Friday, January 6, 2023

Happy New Year!

New Year's here involves many holidays, including several jammed together between December 28 and January 4 (more or less), when things are closed, and discounts for trains and hotels temporarily disappear since people are traveling to go on visits and people hurry to accumulate "firsts." 

New Year's Eve is called Omisoka in Japan. Dinner often includes toshikoshi soba, where the length of the noodles is held to promote long life. This can be eaten any time during the evening and is often eaten close to midnight. Mochi's popular, too, and altar sets of two cakes of fresh mochi, one atop the other with a mikan tangerine on top are usual in Temples, Shrines and in homes. Many people visit a Temple or Shrine for a midnight celebration that includes the ringing of bells, if they have them. Temple bells usually ring 108 times, joya no kane, to cleanse the 108 earthly desires, for a fresh start for the new year.

A tiny set of mochi, called kagamimochi, topped with a tiny mikan, on my altar. These, in all sizes, are available everywhere. They are wrapped to keep the mochi from spoiling until it's time to eat it. It's also possible to get versions topped with figurines representing the Chinese Zodiac animal of the new year. This year, it's the Hare, so adorable bunnies are everywhere. I'm accumulating a tiny collection. Those who wish can make their own mochi, and the large sets in Temples or Shrines are handmade, by staff, members or a specialty shop. 

Gantan (New Year's Day) services are often held right at midnight, and again right through the day. This "first" visit of the year is important and people make efforts to attend. Because of COVID, my Temple had many services over several days, more than usual, so everybody who wanted could come without overcrowding. One normally makes a donation to any Temple or Shrine one visits for such a ceremony. In addition to a little piece of dried kombu or kelp, a small snack given for refreshment and energy to keep going through the night to accumulate more "firsts," often starting with the first the sunrise, a small gift is presented, often of salt.

Salt has a special meaning in Japan because of its use in ritual cleansing, so a few ounces of really nice salt is a culturally significant and special gift.  My Temple also gives out really good calendars with all the civil and Buddhist holidays and festivals on them and beautiful photographs, too, but I doubt that's universal.

People order Oeshici -- special New Year's food -- rather than cook it, usually, the idea being that it's eaten over the first three days of the year, the food is highly symbolic, and varies, though shrimp are common. Ozoni is a special New Year's day soup that varies from family to family and region to region, though mochi is usually served in it. Stretchy mochi is also symbolic of longevity. Persimmons are usually harvested and dried outside by stringing them on porches, but those pictured above have dried, beautifully, on the tree, and are probably ready to eat. One kind of persimmon isn't eaten until it's dried because it's not sweet until very, very sloppily ripe. Dried is better.

In Nichiren Shoshu, we usually also make a New Year's pilgrimage to our Head Temple, Taisekiji, for ceremonies that cannot be performed elsewhere, another in a series of "firsts." These pilgrimage trips are specially scheduled through the first week of the new year, to make sure everybody can come. It's very crowded this year because people have been cautious over the past couple of years and capacity is limited for the same reason, meaning more services are scheduled over more days.

Even Buddhist Temples participate in what are culturally significant New Year's decorations. Here, at Taisekiji, kadomatsu arrangements of pine, bamboo and plum are placed outside the various gates to and on the Temple grounds, decorated with straw rope, shimekazari. Variations will be seen everywhere. The door of my mansion (condo building) has them and people, including me, have small versions on their doors, too. 

We aren't done! The second Monday in January is Coming of Age day, when the young people who turn twenty will frequently be formally presented at their family Temple or Shrine, dress up in formal Japanese wear for photographs, go visit various large Shrines and/or Temples, usually with friends, and then go out and party, because twenty is the legal drinking age in Japan. The formal wear is often rented, but sometimes not: this can be a gift for a young man or woman of their first adult formal costume, which will likely last them the rest of their lives. A girl may received another on her wedding, as women's clothing changes on marriage or with age, with patterns becoming simpler, more subdued, more elegant and the sleeves becoming shorter.

Finally, the season ends about January 15, when the mochi is finally taken down and eaten, often with red beans in a kind of stew, and the decorations are put away. Many decorations and Shinto amulets are taken to Shrines to be ceremonially burned, and the amulets (health, safety, success, or whatever you like; they have many) are usually replaced. If you're in the right place at the right time, there's a special breakfast at Taisekiji that you might get invited to attend. 

It's not quite over yet! Lunar New Year is still to come. This is a very quiet celebration, but it is celebrated, this year on January 22. Again, friend and family visits are in order, special meals, Temple or Shrine visits, and this may be when children get red envelopes with gifts of crisp new bills from grandparents or other relatives, if the family likes to do it for Lunar rather than Solar new year. Sometimes, of course, they do both.

