Archive for traditions

Hanetsuki

Hanetsuki is a traditional Japanese New Year‘s game, played with a wooden paddle called hagoita (see picture on the left) and a shuttle called hane (see picture below). The game resembles badminton, played without a net. While the game’s popularity has declined in recent times, beautifully ornamented hagoita are still a popular collection item.

In the middle of December, the Hagoita Market (Hagoita-ichi) is held at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, where ornamented wooden paddles (hagoita) are sold at numerous stands. The paddles come in different sizes, and most of them feature portraits of kabuki actors and beautiful Edo ladies. But also portraits of celebrities from entertainment, sport and politics such as Prime Minister Koizumi, Harry Potter, soccer players Nakata and Beckham and fantasy characters such as Kitty-chan and Spiderman can be found on some hagoita.

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Japanese Calendars

With the year 1873, the Gregorian calendar was introduced to Japan. While the Christian way of numbering years is commonly used in Japan today, a parallel numbering system for years according to the reigns of current emperors is also frequently applied (see year converter above). The year 2000, for example, which happened to be the 12th year of reign of the emperor whose posthumous name is Heisei, was called “Heisei 12”.

Before 1873, lunar calendars, which were originally imported from China, were used in Japan for many centuries. The lunar calendars were based on the cycle of the moon, resulting in years of twelve months of 29 or 30 days (the moon takes about 29 1/2 days to circle the earth), and an occasional 13th month to even out the discrepancy to the solar cycle of 365 1/4 days, i.e. the discrepancy to the seasons.

Various features of the lunar calendar remain intact in today’s Japan. For example, years are still commonly associated with the twelve animals: mouse, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

Another aspect of the lunar calendar that survives into modern Japan as a kind of superstition, is the subdivision of the calendar into six days (rokuyo), similar to the subdivision of the modern calendar into seven weekdays. The six days are called taian, butsumetsu, senpu, tomobiki, shakko and sensho, and they are associated with good and bad fortune. Taian, for example, is considered the most auspicious of the six days and ideal for holding business or personal events such as wedding ceremonies, while butsumetsu is considered the least auspicious day, and holding funerals is avoided on tomobiki.

Public Bath

In past times, when many houses in Japan were not equipped with private bathtubs yet, public baths (sento) provided people with a place to wash themselves and meet neighbors.

Nowadays, as most households have an own bath, the number of traditional sento has been decreasing. On the other hand, new types of public baths and bath complexes, which feature a range of different pools, saunas, fitness centers, etc. have been emerging.

In hot spring resorts, public baths are usually provided with hot spring water, while normal water is used elsewhere.

Natural hot springs (onsen) are numerous and highly popular across Japan. Every region of the country has its share of hot springs and resort towns, which come with them.

There are many types of hot springs, distinguished by the minerals dissolved in the water. Different minerals provide different health benefits, and all hot springs are supposed to have a relaxing effect on your body and mind.

Hot spring baths come in many varieties, indoors and outdoors, gender separated and mixed, developed and undeveloped. Many hot spring baths belong to a ryokan, while others are public bath houses. An overnight stay at a hot spring ryokan is a highly recommended experience to any visitor of Japan.

With the exception of some new-type bath complexes, public baths are separated into a section for women and men, and no swimming suits are worn.

Sword

The Japanese sword (nihonto) has been internationally known for its sharpness and beauty since feudal times. The sword used to be the distinguishing mark of the samurai.

Since swords are dangerous weapons, a permit is required to own one in Japan today.

Sumo

Sumo is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. It originated in ancient times as a performance to entertain the Shinto gods. Many rituals with religious background are still followed today.

The basic rules of sumo are simple: The wrestler who either first touches the floor with something else than his sole or leaves the ring before his opponent, loses. The fights themselves usually last only a few seconds and in rare cases up to one minute or longer.

Six tournaments are held every year, each one lasting 15 days. Three of the tournaments are held in Tokyo (January, May, September), and one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November).

At the top of the sumo wrestlers’ hierarchy (banzuke) stands the yokozuna (grand champion). At the moment, there is only one yokozuna, Asashoryu from Mongolia. Once a wrestler reaches the rank of yokozuna, he cannot lose it anymore. However, he is expected to retire as soon as his results are starting to worsen.

Most elite wrestlers are highly trained athletes and between 20 to 35 years old. Besides working out, the wrestlers are eating large amounts of food and go to bed right after eating in order to gain mass. The wrestlers are living in special sumo stables where the rules are very strict, especially for lower ranked wrestlers.

