Japan Outpost Extra: Winter

No one will disagree that the biggest event by far during winter in Japan is the New Year. Unlike in China, we celebrate the New Year on the normal calendar, not on the lunar calendar. There are so many things we do customarily towards the end of the year and the New Year, and many of you might know quite a few of them already, as they are talked about a lot on many occasions, such as Osechi ryori (おせち料理: special food we prepare for the New Year day), and Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば: buckwheat noodles we eat on New Year Eve).

In this article, I’d like to talk about Kakizome (書初め), which might be less well-known. Kakizome means writing in calligraphy for the first time in the year, and usually, one is supposed to do so on January 2nd, but it is not that strict. At schools, pupils often do Kakizome in their first calligraphy class in the year in January. At some schools, a Kakizome competition might be held, in which a large number of pupils do Kakizome in a school gym together (see the photo), and the best ones are awarded prizes. In both cases, phrases are given in a calligraphy copybook, and pupils try their best to imitate them as closely as possible, and that’s how we learn. Once you are an adult, you can write any phrase you like, and many people choose this occasion to write their New Year resolution in a short phrase. For Kakizome, we tend to use a longer paper than usual, and it is usually about a metre long. So the phrases we write are also a longer than usual. If we are writing a phrase that consists of only Kanji, the phrases for Kakizome could be about 4 to 6 Kanji characters, compared to two characters for usual phrases. Naturally, it’s much harder! As you can see in the photo, you need to place the paper on the floor, and you need to move along the paper to keep on writing a long phrase. I do remember as a primary school pupil that it was very challenging to do so, but also it gave me a sense of accomplishment and the excitement that we were doing something very important and special at the beginning of the year.

Kakizome Competition
Writing Kakizome

Once done, everybody’s Kakizome work will be usually posted on the back wall of the classroom for a while (see the photo), until the day comes when we burn them in a special ceremonial event, called Sagicho (左義長) or Dondo-yaki (どんど焼き). (The name may vary depending on the region.) It is usually on January 15th or around then. Traditionally, it is done in a rice field after the rice is harvested, but at schools, it is done at the school ground. Three or four long bamboos are assembled to create a pyramid-like shape, then all the Kakizome works, together with the Shimenawa and Kadomatsu (let’s just say for now that they are the traditional ornaments that decorate the house for the New Year to invite ancestors’ spirits) are piled up together and burned. It is much like a large bonfire people make for Guy Fawkes night here. We bake Omochi or Odango (they are gooey food made of rice) on the fire, instead of melting marshmallows! I remember watching the powerful fire burning everything up, and at the same time desperately looking for my Kakizome work, because they say that if the ash or a piece of your work flies up high with the force of the fire, your calligraphy skill will improve. And yes, I believed it! On a cold January day, with only my face being hot and my back being cold, I remember watching the fire intensely and with a slight feeling of sadness, as Dondo-yaki marked the end of Oshogatsu (お正月:The New Year), and things would go back to normal after that.

Burning Kakizome works in Dondo-yaki
The soaring flames of the Dondo-yaki


Japan Outpost Extra: Autumn — Undoukai

We have a saying that goes, “暑さ寒さも彼岸まで (Atsusa samusa mo higan made) “, which means that even the most persistent heat or chilly air will subside around Autumn or Spring Equinox. In other words, until around Sept. 20th when the Autumn Equinox comes, the heat of summer lingers on. So imagine, once at last it cools down towards the end of September, how refreshing it feels! We can start sleeping better, and our appetite picks up. We feel like going on a trip, catching up on reading on long nights, or engaging in rigorous exercises.
We have plenty of phrases to describe these changes in Autumn: 食欲の秋 (shokuyoku no aki: Autumn for enjoying food!); スポーツの秋 (supoutsu no aki: Autumn for sports!); 読書の秋(dokusho no aki: Autumn for reading!); 芸術の秋 (geijyutsu no aki: Autumn for appreciating art!), to name a few.
To reflect this, in schools, there is an athletic meeting day (秋の運動会: aki no undoukai). This is a big day when a whole family will come to see their children’s performance. Not only the usual 100m and 200m races and relays, there are many other shows, such as dancing, and other entertainments. For this day, pupils and students practice very hard. As soon as the second term starts on Sept. 1st, many hours will be spent practicing. When I was a child, it was never a fun activity. I remember how hard we had to practice marching. It was just like a military drill! I think I can still march meticulously in five columns!
Another difficult exercise was 組体操 (kumi taisou: coordinated group gymnastics). For this, at each whistle, students climb up on each other like building blocks until the final figure is completed (probably the photos will explain better!). When we managed to complete the last figure, there was huge applause, and we did feel a strong sense of accomplishment. Yes, the hard work had paid off.

Look up!

Can't hold anymore!