I wish everyone a most wonderful new year. Twice.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Food Ways/Holidays

Nobody knows why -- there is no real clear or obvious reason for it -- but I have been having some physical problems lately. After I had my super-strength flu vaccine I was suddenly slammed with serious muscle and joint pain. I haven't been walking well or quickly. The idea of getting down on the floor has been laughable. I've done what I must and some of what I wanted. I have exercises and physical therapy and it has been getting better. Until COVID Vaccine, Part 5, when it crashed again, pointing to the possibility that what I've been experiencing, which fits one of the side-effect profiles for both vaccines, might be exactly that. It's one of those things where the cure for all of the possibilities is exactly the same, so I just keep doing that PT, and will wait it out. This, too, of course, shall pass.

Everybody knows I enjoy cooking, and as a veg, I very often have to cook if I want to eat. There just isn't that much available in nearby restaurants, or even for delivery, that I can eat.

But I haven't been able to cook.

It's also the holidays. As a Buddhist, I naturally don't celebrate a Religious Christmas. I'm also not going to trek around Japan looking for Santa and Reindeer and Krampus -- all the manifestations Secular Christmas co-opted from Pagan Solstice Ceremonies. It feels odd to me, too intertwined with the religious holiday of a religion that isn't mine. I don't want to go to the various gaijin parties featuring foods I can't eat, either. Few people can entertain at home, so these are often held at hotels and restaurants and western-themed taverns and bars, and are not free.

I do enjoy the Illumination lights and light shows that spectacularly brighten much of Tokyo and other parts of Japan. These are everywhere, and will usually stay up until mid-to-late January.  This is a resin -- no water or power required -- skating rink outside of Tokyo station. It just opened when I got this picture and reservations were required. I didn't have one, and it would have been idiotic to try skating under the circumstances. I am stupid enough to try it, but the fates were wiser than I am.

The holiday party season here starts in early December with end-of-year bashes, and will wind up with the religious and cultural New Year's season, where people visit family, visit Temples and Shrines, enjoy the numerous holidays during the lengthy festive period and, naturally, eat.

From an End of Year party, where mochi is made by hand, in this picture by sumo wrestlers. It was delicious.

This group of traditional singers performed original music, wonderfully. These parties can be a great time; this one certainly was.

Solstice, or Toji, is celebrated in Japan, but while that is celebrated, often with a long, hot bath with yuzu (an aromatic citrus) and onsen visits, and people also eat Japanese pumpkin to warm the body and soul and stave off colds, it's a quiet festivity.  It is the start of the ramp-up to New Year's, which is the huge winter celebration that involves family visits, ceremonies at Temples and Shrines, travel, cards mailed at special rates and astoundingly delivered on New Year's Day, and every bit of holiday fun one might imagine. 

Japan's unique version of Christmas falls right in here. It's not a holiday, but the traditional meal is Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Victoria Sponge Cake with hot-house strawberries.  Sometimes, there's a buche de Noel. Small toys might be given to little children in a new adaptation. Since the Colonel wears a Santa suit, it kind of makes sense. It's a great date night. Japan does love a party.

For solar New Year's, of course, there is lots and lots of food, ordered a month or more in advance. Osechi ryori, it's called, and many of the dishes are symbolic, including soup, mochi, vegetables and seafood. 

But I wanted traditional-to-me food, and today I was able to go to the store as part of running some errands. My haul will let me make a chestnut dressing casserole, probably with apple in it as well as fu (Japanese wheat gluten protein), a pear salad, roasted potatoes (with the same gravy I'll make for the dressing)  and a sweet potato roasted at the store that will need no embellishment at all. 

The fabulous Punk-Doily bakery has sent me a few traditional-for-me desserts in individual portions, and the entire meal will be spread, happily, over at least a week.

Food ways are part of our cultural heritages and our cultural traditions, associated with holidays, celebrations and fun. I'm very glad I can make some of mine again this year. 

Happy holidays, everybody.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

More Nikko

Nikko is an incredible resort area. It's stuffed with history, sights to see, fabulous views, things to do, and one could spend a week or more just touring the most must-see world heritage sites.

I just got back from a few days in Nikko. What did I do? Nothing!

Gableview Forest Inn is well-located, comfortable, clean, pleasant, and run by delightful hosts I like very much. Most of the long weekend I spent ensconced in a recliner, watching a tiny and unobtrusive (didn't stick) snow fall, listening to music, chatting with Elizabeth, the Canadian half of the owners, and reading a real hard-copy book that I've been putting off reading for a long time, since I have no place at home to easily read real books. And when I wasn't doing that, or soaking in the baths (there are several to choose from, indoor and outdoor, and a new-to-me stone one that I enjoyed; yes, you can reserve one to yourself) I was enjoying the truly fabulous cuisine of Satoshi, the Japanese half of the owners.  

I feel like I have a place in the mountains where I can go whenever I want, settle in comfortably, do as much or as little as I like, take advantage of the wonderland that is Nikko or just relax in the warmth of their welcome.

But when I say I did nothing, I don't mean really nothing. I did finish my book and cogitated on my next book, after the forthcoming The Reluctant Dragon, and that was my actual goal. I also got to go to a delightful  farmers' market where fantastic and truly local produce is available and the community enjoys the large park. While there are some handcrafts and prepared things, it's not all craft-fair. This is where you (and Satoshi) can buy actual food. I wish I could have taken a grocery cart to bring more home than I did. 