Traditional Music

There are several types of traditional, Japanese music (Hogaku). Some of the most important ones are:

  • Gagaku:
    Ancient court music from China and Korea. It is the oldest type of Japanese, traditional music.
  • Biwagaku:
    Music played with the instrument Biwa, a kind of guitar with four strings.
  • Nogaku:
    Music played during No performances. It basically consists of a chorus, the Hayashi flute, the Tsuzumi drum, and other instruments.
  • Sokyoku:
    Music played with the instrument Koto. Later also accompanied by Shamisen and Shakuhachi. The Koto is a zither with 13 strings.
  • Shakuhachi:
    Music played with the instrument Shakuhachi, a about 55 cm long flute. The name of the flute is its lenght expressed in the old Japanese length units.
  • Shamisenongaku:
    Music played with the instrument Shamisen, a kind of guitar with only three strings. Kabuki and Bunraku performances are accompanied by the shamisen.
  • Minyo:
    Japanese folk songs.

Autumn Leaves

Colorful leaves (koyo) are to the Japanese autumn what cherry blossoms are to spring. The viewing of autumn leaves has been a popular activity among the Japanese for centuries and today still draws large numbers of viewers to famous spots.

Each year, starting in late September, the “koyo front” is slowly moving southernwards from the northern island of Hokkaido until it reaches the lower elevations of central and southern Japan towards the end of November.

Below is a list showing the approximate autumn leaf season for various regions of Japan. Caution: the schedule can differ from year to year depending on the weather:

Hokkaido     mid September to late October
Tohoku     early October to early November
Kanto     early October to early December
Tokyo     mid November to early December
Nikko     mid October to mid November
Hakone     early to mid November
Fuji Five Lakes     late October to early November
Kansai     mid October to early December
Kyoto     mid to late November
Shikoku     mid October to late November
Kyushu     mid October to early December

Japanese Plum ( Ume )

The Japanese plum or ume (sometimes referred to as Japanese apricot) has played an important role in Japanese culture for many centuries. It was originally introduced from China.The plum is associated with the start of spring, because plum blossoms are some of the first blossoms to open during the year. In the Tokyo area, they typically flower in February and March. The event is celebrated with plum festivals (ume matsuri) in public parks, shrines and temples across the country.

Like cherry trees, plum trees come in many varieties, many of which were cultivated by humans over the centuries. Most plum blossoms have five petals and range in color from white to dark pink. Some varieties with more than five petals (yae-ume) and weeping branches (shidare-ume) have also been cultivated. Unlike cherry blossoms, plum blossoms have a strong fragrance.

The actual ume fruit is more sour than the western plum or apricot, and is usually processed in various ways before eaten.

The most popular processed form is the umeboshi, a sour, pickled plum, which is usually enjoyed with cooked rice. The umeboshi has one of the most typical Japanese flavors. Umeshu, a sweet alcoholic beverage made of plums, is also very popular.

Cherry Blossoms ( Sakura )

The cherry blossom (sakura) is Japan’s unofficial national flower. It has been celebrated for many centuries and takes a very prominent position in Japanese culture.

There are many dozens of different cherry tree varieties in Japan, most of which bloom for just a couple of days in spring. The Japanese celebrate that time of the year with hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties under the blooming trees.

Japanese Gardens

Garden design has been an important Japanese art for many centuries. Traditional Japanese landscape gardens can be broadly categorized into three types, Tsukiyama Gardens (hill gardens), Karesansui Gardens (dry gardens) and Chaniwa Gardens (tea gardens).

Tsukiyama Gardens

Ponds, streams, hills, stones, trees, flowers, bridges and paths are used to create a miniature reproduction of a natural scenery which is often a famous landscape in China or Japan. The name Tsukiyama refers to the creation of artificial hills.

Tsukiyama gardens vary in size and in the way they are viewed. Smaller gardens are usually enjoyed from a single viewpoint, such as the veranda of a temple, while many larger gardens are best experienced by following a circular scrolling path.

Karesansui Gardens

Karesansui gardens reproduce natural landscapes in a more abstract way by using stones, gravel, sand and sometimes a few patches of moss for representing mountains, islands, boats, seas and rivers. Karesansui gardens are strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism and used for meditation.

Chaniwa Gardens

Chaniwa gardens are built for the tea ceremony. They contain a tea house where the actual ceremony is held and are designed in aesthetic simplicity according to the concepts of sado (tea ceremony).

Chaniwa gardens typically feature stepping stones that lead towards the tea house, stone lanterns and a stone basin (tsukubai), where guests purify themselves before participating in the ceremony.

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