Japan and the Chinese Calendar

Japan and the Chinese calendarAkemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy New Year! And welcome to the year of the rat. If you were born in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, you were born in the year of the rat on the Chinese calendar. The Japanese also use the Chinese animal zodiac, so right now in Japan, people are preparing for the year of the rat. What kind of a year will it be?

Rats are known for being very industrious and hard-working, so rat people tend to be successful. In addition, rat years are seen to predict successful years for the economy so we should see a rise in stocks.

Most businesses will have a rat displayed somewhere in their company or shop and many people will have a scroll hanging in their displaying a rat drawing. If you are travelling in Japan this year, you will find lots of rat souvenirs to commemorate your trip. Rats will be on everything from key chains to stationary letterheads.

The word for rat in Japanese is “nezumi,” which is the same word for mouse. To Japanese, a mouse and a rat are the same, just different in size. As a result, in English “the year of the mouse” is also correct.

At the New Year, many most Japanese people will send out New Year’s cards (see photo) which contain greetings for the year. These are sent to family, friends, and business relations. The cards this year will surely feature a rat or mouse on them and you may find that Mickey Mouse to be a very popular characters on this year’s cards.

When speaking with Japanese people, it is very important to know which animal year you were born in, as they believe your personality is determined by that animal. Also, it is easy to guess someone’s age if they know which animal you are since the animal cycle starts over every 12 years.

Animal signs are a great topic of conversation when around Japanese people. You’ll be sure to learn a lot of things you didn’t know about the other’s personality.

Find out your animal sign on the Chinese zodiac at:http://chinese.astrology.com/profiles.html

Find out more personality traits of those born in the year of the rat at: http://www.c-c-c.org/chineseculture/zodiac/Rat.html

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Christmas Illuminations

Christmas IlluminationsChristmas is celebrated in Japan with pretty decorations and sparkling lights. And lots of them. Large displays of lights, called “Illuminations” are found throughout Japan in small cities as well as the larger ones. The larger cities bring in well-known designers from around the world to create original displays. Don’t pass up these displays if you are traveling Japan during the Christmas holidays.

Local displays

Most small cities have a rather extensive show of lights on the main boulevard. In the Western Japan city of Okayama (population 600,000) for example, the annual “Okayama Fantasy” features light displays up and down Momotaro-dori, the central road leading from Okayama train station to Okayama Castle. And I’m not talking strings of little twinkly lights; these are very large displays reflecting a modern techno-Christmas atmosphere. For example, an abstract “Christmas tree” could also be a candy gum drop, depending on the angle you view it from. Small cities will start their light displays in November and some may leave them up through the end of January.

In December in Hakata (Fukuoka), Kyushu, see the “Dancing Water Show” at Sun Plaza Stage, complete with snow and reindeer (pictured). The Christmas tree display, called “Chandelier of the forest,” is an environmentally friendly display that uses LED Christmas lights.

Sapporo White Illumination Nov 17 – Feb 12th

For 27 years Sapporo has offered this illumination of winter snow in front of Sapporo station and also in Odori Park.http://www.sweb.co.jp/kanko/white/ (Japanese only)

Tokyo (December, through Christmas Day)

Tokyo offers illuminations in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi Hills, Marunouchi, Ebisu, and Odaiba. In the Ginza district, Christmas trees line the street and most stores have a Christmas display in their window.http://www.roppongihills.com/en/monthly_event/2007_12.html

Kobe “Luminarie”, From Dec. 6

This is perhaps the biggest illumination in all of Japan, and is very well-known. Kobe Luminarie was started in commemoration of the Kobe earthquake in 1995. The earthquake was in January, but to get the most out of the Christmas influence, the event is held in December every year. http://www.kobe-luminarie.jp/

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Japanese Christmas

Japanese ChristmasThe most common question I get about Japan during December is: Do the Japanese celebrate Christmas? The answer is “Yes and no.” The Japanese, who love anything sparkly with lights, could not resist importing Christmas. But since Japan is a Buddhist country and Christmas has no religious meaning to them, they imported only the fun parts. Almost everyone has a small, desktop plastic Christmas tree in their house which they often put in an out-of-the-way place such as on top of the refrigerator. The stores all have Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. Some cities, such as Hakodate in Hokkaido will have a larger Christmas tree on display in the city center (pictured).

