Happy New Year

Akemashite Omedetō Gozaimasu. (2023 is the Year of the Rabbit)

That’s how you say Happy New Year in Japan. But unlike in America where we start saying it near the end of the year, you can’t use this expression until the second the clock hits midnight. If you’re watching Japanese tv, then that’s the moment you’ll see the announcers bow and say this. Until this moment, what you can say is “Yoi otoshi o” which means Have a good year.

My first Oshōgatsu in Japan was in 1976. I was with my boyfriend and a group of Japanese people. Everyone was drinking. I think we were in Gion. It was a nigiyaka group and nobody noticed that the clock had struck midnight until about twenty minutes later. Quite different from what I was accustomed to.

My boyfriend had claimed that I’d have to move in with him during these holidays. He and my homestay program had claimed that nothing would be open for a week. I was living in a tiny room with no cooking facilities other than the ability to boil water. The shelf outside my window functioned as a reizōko. (The whole room could have done that since there was no heat.) The thing is, I didn’t believe that everything would be shut down. Maybe on January 1, but surely a few shops or gurosarii would open the next day.

A leftover New Year card from 1981
Example of a sign announcing hours for end and beginning of the year

Nowadays they do. But in Kyoto in 1976 every shop really was shuttered and had pieces of paper on it announcing closure until January 7th or even later. The shrines and temples were bustling but normal life had stopped. There was a reason why women were cooking boxes full of food. Would they really last seven days? Actually, no, but three days was definitely possible. I found that out in later years when I prepared the osechi ryōri myself. We’d be thoroughly sick of these boxes as they’d be brought out for all three meals, but we made it through snacking on osenbei and mikan.

Almost everyone would gather round to watch the NHK Kohaku Song Show. This year was the 73rd year of broadcasting it. I think it gets worse every year, but people my age are simply bound to say that. But the tradition of families gathering together to watch it as they did in years past seems likely to fade out. Still, though, it is some of the most incredible staging you’ll ever see. Check out Youtube for some clips. Or watch this as an example:

  • Akemashite Omedetō Gozaimasu – 明けましておめでとうございます ”Happy New Year” or literally, “Congratulations on the opening [of the year]. Isn’t used until the clock strikes midnight and the new year arrives.
  • Yoi otoshi o – 良いお年を ”Have a good year.” This is used at the end of December to people that you think you won’t see again until the next year arrives.
  • Oshōgatsu – お正月 New Year’s
  • nigiyaka – 賑やか lively, merry
  • reizōko – 冷蔵庫 refrigerator
  • gurosarii – グロサリー grocery store. There is a more Japanese word for this, but I think even this is old; so many shop at a suupaa now.
  • osechi ryōri – お節料理 New Year’s food, aka “the boxes.” Google it.
  • osenbei – お煎餅 rice crackers
  • mikan – みかん Japanese tangerines. So so good!

Aspiring to be “nothing special”

In the United States being called futsū or just ‘average’ is not a compliment. We are to always aim for the stars, be better than others, kagayaku, stand out, and/or get noticed. But if you’ve read anything about Japan you’ve heard the saying “deru kugi wa utareru” meaning that the protruding nail will be struck down. If you consider this literally, a nail does need to be struck down so that it can do its job properly so that whatever it is part of will work as it should. Imagine a bench with a nail sticking out of it. But this expression is not meant literally. Obviously. Right?

And once again, if you know anything about Japan, you know that the group is more important than the individual. That has been said ad nauseam but it certainly has been true, traditionally. For those of us who don’t particularly care about standing out and are happy to be part of a crowd Japan is a true refuge (though if you are kinpatsu that doesn’t work out very well for you). Being dark-haired myself, I was always amazed by the attention that my blonde friends would draw back in the 1970s and 80s. I was really happy to be more of a heibon type and not draw attention solely due to my appearance.

Miyako Harumi was a very popular singer back in the day. But in 1984 at the age of 36 and at the height of her career she announced her retirement saying that she just wanted to be a regular middle-aged woman saying “futsū no obasan ni naritai.” Her words caught on and it became a topic of discussion. In fact if you google this phrase the first thing that comes up is Miyako Harumi. For the most part, she was admired for expressing this sentiment. (By the way, it didn’t last; she announced her full fukkatsu in 1990 after having tentatively tested the waters for a few years.) So maybe futsū got boring for her or she realized she had options.

Miyako Harumi – One of her more popular songs

There used to be a popular magazine called Heibon or “Nothing Special.” Can you imagine a magazine like that in the United States? When I’d question the choice of title and express the idea that it was a weird name for a magazine, people would just look puzzled. Because being heibon was an aspiration for many. Not sure if it still is, though. I’m guessing the concept looked more attractive after the war when it would be an indication of upward mobility to be heibon.

After all, the magazine was first published in 1959 and went through several iterations before publishing the last issue in 1987. Coincidentally (or not) during the bubble era. The publishing house Heibonsha still exists. I doubt they’d ever see a need for a name change at this point.

