an exception for foreigners, especially if you insist.  If it was o-chūgen or oseibō I never insisted.  If it was a birthday present, I sometimes exercised my right as a foreigner to be eccentric and asked them to open it right away.

The part about midsummer and year-end gifts that drove me crazy was trying to figure out how much I should spend based not so much on what I thought of the relationship, but what they thought, or what their expectation was.  As you may know if you have interacted for any length of time in a foreign culture, violating people's expectations is dicey business.  

The other thing that unnerved me was when I would get a particularly expensive or ostentatious gift from someone when it wasn't strictly warranted, which meant only one thing: they were planning to ask me for a favor soon, and they never seemed to forget this.  There was always a favor asked, and it was always inconvenient for me to grant it, which is why they gave me such a grandiose gift in the first place.  This happened so many times that I am now extremely sensitive to gifts given "for no reason" or gifts that seem over and above the norm.

Until the 1990s, gift-giving was still a huge part of the Japanese culture, but nowadays, it appears from checking around the web that oseibō gifts are no longer considered obligatory.  I hear that many Japanese under the age of 50 have never given or received an oseibō gift in their lives.  The younger set, especially in urban areas, seem to think that this is a custom that their parents do, but that it doesn't apply to their generation, or they think that their relatives in the country do this, but the citified folk don't.  It's true that the obligation part has begun to seem rather burdensome, and even 40 years ago, individuals used to complain a bit.  ("Just between you and me...") 

Furoshiki wrapping cloth tied "butterfly style"
In addition, the economy has tanked, and changing corporate norms have had an impact on the custom, as well.  Particularly for companies who deal with foreign firms, the exchange of gifts can sometimes be misinterpreted as a form of brown-nosing.  Tightened expense accounts have also had the effect of limiting purchases.  Many Japanese companies simply give calendars or datebooks, much like companies do in the West.

As well, technology has changed gift-giving customs.  Many people now order online from their computers or cell phones, and leave the delivery to the store.  It's no longer the thing to buy gifts in person, have them wrapped traditionally, then take them home and tie them up in a furoshiki (traditional carrying cloth), dress up in your best clothes (preferably kimono) and hand-deliver the gifts.  

There are other times when gifts are given in Japan, but I will leave these for another post. :-)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Memories of Japan: Joya no Kane: Ringing of the Temple Bells at Midnight

Temple bell at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto,
a Zen Buddhist temple.
Today is Saturday, December 28, 2013.

Assuming you have cleaned your house thoroughly, made all your New Year's food and enjoyed watching the Red and White Song Contest on TV with your family, the next thing you know, it's midnight on New Years' Eve (Ōmisoka), and if there is a Buddhist temple anywhere nearby, you can hear them ringing the temple bells.  This is called joya-no-kane and it remains to this day one of my very favorite customs.  

I should stop and make sure everybody is on the same page:  although the state religion – and the original religion – of Japan is Shintō, Buddhism came to Japan from India, via China and Korea in A.D. 538. The two religions coexist more or less peacefully in Japan, and many Japanese will tell you that they are not really one or the other, although their family may prefer one over the other.  To distinguish between Buddhism and Shintō, you should know that temples are Buddhst and shrines are Shintō.  Buddhist temples tend to be plain unpainted wooden buildings, and some of the older shrines are also rather plain, but Shintō shrines also tend to have buildings that are brightly painted with a distinctive orange-red color.

Bell at Mii-dera (also known as Onjōji in Ōtsu city,
near Kyoto, one of the four largest temples
in Japan. 
There really was a man named Siddhartha Gautama in India, and it is his teachings that Buddhism is based on.  Gautama was given the spiritual title of Buddha (awakened one).  The type of Buddhism in Japan is Mahayana, and there are various sects of this type of Buddhism, notably Zen, which was originally practiced in China.  Rather than focusing on the worship of God, Buddhism provides its followers with a way of living and dealing with the problems of life, plus a way to end suffering by attaining enlightenment. Technically, then, every follower of Buddhism has as his or her goal to become just like the Buddha.