The train the goes to Nikko splits at Shimo-Imaichi. One half goes to Tobu Nikko station. The other half goes to Kinagawa Onsen and beyond. This is a separate part of Nikko known for onsen resorts, outdoor sports and scenery rather than history. But at Shimo-Imaichi station, where the train splits, you can, for a paltry sum, go to Kinagawa Onsen on the Taiju Steam Train! It takes less than an hour -- I wish it was longer. Then you can come back to Shimo-Imaichi and switch to another train to get to Tobu Nikko Station proper, if that's where you're going. That takes only about fifteen minutes.  From the Steam Train, if you want to, you can stop at Edomura Wonderland (a really excellent Edo Period theme park I've mentioned previously) or Tobu World Square (a miniature of famous architectural sites around the world I haven't visited yet). There are also buses from the station plaza in Nikko proper to those attractions. 

But, of course, I had to ride that train. 

It's hard to explain the allure of the steam trains (or the special sightseeing trains even if they aren't the old-fashioned steam ones). The operators do magic things to keep the pollution down, I understand, so you don't really have to worry about that, but the trains do have the old fashioned steam whistles and billow steam out in the best Hogwart's Express tradition. 

Once you ride one, you understand the attraction. They are great fun! Everybody smiles! People on the platforms take pictures. Children dance about, nearly bursting with excitement! As you pass office buildings, on the way out of town, people come to the windows and wave. The crew point out scenic vistas, and the trains usually slow to allow for views and photos. Any time you pass a station, people on the platforms wave. People on the route come out of their houses. Farmers stop what they're doing in the fields. People at road crossings get out of their cars.  Everybody waves. Everybody smiles.

Before you know it, you're smiling, too. You smile every single time you see one of these great attractions and ride one whenever you can. Not to be missed, I promise.

At Kinugawa Onsen, there's a public foot bath in the square outside the station. There's a lot of walking and hiking in the area, so your feet might long for this, but it's fun just to pull off your shoes and socks, roll up your trousers and settle in to enjoy a hot spring while watching the world go by.

Like this Golden Oni does. This statue is the official welcoming committee, just outside the station doors. How can you go wrong with a Golden Oni?

While the train to Nikko is very nice and Nikko is only a couple of hours from Tokyo, the vastness of Tokyo means that getting to that train can take longer than getting to Nikko itself. 

So it took me much longer than I would wish to get home, with more train changes and more stairs and two separate places where I always get confused. But I made it. 

I found my holiday cactus readying itself for its second major bloom, and if you look very carefully, you can see the tiniest buds preparing for the third bloom!  It also has some new progeny outdoors that are also preparing to bloom. Those were grown from pieces broken from this mother plant last year. I am shocked that they are going to bloom at all! 

And this is my New Year's Bunny. It's going to be Year of the Rabbit (or hare, depending on how you translate it). Bunny's forepaws are in the gassho position in front -- you can also get a waving bunny -- and while it's in front of my fake fire now, it will soon move to my Buddhist altar as we await the solstice, the Solar New Year, and ultimately the Lunar New year. 

Enjoy the season, everyone!


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Guerrilla Gardening

The very first time I came to Japan, I noticed that almost every odd piece of land I saw had been claimed by someone who planted something on it, in the dirt or in a pot.

This is particularly wonderful in industrial areas, by train tracks, in little bits of corners by driveways. There are train tracks about a block away from my apartment. I can't hear the trains unless I am outside in my own tiny garden and they're not loud then. I haven't been surprised to see areas that have been carefully planted by adjacent residents or at street ends.

It's guerrilla gardening, and I love it. Now, and this is very much an Only In Japan thing, it's organized! In the little pocket park across the street, some beds have been set aside for public use. Please do plant here. You can even call this number and they'll suggest suitable plants and even give you little starter pots for your seedlings. I've seen this in other tiny parks along my regular routes. It's new this year. 

These are in the "official" area.

So are several of these, like somebody was moving and needed a home for houseplants.

This is in a side border area, not "official," but people plant here anyway. I am not sure what it is though it resembles cotton. 

From my yard: a lily making new bulbs! It'll take them a while to get to blooming size, but this is a start.

In my little garden, various plants are going to seed (or something) and I have some extra seeds in my gardening storage container, which is breaking from UV exposure and I will need to clear out when I do my fall clean up. The building gardeners will come at the first of December. I like to get my part done before they do.

A lily seed pod. I have dill seeds, too, from a friend. Dill is an annual but will self-seed! I may have some other herbs. They're still working on it.

 I'll have plenty of fun not only increasing what's in my personal little bit of Tokyo, but also joining the crowd as a guerrilla gardener: making plants blossom in any little bit of available land.  How very Japanese. How very wonderful!

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

A poem I found


Sometimes I write poetry. Sometimes I like it. Here's one I found looking for something else. I've been reading Basho. Can't you tell? That's his traveling gear, or close to it, above.