I guess Japanese people see words differently than we do. It’s like how they named a drink “Pokkari Sweat” and saw no problem with it at all. Sure, it is combining a Japanese word with an English word and any English word can be fashionable. But when I explain that we don’t want to drink something called Sweat, I just get those puzzled looks. And they patiently explain to me that it is a sports drink, which I do understand. But, still.

I have digressed, but I have to admit that Japan impacted me to the point where I don’t mind being unremarkable in the world than most Americans would feel comfortable with. I’d rather be the brick layer than the castle designer. I’m happy not to stand out and to just play my futsū role in daily life and never get involved in a one-upping conversation! Futsū de ii desu.

  • futsū – 普通 average, normal, usual, regular
  • kagayaku – 輝く to shine or sparkle (verb). This is used for stars in the sky but can also be used for people. For example a bride on her wedding day (one hopes.)
  • deru kugi wa utareru – 出る釘は打たれる The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Every single Japanese person knows this one.
  • kinpatsu – 金髪 blonde hair
  • heibon – 平凡 ordinary, unremarkable, common
  • futsū no obasan ni naritai.普通のおばさんになりたい – “I just want to be a normal middle aged woman.” The famous words of Miyako Harumi when she retired from her singing career.
  • fukkatsu – 復活 revival, or comeback
  • Futsū de ii desu – 普通で良いです “I’m fine with [being] the usual.” A useful expression when you’re given too many choices or just want to blend in.

Toast – Part 1

Why is it that there are some memories that stay so vividly in our mind, though there is nothing particularly notable about them?

I wonder if it is the combination of elements that are forming the memory? I think of a day in the autumn in Kyoto, when I walked down from my apāto in Midorogaike and into a kissaten that was one of the few nearby at that time. I didn’t go there very often, perhaps because it was not the cheapest place I knew. But they had the most oishii shinamon tōsuto on that very thick Japanese pan, crisped to perfection and then with butter and an even layer of cinnamon sugar.

When I think of the perfect cinnamon toast this place comes to mind… and I regularly ordered cinnamon toast at coffee shops all over Kyoto.

Grumpy Grandma Note Follows

(Unfortunately--in my opinion--simple toast is hard to find now! There seems to be a tendency to dollop it with whipped cream, anko, sequins (okay, just kidding) etc. I had to go into an old-style coffee shop--i.e. not a cafe--to find what I wanted during my trip back in 2016.)

As I slowly savored my toast in that Midorogaike coffee shop and gazed aimlessly out the mado and around the room, the BGM changed to Barbra Streisand singing, “Woman in Love” and it created the perfect moment for me.

But why? I do not remember if I was in love with anyone that day or even if I had a crush. But the moment is inscribed in my memory forever it seems. 

  • apāto -アパート apartment
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop, but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Us old folks like this style much better. Hipsters do not. Yet.
  • oishii – 美味しい delicious, adj.
  • shinamon tōsuto – シナモントースト cinnamon toast
  • pan – パン bread or rolls
  • mado – 窓 window

Have you ever been to _____?

You hear about the New Yorkers who have never been to the Empire State Building. Possibly my parents fell into that category. And even though I live in Amherst, famous for being the home of Emily Dickinson, it took years before I visited her home/museum, and then just once was enough.

One of the floats

This month there is a very famous festival in Kyoto called Gion Matsuri. It is literally celebrated the whole month with the highlight being a procession of floats held on July 17. On the two nights before the 17th, downtown Kyoto becomes something of a street fair and if you’re young, you do want a date for that night. Girls and boys alike will be wearing yukata. The procession is certainly worth seeing. Ikkai dake desu. It will be hot as hell and humid as hell and crowded as hell. Total jigoku. I know I went at least once or twice… and then I know I skipped it, unless I had a visiter who had come especially to see it. I do love the accompanying hayashi that is played and just the sound of it makes me smile.

The music of Gion Festival

I am a reader of a bulogu that is written by a grouchy old Japanese man who is a native of Kyoto. Kinō he wrote that he would not be going to see the procession and rather testily said that the natives of Kyoto didn’t go because most Kyoto-ites only attend their kinjō festivities. Neighborhoods are of utmost important in Kyoto. There will be neighborhood jinja and otera for your everyday needs. (Of course there are also some famous places for specific and special needs; if you are taking a college entrance exam, you’d want to pray at Kitano Tenmangu.) But basically, he says, the festival is for both Japanese and foreign tourists at this point, unless you’re one of the neighborhood folks who hold it.

Yes. Expect crowds.

So, if I was in Kyoto, this year, would I go to Gion Matsuri? To be very honest, unless the weather felt much much cooler than usual, I would not. But during the month of July I’d be sure to walk through the back streets where preparations were being made and catch some of that action. The back streets of Kyoto are where all the good stuff happens!

