Friday, April 15, 2016

A friendly cashier and shidare-zakura

At a certain supermarket on the edge of Tokyo's Toshima ward, there works an especially friendly cashier. While other cashiers may balk at the sight of foreigners, this one doesn't: she always greets us with a smile and a hearty こんばんはー!(konbanwa! - good evening!), and lets us try out our rudimentary Japanese with her as she practices her (admittedly far more proficient) English with us. This friendly cashier is the one who hooked me up with my very first point card in Japan--a bit of a slippery slope!--and continues to give us helpful advice and tips.

It's April now, so many varieties of cherry blossoms have already fallen and given way to green leaves, but I still find myself thinking about March's beautiful blossoms. Last month, we saw some of the most unique blooms yet thanks to that cashier's advice: go to Komagome Station and visit Rikugien Garden
. What I was expecting was what I had seen at places like Ueno Park: the Somei-yoshino (染井吉野「ソメイヨシノ」) cherry, the most widespread variety in Japan. (See one of my old Photo Friday posts about it here!) What we found at Rikugien was something markedly different...breathtaking, even, for nature lovers like me.

A panoramic photo my husband took of the largest weeping cherry tree at Rikugien
I didn't realize it before visiting, but Rikugien is known for its shidare-zakura (枝垂桜 「シダレザクラ」), or weeping cherry trees. There are a handful of these trees there, but the one pictured above is the largest (and the most popular, as evidenced by the crowd seen in the photo).

Another one of my husband's photos showing a closeup of one of the branches. He wasn't afraid to step through the crowds for a quick picture...something more timid folks (like me) are a little hesitant to do!
Constructed in 1702 by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, daimyo of the Kawagoe domain, the layout of Rikugien (六義園) was inspired by waka poetry. Today, Rikugien is appreciated as a typical example of an Edo period garden. During sakura season--roughly late March through early April--nightly illuminations are held until 9 p.m., featuring a gorgeous view of the sakura after dark. The people of the Edo period would have loved this modern-day take on hanami, and it's well worth the admission fee.

One of my photos of the weeping cherry
Yesterday we went back to the grocery store and chatted with that friendly cashier. We hadn't seen her since we had been away on a vacation outside of Tokyo. We told her we had taken her advice and visited Rikugien, and showed her our photos of the weeping cherry trees. 良かった!, she said with a laugh, giddy that we took her advice. In English, she told us that she had been waiting for us to return.

It's exchanges with everyday people like this that I'll miss when I return to America. True, we've made friends with people at places we frequent in the U.S. (Nina, Emi, and Chelsea at our favorite Japanese restaurant; Michael at the winery; Dave at the grocery store), but there's something different about making connections with people outside of one's home country. It makes the world feel smaller, somehow. When people say that Tokyoites are too busy for small talk or have no interest in chatting with foreigners, I think of the exchanges I've had with people--especially with my favorite cashier--and try to explain that that's not always the case. Japanese people can indeed be intimidated by foreigners, sometimes because they feel as though their English is not up to par. However, if you appear friendly and approachable, you might be surprised by the connections you make.

If you'd like to visit Rikugien Garden in Bunkyo-ku, it's is a short walk south of Komagome Station, accessible from the Yamanote Line and the Tokyo Metro Namboku Line. The standard entrance fee to the garden is ¥300 for adults.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Emoji 101: Let's celebrate Hina Matsuri 🎎

March 3 in Japan is Hina Matsuri-- 雛祭り「ひなまつり」--the annual holiday honoring and celebrating girls. As with a handful of other special cultural occasions in Japan, it has its very own emoji!

The Hina Matsuri emoji, found in the "Objects" category on iPhones

Also known as "Girls' Day" or "Doll Festival" (the latter being the literal kanji translation), Hina Matsuri is celebrated in Japanese households and communities in varying degrees of complexity. For example, the "Big Hina Matsuri" in Katsuura, Tokushima takes the day to the extreme, with festivities marked by an incredible display of over 30,000 dolls! More modest celebrations may only include two hina ningyo dolls--the Emperor and Empress, as represented in the emoji seen above--although the iconic Hina Matsuri display includes the addition of several more dolls on a tiered display, representing members of the Heian Imperial Court. Small snacks like rice crackers are given as offerings to the dolls.

With its roots in the Heian period (794-1185), when dolls were displayed as a means to contain bad spirits--or were even floated down rivers with the same intent in mind, as seen in the ancient practice of nagashi-bina-- Hina Matsuri has a few different purposes in modern Japanese life. Families see the day as a time to pray for their daughters' health and happiness and view it as a step to womanhood, with hopes of future marriages in mind. But don't tarry on packing away the display for next year: a common belief is that if the dolls are left out on display too long, a daughter's chances at marriage may be delayed!