Santa definitely comes to children’s’ houses, but through their bedroom window, and he leaves the present (yes, just one!) underneath the child’s pillow. So if you are used to getting lots of gifts at Christmas, you might want to avoid Japan at Christmas time!

Christmas in Japan has also developed into a romantic holiday for couples, a sort of Valentine’s Day in December. So on Christmas Eve, couples will go to a nice restaurant for dinner and may exchange Christmas gifts. But be warned, “Christmas Dinner,” which every restaurant will advertise, does not mean traditional Christmas food such as turkey, stuffing, ham, etc as you might eat at home with your family. Christmas Dinner merely means dinner at Christmas time.

Christmas Day is not a holiday in Japan, and westerners who live and work here will be expected to work on Christmas.

The Japanese have another unusual Christmas tradition: eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is the biggest day of the year for KFC in Japan, as everyone orders buckets of chicken to eat at home with the family on Christmas. Christmas cakes are also popular. Not fruitcakes, but round, two-layered, store-bought cakes with chocolate or white icing and Santas gracing the top. From this tradition comes a rather unflattering saying in Japanese about older women: “She’s Christmas Cake.” This means the girl is older than 25, and is no longer of desirable marrying age, as the 25th day of December is the expiration date for Christmas cake. This expression is dated, however, and not often heard anymore.

The most similar Japanese holiday to Christmas is New Year’s. New Year’s is a serious holiday in Japan in which all family members get together from far and wide and eat traditional New Year’s foods that are only eaten at this time of year. There are also traditional New Year’s decorations. There are no big New Year’s parties nor count downs like we have in the West.

In short, Christmas in Japan is more like New Year’s is to us, just a fun holiday.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Hands-on Japan

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREWhen you think of Japan , many different images may arise: sushi, anime, manga, Zen, etc. When you visit Japan, however, don’t just see these things, experience them! Over the past decade, Japan has become much more hands-on, offering visitors a much truer Japanese experience. You can now learn Zazen meditation at a Zen temple in Kyoto, as well as learn the secrets to Japanese flower arrangement, tea ceremony and calligraphy writing. And, you can do them in their natural environment. Learn the Japanese arts not in a school, but in a temple in Kyoto that is part of the Myoshinji Zen Temple complex among one of Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites.

Why buy Japanese souvenirs in a gift shop, when you can make them yourself? Learn Japanese crafts such as woodworking, indigo dying and traditional weaving in an artist’s retreat in the mountains of rural Okayama Prefecture. The “Arts and Crafts Village” is set in an old wooden school house is the perfect place to spend a few days experiencing Japanese craft-making straight from the Japanese masters themselves.

Experience Japanese anime and manga first-hand from Akibanana’s otaku guides. Patrick Galbarith, a professional otaku gives walking tours of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, including the Tokyo Anime Center, French maid cafes and vintage stores selling blow-up dolls.

If you love Japanese food, you might be interested in learning how to cook Japanese food and even how to shop for the ingredients in the markets. Elizabeth Andoh, author and local Japanese food expert gives tours and classes. Make up your own tour and decide the date, how many hours and what you’d like to learn. Email Elizabeth Andoh for more information at andoh@tasteofculture.com


Myoshinji Temple Complex

This walled-in complex is the home of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect and encompasses approximately 38 temples within, many of which offer temple accommodation and courses.

Zen meditation, Ikebana, tea ceremony and calligraphy courses:

1. Torin-in Temple in Myoshinji complex

Experience Zen vegetarian cuisine: every Tuesday and Friday, or more in-depth courses on Buddhist vegetarian cuisine June 15th to July 5th; and January 12th to 31st.

2. Taizo-in Temple in Myoshinji complex

Offers a one-day “Living in Zen” course for 7,000 yen that includes Zen meditation, flower arrangement, calligraphy and tea ceremony.

Arts and Crafts Village” in rural Okayama Prefecture.

Taste of Culture” Culinary School with courses and tours in Tokyo and Osaka.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Finding Local Festivals in Japan

If you’d like to see a festival but want to stay away from the crowds, check out Japan’s hundreds of smaller local town matsuri or festivals. Almost every town has its own spring, summer or fall festival to celebrate harvests or the local Shinto gods. The best thing about these festivals is that you can actually participate in them rather than just taking pictures from the sidelines. The fun-loving local people are friendly and will probably welcome you into their community festival to help carry the mikoshi, (portable shrine-see photo) or to try your hand at one of the festival dances. It’s a great chance to get involved with the local culture!