But it was not just the hard training I remember about the undokai. I remember very well that I was excited to find my mother’s face in the crowd when we broke for picnic lunch, and how sweet and juicy a 梨 (Nashi: a Japanese pear; it ripens around early September) she peeled for me tasted.
Once an athletic meeting is over, there will be a 文化祭 (bunkasai: Cultural festival) at a later date, usually around mid to late October, mainly for high schools and universities. At universities, it is called 大学祭 (daigakusai: University festival), or 学園祭 (gakuensai) and can be extremely elaborate. Besides many food and shop stalls, which are run by students and various students’ Societies and clubs, there are often concerts and recitals by famous musicians, comedians, and performers. Because of the huge number of visitors, often famous food companies hold stalls at these festivals for promotional purposes. Recently, they have started 学園祭グランプリ(gakuensai grand prix) to decide the best gakuensai among all the universities in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, so it’s a serious business! Many people check the schedule of gakuensai’s and try to do “gakuensai-hopping”. This is one way of enjoying Tokyo’s Autumn. Would you like to try that next time?

NB: Recently, there have been a few serious accidents in kumitaiso, so a number of schools decided to stop doing it altogether, or to limit the number of layers.

Japan Outpost Extra: Summer — KoKo Yakyu

Have you ever been to Japan during summer? If you have, I’m sure you’d agree that it is unbearably hot and humid! Someone like me who is not athletic can’t even think about moving in the heat. However, one of the most popular sports events in Japan takes place during this mercilessly hot season. It is高校野球 (Koko Yakyu; the baseball tournament for high schools). The proper name is 全国高等学校野球選手権大会 (zenkoku kotogakkou yakyu senshuken taikai! Wow, that’s a mouthful.) It started in 1915, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of Koko Yakyu. The Koshien stadium (甲子園球場), the only stadium used for this tournament, was completed in 1924, nine years after the tournament started.

There are spring and summer tournaments, but the one in summer is by far the more exciting one, because the participating schools need to win through the Prefectural tournament. Only one school per prefecture is allowed (although, for Tokyo and Hokkaido, 2 schools are allowed due to the large number of schools). The tournament usually starts on August 8th, and continues for 2 weeks. When it starts every summer, it is just like Wimbledon; you cannot help noticing that it has started, as it is always on TV whenever you turn it on! And again, just like Wimbledon, when it finally comes to an end with the excitement of the final game, it feels so sad. From the next day, the TV feels like it’s missing something very important.

In Japan, I think it’s safe to say that the most popular sport of all is baseball, not football. So many boys join a baseball club/team during junior high and high school. For those, the Koshien stadium is a dream; only the best teams who survived the Prefectural tournament can participate in Koko Yakyu at the stadium. During the summer tournament, once you lose, you need to go. So, you will often see the team members of the losing team collecting the soil from the baseball field, crying heavily. It is very moving. The boys at Koko Yakyu, unlike professional baseball players, are so pure, so genuine; no money involved, no greed involved, they just do their very best at each game. That’s the beauty of Koko Yakyu, and that’s the reason people will never stop loving it.

When the tournament is over, it is approaching the end of August, and the long school summer holiday is nearing an end. Although it is still hot for a while in Japan, you will notice a subtle change in the air. Autumn is coming.

April: The Season for a New Beginning

The seasons: haru, natsu, aki and fuyuApril is such a special month for Japanese because many things start newly in April. In Japan, clocks do not go forward in spring nor do we have Easter, but April itself is enough to make you feel that new things are starting.

In Japan, the school year starts in April. So if you are in Japan on April 1st or early April, you will see many young children dressed up in a brand-new uniform, often complete with a cap with a school crest, walking proudly with their mother. The mother is also dressed up, sometime in a proper kimono, because they have just attended an entrance ceremony (入学式:nyugakushiki) for their child.

You will also notice that those children are bearing the same big, colourful leather bag on their back, just as big as, or often bigger for the first grader, than their own back. This bag is called ランドセル (ran-do-sel). What does this word mean? It is believed to have come from the Dutch word “randsel”, which means a back pack. The wearing of randsels is believed to have started around the end of 19th century, and they are still widely worn by primary school children ( 小学生 : sho-gaku-sei).

Traditionally, randsels are red for girls and black for boys, but now there are more colour variations.  A ランドセル is one of the favourite presents from grandparents to their grandchild when they are starting school. Department stores start to display a wide range of ランドセル shortly after New Year.

I used one back in my schooldays. I did not enjoy using it, as it was very heavy, and it was too hot on my back during summer. I remember my back was wet with sweat under the ランドセル. For me, April reminds me of cherry blossoms and the smell of new leather of brand-new ランドセル .

Another thing you might see on April 1st is young men and women wearing brand-new suits, looking a bit uncomfortable in them. They are new graduates who have just started working for a company. Many Japanese new graduates, who have graduated from university in March, start working from April 1st (This is true mainly for big companies: 大企業 dai-ki-gyo). There is a big ceremony called 入社式 (nyu-sha-shiki) on April 1st, where a company president will give them a pep-talk. Right out of universities, they are often not “useful” enough from the start, so they attend training sessions ( 研修  : ken-shu) that usually require extreme hard work to go through them. They are a sort of an induction process, and they are tested if they could survive it!

Often hotels are booked up at the beginning of April because companies book a large number of rooms for their new employees (新入社員:shin-nyu-shain) to stay and attend the training sessions. Sessions include practice in 敬語   (keigo: honorific language), as the proper use of 敬語 is crucial for the business world.

Thus, they will be shaped into サラリーマン (salary-man), with a bitter-sweet realization that they are no longer 大学生 (daigakusei: university student).

I hope April will bring an exciting new beginning to you also!