Monk ringing the bell at Jindaiji, the second-oldest
temple in Tokyo.
Shintō, by contrast, is a very old, indigenous spirituality founded in 660 B.C.  It is not a "religion," per se, but rather a mix of folklore, history and mythology.  Some of the practices that are followed today originated in the Nara and Heian Periods of Japanese history (710-794 and 794-1185, respectively).  Followers of Shintō worship kami, which can be translated into English as "spirits", "essences" or "deities."  Some kami are human-like, while others are spirits of animals, elements of nature (grass, trees, rocks, etc.) or forces such as waves, wind and lightning.  Shintō practices generally have to do with ritual purification, protection from evil, and praying for good fortune or a good rice harvest.

For most Japanese, even if the family prefers one or the other, ceremonies and rituals having to do with birth and marriage are handled by Shintō shrines, while funerals and other customs involving death are handled by Buddhist temples.  

OK, back to New Year's Eve.  At the stroke of midnight, the Buddhist temples start to ring their bells 108 times.  This practice takes hours, because various sutras are recited by the priests before each ring.  Here is a list of the 108 "defilements" of Buddhism.  These are not so much "sins" as they are behaviors that increase suffering in the world.

Abuse; aggression; ambition; anger; arrogance; baseness; blasphemy; calculation; callousness; capriciousness (unaccountable changes of mood or behavior); censoriousness (being severely critical of others); conceitedness; contempt; cruelty; cursing; debasement (of others); deceit; deception; delusion; derision; desire for fame; dipsomania (alcoholism characterized by intermittent bouts of craving); discord; disrespect; disrespectfulness (general behavior); dissatisfaction; dogmatism; dominance; eagerness for power; effrontery (insolent or impertinent behavior); egoism; enviousness; envy; excessiveness (excessive behavior); faithlessness; falseness; furtiveness; gambling; garrulity (tediously talking about trivial matters); gluttony; greed (in general); greed for money; (holding a) grudge; hard-heartedness; hatred; haughtiness; high-handedness; hostility; humiliation; hurting others; hypocrisy; ignorance; imperiousness (assuming power or authority without justification); imposture (pretending to be someone else in order to deceive); impudence; inattentiveness; indifference; ingratitude; insatiability; insidiousness; intolerance; intransigence (being unwilling or refusing to change one's views or to agree about something); irresponsibility; jealousy; being a know-it-all; lack of comprehension; lecherousness; lying; malignancy; manipulation; masochism; mercilessness; negativity; obsession; obstinacy; oppression; ostentatiousness; pessimism; prejudice; presumption; pretense; pride; prodigality (spending money or using resources freely and recklessly); quarrelsomeness; rage; rapacity (being aggressively greedy or grasping); ridicule; sadism; sarcasm; seducement (seduction of others); self-denial; self-hatred; sexual lust; shamelessness; stinginess; stubbornness; torment; tyranny; unkindness; unruliness; unyielding; vanity; vindictiveness; violence; violent temper; voluptuousness;  and wrath.

Whew!  And you thought your church had a long list!  Forget it!  The Buddhists have everybody else beat, six ways from Sunday.   I really liked the thought that each time the bell was rung, one of our "defilements" was being washed away so that we could start fresh in the New Year.  

Typical freestanding housing for a temple bell.
There are a number of temples both large and small where the public is invited to help the priests ring the bells, usually for a small fee, anywhere from 10 yen to 500 yen per person. In many temples, you have to go ahead of time and "reserve" a spot.  Other temples don't take reservations, so you have to be there by 11:45 at the latest for the start of the service.   The priests generally start chanting at 11:45.  If a bell is rung once every 2 minutes, which is pretty fast, it still takes at least 3 to 4 hours for the whole exercise, and if you are required to be there by 11:45 at the latest, that means you may not be done until nearly 4 a.m.   Or later, depending on the temple.   Obviously, if you decide to go to a temple on New Year's Eve, you will not be able to sit around at home and watch the Red and White Song Contest.  Or, you might be able to watch the first part of it, but then you have to get going, because the trains will be pretty crowded.