The question is, how do you find these festivals that no one knows about?

Luckily, these days every prefecture has a website highlighting the prefecture’s history, the local commerce, the economy and lots of other information on the population living there. The website will also show all the events in the town that year, including sight-seeing spots and local festivals.

If you will be traveling around Japan, merely do a search on the internet of the prefectures you will be traveling in to see if there will be any festivals on or near the dates you will be passing through. There is a formula for finding these prefectural websites. Once you understand how the web addresses are set up, you can find any prefecture’s website in Japan by following the same formula.

Let’s say you’ll be passing through Okayama Prefecture. The formula to find the Okayama Prefecture website is:


The first part of the address after www is pref meaning prefecture. After that is the name of the prefecture, in this case Okayama, followed by jp meaning Japan. Don’t forget to put a dot after each new piece of information. Most prefectural websites use this formula.

Try it yourself. Type in http://www.pref.nameofprefecture.jp and see what you come up with. Since the jp  at the end of the address means it is a Japanese address, you are likely to come up with a page in kanji. But click on the word English somewhere in the top of the menu to get to the English version of the website. Simple!

If you want to go beyond the prefectural level to the smaller town websites within that prefecture, try a different formula. Let’s say you are going to Hamada city in Shimane Prefecture. Try the following formula (but be warned that this doesn’t always work):


The first part of the address after www is  city. After that is the name of the city, in this case Hamada, followed by prefecture name, in this case Shimane, and jp. Don’t forget to put a dot after each new piece of information. If you can’t find an English link from here, try adding slash / or english to the end of the address as in: http://www.city.hamada.shimane.jp/en/

Be warned, however, that this city/town formula doesn’t always work. If not, you’ll have to do a search on the internet. To find the English page of a city or town, search the city or town name, plus the words  international center or  international exchange association. Many towns have an international organization that caters to foreigners living in that area, and they will have a website in English with all the information on local events.

Have fun matsuri planning for your next trip to Japan!

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Autumn Festivals in Japan

Autumn Festivals in JapanIt may not be cherry blossom season, nor summer when all the Bon festivals are on, but Autumn brings with it i’s own special event: the Aki Matsuri, or Autumn festival. Autumn festivals are held throughout Japan, most celebrated to either pray for a good harvest or to celebrate the local Shinto gods.

In October, the weather is cool and it’s the perfect time to be outside all day long. Which is good, because most of these festivals start at 8:00 am, along with a toast of sake to the gods. It’s a great way to start the day! And it’s a great day to see the Japanese at their best having fun. Photo opportunities abound.

Here are some of the biggest and Autumn festivals in Japan:

Oct. 4-6 Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri (Lantern Festival)

One of the three largest lantern festivals in Japan (the others being Akita and Aichi), this festival is held in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture. Seven floats with 350 lanterns each are paraded through the town at nighttime ending at Nihonmatsu Shrine. The procession is accompanied by festival music.

Takayama Autumn Festival Oct. 9-10

Takayama in Gifu prefecture is always a popular site for tourists, and the Autumn festival is an exciting time to visit. It starts with a ceremony at Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine. After the ceremony, a procession of 11 festival floats, or mikoshi, are pulled through town. The floats are lit with paper lanterns at night. On Sunday is a marionette performance for the gods. The main mikoshi hosting the main God, is makes visits to all the houses in town. Accompanied by traditional Shinto music.

Nada Kenka Matsuri Oct. 14-15

Held in Shirahama-cho in the city of Himeji in Hyogo prefecture, this festival is a loud and raucous one! Large shrines over 4 tons each carried by up to 50 men, fight and clash against each other in a show of bravery to please the Hachiman god, seen by many as the God of War. This festival is so harsh, sometimes participants get injured or killed.

Kyoto Jidai Matsuri (festival of ages) Oct. 22

To celebrate the founding of the Kyoto capital of Japan on this date in 794, the Kyoto Jidai Matsuri has been celebrated ever since. Over 2,000 people wearing costumes of the nobility as well as commoners of the time, take part in this procession which moves from Heian-jingu shrine to the Imperial Palace and back at the end of the day.