A Hina Matsuri display in the Pokemon world
with Pikachu as the Emperor and Clefairy as the Empress,

as seen in episode 52 of the anime
Much like other holidays in Japan and elsewhere, corporations have been quick to capitalize on Hina Matsuri. Beginning a few days ago, special Hina Matsuri cakes were available for special order from supermarkets (スーパー) and conbini (コンビニ, or convenience stores), offering a variety of designs ranging from more traditional strawberry cakes to on-trend Yokai Watch character cakes and everything in between; at my local supermarket, うれしいひなまつり ("Happy Hina Matsuri") played on repeat on the loudspeaker (give it a listen here!) as Hina Matsuri sweets and treats were offered for sale; and today, even Google Japan's Doodle featured the dolls. I can even remember an old Pokemon episode called "Princess vs. Princess" when Misty and Jessie competed in the "Princess Festival" for a set of must-have Pokemon dolls. (Note that the Japanese title of this episode was  げきとう!ポケモンひなまつり--or "Fierce fight! Pokemon Hina Matsuri"--so it's obvious that the Japanese writers intended for this so-called Princess Festival to be Kanto's own Hina Matsuri celebration, especially since it was celebrated annually on March 3. However, as with many Japanese imports, cultural nuances were lost in translation.)

Today's Google Doodle in Japan

So how is an American celebrating Hina Matsuri here in Tokyo's Toshima ward, other than by writing this blog post? Well, while the dolls are absolutely beautiful, I can't exactly afford to buy a set for myself--we saw a few displays for sale at the Toys R Us in Sunshine City, and they're pricey, to say the least. Within my financial grasp, however, are some delicious sweets and deals, as shown below!

Hina Matsuri displays at my local supermarket (L) and convenience store (R)
Gorgeous Hina Matsuri chirashizushi (L); nothing says "festival" like a party pack of discount natto maki! (R)

My favorite Hina Matsuri treat might be these ベビーアンドーナツ, or "baby an donuts"--basically dense, sweet donut holes filled with red bean paste
My first exposure to Hina Matsuri was at my best friend's house when I was 8 years old. She and her family had just moved to Indiana from Japan that previous summer. Toward the end of February, they set up a display that instantly enthralled my third grade self: beautiful, golden folding screens with lanterns hanging from them, with two ornate porcelain hina ningyo dolls sitting in front of them. I had never seen anything like it, although it would be a few years until I fully understood what it was.

Wherever in the world you are, why not get into the spirit of Hina Matsuri today? Add its emoji to one of your texts, snaps, or other messages, and imagine what life would have been like as a member of the Heian court! 🎎 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Coming up: the true meanings behind emoji

Recently used emoji from my Snapchat
A significant part of the industrialized world has access to smartphones, and a standard feature with those are hundreds of tiny, colorful icons used to convey thoughts and emotions. I'm talking, of course, about emoji, or 絵文字「えもじ」. A combination of the Japanese kanji for "picture" (e) and "character" (moji), Shigetaka Kurita initially developed them for use by NTT docomo's newest line of mobile phones in the late 1990s. When smartphones--most notably, Apple's iPhone--came to the West a few years later, the Japanese creation was introduced to a wider international audience, and the use of them spread like wildfire.

Much like its predecessor, the colon paired with a left or right parenthesis-- :( or :) --emoji can effectively express ideas and feelings without a single word needed. They're a true modern-day take on the idiom, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

Since Shigetaka's creation was inspired by Japanese manga and pictographs, the meanings behind some of the icons were inevitably lost in translation--or were given new meanings, as I've personally observed. In future blog posts, including one coming soon, I'll be taking a look at the original meanings behind different emoji in the context of Japanese culture, history, and daily life.

So, how about you? Do you use emoji often? What's your favorite?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Leap Day in Japan: the realm of yokai?

Right now, it's February 29 in Japan--Leap Day, or 閏日「うるうび」--that strange inbetween day that only appears on calendars once every four years. Leap Day is a unique date that exists in the realms of both reality and fiction. If you're born on Leap Day, for example, how do you celebrate your birthday on non-leap years?  I have an aunt who was born on Leap Day, and we like to joke that she's only a teenager since her actual birthday only comes around every four years.
関口文京区 : Sekiguchi, Bunkyo-ku
A quiet back road near Mejiro-Dori in Tokyo,
a place where I imagine yokai to dwell

So what does Leap Day in Japan have to do with yokai? First, a quick primer for those new to the term: yokai (妖怪「ようかい」--also stylized as yōkai or youkai) are creatures of Japanese myth and legend, with an oral and written history stretching back for centuries. Only recently have yokai entered the Western public eye with such pop culture hits as Yo-Kai Watchalthough other Japanese imports, including Pokemon, draw heavily from the urban legends and folktales.

As Michael Dylan Foster explains in The Book of Yōkai, yokai inhabit a sort of grey area between the real world and the unknown. Places like overpasses and intersections--figurative and literal bridges to other places--are prime spots for yokai to take up residence. While the West may view October 31 as the calendar date most associated with paranormal activity, I'd argue that February 29 is the true apex of the unexplained. Why, even in the Western world, Leap Day was historically viewed as a topsy-turvy "opposite" day of sorts, when women were permitted to propose to men (gasp!).

As you go about your business today, wherever in the world you may be, keep an eye out for strange happenings. With its existence both in the domains of tangible and intangible, Leap Day truly is an auspicious day for the unfamiliar and mysterious!