I believe that any type or size of bell may be rung, but the temple bells in Japan are especially amazing. Called bonshō, they are huge, made of brass, and suspended from the ceiling on ropes.  Some are 6 to 12 feet in height.  The largest weights 70 tons.  Bells are housed in a separate structure on the temple grounds, and in order to ring them, there is a large log, also suspended from the ceiling on ropes, that works like a battering ram.  The log has a protective cover on the end that strikes the bell, and you can swing it from ropes that drop to the ground.  The bells have the deepest, most beautiful sound, and the vibrations can be felt at close range.  With the emphasis on purification at the new year, the sound of the bells has always been a very "clean" sound for me.   Because the tone of the bells is so low, the sound carries, and can be heard up to 20 miles away on a clear day.  That means that if you live anywhere near a temple, all you have to do is open your window to hear them clearly on New Year's Eve.
It's sometimes hard to understand just how large these
bells are, but this picture gives a pretty good idea.
Normally, the bells are rung in the morning and in the evening, usually 18 or 36 times, and on New Year's Eve, 108 times.  Some of these bells were made in the Nara Period (710-794) but during the Meiji Restoration, when the political power of the shōguns was broken and power returned to the Emperor, there was an anti-Buddhist period in which some 40,000 bells were melted down between 1868 and 1871.  (This was when Shintō was declared the state "religion.")  Metal shortages during World War II also contributed to the demise of some temple bells.  

As you can see, it takes several people to ring the temple bell at
Chion-in Temple. This is the largest temple bell in Japan.

The biggest temple bell in Japan is at Chion-in Temple in Kyoto.  The bell was made in 1636 and weighs 70 tons.  It is 3.3 meters (nearly 11 feet) tall.   The oldest temple bell in Japan is at Myōshinji Temple in Kyoto, made in the year 698.

One of my prized possessions from Japan,
a Kamakura-bori box.

Kamakura-bori bowl and tray

I no longer remember the name of the small Buddhist temple I went to in Kamakura with friends one New Year's Eve.  We stayed in a ryōkan (family-owned inn) and roamed the main street on New Year's Eve until it was time to show up at the temple.  All the stores were open, and we knew the young people were having a bonfire on the beach along the coast of Sagami Bay.  We bought daruma dolls with no eyes, so that we could make a New Year's resolution and paint in one eye with black ink, then save the doll until the resolution was accomplished, after which we could paint the other eye in. 

Daruma dolls for sale in all sizes.
 Kamakura has a lot of shops that sell wooden bowls and utensils called Kamakura-bori.  Made with light balsa wood, the bowls, trays, rice spatulas, decorative boxes and other items are carved, then painted with layers of red and black lacquer.  They are stunning, but incredibly expensive, so I was only able to afford a couple of pieces while I was in Japan, and not all at once! 

Someone's collection of omamori (good luck charms) from
various temples and shrines in Japan.

Japanese temples have fires going, and there is a sand pit where incense sticks can be burned.  (You buy the sticks in a little gift shop.)  You wave the smoke from the incense sticks to your head if you want to be smart, to your heart if you want a boyfriend or girlfriend, or maybe to your private parts if you want to have a baby.  Various temples also sell good luck charms and amulets of various types, called omamori.  Each temple sells something unique.  I bought two sweet-smelling brocade pouches filled with some kind of incense that still smells great over 30 years later.  I also bought a little rock that had been delicately painted with a smiling face, and a couple of assorted key chains with good-luck charms attached, encased in clear plastic.  (I was told not to open the plastic envelope, as the actual charm was a small, folded piece of paper, inside the brocade cover, on which a priest had written some blessing.)   

Large sticks of burning incense at a temple

You stand near the incense burner and wave the smoke
where you want it to go.
 Our place in line to ring the bell was somewhere in the middle, like 43 or 52, and we didn't start ringing until about 3 a.m.  The priests had to sing some sort of chant, then we were told when to ring the bell.  There were about five of us. We all grabbed part of the rope and gave the hammer/log a test swing.  Then we counted 1...2...3 and hit the bell hard.  The sound nearly knocked us off our feet.  Chills went up my back as the bell reverberated for at least a minute afterward.

Here is a really great little animation that shows how the temple bell is rung, and allows you to hear what temple bells sound like, in general.  Some bells have an even deeper sound than this.  (Be sure to turn your sound on!)

My little collection of temple bells, to remind me of
the sound of Joya no Kane
 Once back at the ryōkan, we took our bath and gratefully settled down in our futon beds, which were all laid out for us before our return.   In the morning, the housewife shouted "Happy New Year" to us and told us that breakfast was ready.  I shouted "Happy New Year" back and told them we would be down shortly.  :-)