If you’d rather stay away from the big crowds, and if you’d like to participate yourself in one of these festivals rather than just observing, then you’ll be interested in the smaller local town festivals, which can be found all over Japan.

Stay tuned for the next article on friendly local Autumn festivals.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Moon Viewing in Japan

Moon Viewing in JapanIf you are in Japan Sept. 23rd-25th then you are in for a real treat. Perhaps in your home country the Autumn Equinox passes by barely noticed. But in Japan, this day in September with equal lengths of day and night, is cause for celebration. The Autumn Equinox is a national holiday and in parks all over Japan people will gather for moon viewing, an activity called “o-tsukimi.� In the Heian period (794-1192), courtesans would write poetry under the moon, but nowadays most people stake out a patch of grass, spread out a cloth and eat sweets and drink tea or sake while watching the moon. Where I live, this is the only day of the year the botanical park is open at night and people are allowed to sit on the grass. A very special occasion indeed.

Moon-viewing is not limited to the spring and autumn equinoxes although these are the most popular times of year for organized moon-viewing events. The autumnal equinox (Harvest Moon) probably originated as a time to pray for a bountiful harvest. But the spring and autumn equinoxes (both national holidays) are also related to Buddhist tradition. O-higan refers to the 7 days surrounding each equinox, and are a time when Japanese people visit the graves of their relatives. This differs from O-bon (the festival of the dead) in August, a traditional time for family members to return to their ancestral homes to honor the dead, mainly because at O-bon the spirits also return to the ancestral home for the reunion. During O-higan, the family merely visits the graves, leaving flowers and beautifying the area around the grave.

Wherever you happen to be in Japan at this time, there are surely going to be moon-viewing events or those celebrating the Autumn Equinox. Traditional Japanese events such as tea ceremonies, ikebana exhibits and Shakuhachi, or other live performances, abound. So grab a piece of grass, get some snacks and sake, and pray it doesn’t rain!

The “Tsukimi” Festival in Sakai, Osaka has been celebrated for over 300 years.

The pond at Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto is one of the most famous spots for moon-viewing in Japan. There are moon-viewing parties here on the night of the Harvest Moon.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

“Fire Flower” Festivals

Fire Flower FestivalsThe hot Japanese summer is the perfect time for something even hotter: fireworks. Where in the U.S. and Australia buying fireworks is either illegal or strongly discouraged, in Japan you can buy your fireworks at the convenience store. All summer long you’ll see Japanese of all ages setting off fireworks in any open space from a vacant parking lot to larger displays with family and friends on the beach. In Japan, as in many countries in Asia, summer just wouldn’t be the same without fireworks. So go ahead, let out your inner child that never got to play with fire! This is your chance to BE JAPANESE.

In addition, the Japanese summer includes numerous fireworks festivals. Every town has one and for this event, the streets are closed down in order to accommodate the throngs of people, most donned in festival wear and who enjoy eating and drinking from the food stalls lining the streets. Absolutely everyone is carrying a fan to help fend off the summer heat. It’s a great chance to see the young Japanese girls dressed up in their colorful summer kimonos, themselves looking like “fire flowers “  the literal translation of  hanabi, or fireworks, in Japanese.

Fireworks festivals are usually held on weekends and each city or town boasts the popularity of their festival according to how many fireworks are set off, which can be anywhere from 5,00 to over 20,000. The fireworks are usually set off over water: rivers or the sea as these are usually public areas with enough space to accommodate all the people. Feel free to walk around with a beer in your hand and buy some typical Japanese festival fare from the street vendors: fried octopus balls, squid on a stick, or corn on the cob dunked in soy sauce.

The biggest fireworks festivals tend to be the most popular, but don’t discount the small town festivals where you can truly join in with the locals in the fun. Every town is proud of their fireworks display, no matter how small it may be. Where I live, they boast Japan’s smallest fireworks festival! The point is that we have one.

Most fireworks at the festivals are sponsored by local businesses. So at the larger festivals you may find the fireworks display pauses to announce sponsors every few minutes. But the reward is that each business competes to sponsor the best, most impressive firework of the whole show. Expect to see fireworks in shapes of flowers, animals and even a smiley face (pictured).

You’re guaranteed to go away impressed.

  • Informap JAPAN offers a guide to the biggest and greatest fireworks festivals in the country 
  • Even Miyajima has a fireworks festival, using its famous Itsukushima Torii gate as a background. See a video of the display at Get Hiroshima?  

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Japanese Clothes: All Hail Tradition And Obi

Japanese Clothes All Hail Tradition And ObiIf you spend any time at all on the Tokyo subway (and surely you will), you will quickly conclude that the major difference between Japanese clothes and clothes in the United States or Europe is. . . well, that there is no difference. Except that cell phones tend to be accessories like belts rather than tools to communicate. But we digress.

Hyper-trendy Japanese women once viewed traditional clothing like kimonos with disdain. So much work, so old-fashioned, so sexist. Now the story goes more like: price is no object — I want my kimono and I want it now. Younger women are embracing the kimono (or yukata — we hear the magazines are already showing the best accessories for today’s yukata wearer ) with a renewed fervor. And the industry is responding with the high-end merchandise today’s discerning shopper needs:

A brand-new kimono, and the long list of accessories that goes with it, is still prohibitively expensive, costing thousands, even tens of thousands, of pounds. But a thriving market in antique cast-offs, available for as little as a few pounds, is now serving students and younger working women. Buyers mix and match their kimonos with obi belts, shoes and split-toe socks.

Let us all pause for a moment to savor the notion of scrounging through thrift stores for classic kimonos.

And where the women go, the men must follow. Though Japanese clothes weren’t always gender-specific (we recall the period before 300 AD), kimonos and their relatives are tailored for men, women, and children. We imagine it’s only a matter of time before trendy young male kimono-otaku embrace this trend. We hope they’ll expand beyond the traditional dark, plain colors into new shades.

It should be noted that the kimono started simple and, with the introduction of silk and dying techniques, evolved into a high art form during the Heian period (word is this the period favored by the Imperial family for their formal dress). Planet Tokyo prefers the simpler, all-purpose outfits that marked the Edo period (though there is a die-hard hakama — elaborately pleated pants worn over kimono — fan in the building). Fewer layers, better technology.

And, of course, for that one creature who has everything, we’ve found a place in Tokyo that sells cute little outfits for your cats. Who, we’re sure, will greet your generous gift with the same level of enthusiasm they greet a trip to the vet.

Bon Dances

Bon DancesThe Obon period, from Aug. 13-15 is one of the most exciting times to visit Japan. O-bon, or the Festival of the Dead, is the time of year Japanese people worship their ancestors, and everyone and their dog returns to their ancestral home to pray, take care of the family graves, and dance the Bon dance. As this is a nationwide holiday, trains, busses and ferries will be crowded, so be sure to make reservations ahead of time. Although it can be a tough time to travel, it’s worth it once you get to your destination as you will see some very traditional festivals all around Japan.

Almost every area has its own Bon dance, a dance to worship the dead. These dances are about 500 years old and all the people of a particular area will be familiar with and know how to dance their local Bon dance. The good thing is that foreigners are usually welcome to join in and try their hand at the dances, which are danced frequently over the Bon holiday and often go on for hours.

Most Bon dances start in the evening, around sunset and can continue into the wee hours of the night. One good example is the Awa Odori in Tokushima City, on the island of Shikoku. The dance takes place in the streets of the city, and various groups perform around the city. With over one million participants, it is the largest Bon Dance in Japan. Most of the dancers are drinking and living it up. After all, it only happens once a year, and some communities and schools practice all year long for the dance.

Another well-known Bon dance is the Shiraishi Bon Odori, on Shiraishi Island in Okayama prefecture (pictured), which recently gained the honor of becoming one of Japan’s important intangible cultural assets. This dance tells the story of the Battle of the Heike and Genji in the Seto Inland Sea in 1185. The Shiraishi Odori is danced to calm the spirits of those who died in the battle, many of whom were washed up on the shores of this island. It starts at sunset and is danced on the beach with the dancers in full costume.

The last night of Obon is called Toronagashi, in which the spirits are sent back to where they came from. This can be done in several ways, but the most beautiful is the setting off of lanterns (or candles) in the seas and rivers, each one representing one of the parting souls. This signals the end of Obon.

Here’s a video of the Bon dance held every year at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo:


    • Invitation to Bon dancing: The English on this site is not perfect, but it has a guide to over a dozen Bon dances in Japan, including the Awa Odori and the Shiraishi Odori

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com