  • Gion Matsuri – 祇園祭 One of the three big festivals that happens in Kyoto. This is a summer festival. Google it.
  • yukata – 浴衣 cotton kimono that is worn in the summer or for sleeping
  • Ikkai dake desu – 一回だけです “Just once.” or “I’ll do it just once.”
  • jigoku – 地獄 hell
  • hayashi はやし – the flutes, drums and bells of Gion Festival
  • bulogu – ブログ blog
  • kinō – 昨日yesterday
  • kinjo – 近所 neighborhood
  • jinja – 神社 Shinto shrine
  • otera – お寺 Buddhist temple, i.e. don’t use this word for a synagogue.

Kandagawa

Here’s where we can find a generational divide. There’s a river called Kandagawa in Tokyo. I just did a google search (in English) and the word Kandagawa brings up some anime. Or a chef by that name. That is not my Kandagawa nor that of my generation. For us, it immediately brings up an uta and a certain seikatsu and seishun.

Kandagawa – a gritty city view of it

In 1973, the folk movement was flourishing in Japan and a group called Kaguyahime was singing Kandagawa. For many a binbō student, it resonated deeply as it described our lifestyle. And yes, it was my lifestyle as well at that time. I have surprised Japanese people during conversations by describing something as “very Kandagawa.” It might have been when talking about the public bath. Or a tatami room in a wooden building. I miss those days, inconvenient as they were. And I’m not alone. There is a huge nostalgia for the Showa style of lie that had fewer choices, but a simpler way of being. Here are the words of the song:

Maybe you've already forgotten
How we went to the public bath down the lane
With our red hand towels as mufflers
You said, "Let's go together" 
But you always made me wait 
My damp hair was frozen down to the roots 
I rattled the small soap 
You held me 
And said, "You're cold" 
When we were young, I wasn't afraid of anything 
Only your tenderness made me afraid 

Maybe you've already thrown away 
The drawing of me you made 
With the twenty-four-color set of pastel crayons you bought 
"Make it good," I said 
But it didn't look like me at all
 I can see the Kanda River from out the window 
Of my three-tatami room at the boarding house 
You looked at my fingertips 
And asked, "Are you sad?" 
When we were young, I wasn't afraid of anything 
Only your tenderness made me afraid 
Credits: http://megchan.com/lyrics/index.php?title=Kaguya_Hime/Kandagawa 
A public bath in Kyoto circa 2016. Slowly they are becoming extinct….

For those of us who remember going to the public bath with a partner and separating as you entered the women’s side and he entered the side for men— and trying to coordinate leaving at the same time, it is particularly poignant. You’d finish bathing and step outside hoping that your partner had either finished a few seconds before you or would step out momentarily. In fuyu it meant the difference between staying warm and being cold again, which defeated some of the purpose. And you’d walk home together, perhaps stopping for some oden. But that’s another story.

The original version, though many singers have covered it since.
  • Kandagawa – 神田川 a river in Tokyo. Kanda is a part of Tokyo, and kawa means river. Very straightforward. If you’re riding a train through Tokyo you may see it from the window. Very urban. The Kanda area is where all the used bookstores are and was a favorite lodging place for students back in the day since it was cheaper to live there.
  • uta – 歌 song
  • seikatsu – 生活 life style
  • seishun – 青春 youth. Often combined with jidai, which means era or period to talk about younger days
  • binbō – 貧乏 poor. What did you think it would mean?!
  • Showa – 昭和 the period from from 1926-1989. Of course most people are nostalgic about the last forty years of it, though those war years are not to be forgotten.
  • fuyu – 冬 winter
  • oden – おでん a type of food that is sold by street venders and in bars (it practically cries out for beer) and now in 7-11 and other stores. It has an unmistakable smell to it due to the fish products it uses. A lot of non-Japanese fail to see the charm of it. But in the winter, before many homes had heat, it was a great way to warm up before returning to a stone cold room.

Nodo Jiman

Every Sunday I watch a terebi bangumi from the public tv station in Japan called NHK. I have been watching it on and off since 1976 when I was introduced to it by my homestay kazoku.

Back then if it was noon on nichiyōbi, almost everyone was watching it. It’s an amateur singing contest. Each week they go to a different locale in Japan and introduce the town and show what is special about it, followed by the introduction of two guest judges who are professional singers. And then the participants come on stage to sing and get judged with one chime, two chimes or a series of chimes telling them they’ve scored high enough to be in the final round of judging. At the end one tokubetsu shō is given and then the grand champion is announced from the six or seven who’ve gotten top marks. Simple, but addictive! I don’t think there is any better way to get a taste of real Japan.

Of course the format has changed some over the years. And during COVID it was cancelled entirely for a while. So it reflects genjitsu Japan as well. A few weeks ago there was an jishin just as the show was about to begin (it is broadcast live). And news pre-empted it.

I could probably write a book about Nodo Jiman, but for now I’ll stick with yesterday’s broadcast.

100 years old!

Everyone is always properly attentive when an otoshiyori comes on stage to sing, often accompanied by a mago. It isn’t unusual to have participants in their eighties and even nineties. But yesterday was very special because a gentleman who is 100 years old came on to sing. He wasn’t half bad. The announcer asked his usual questions.

"To what do you attribute your longevity?"
"I sing everyday!"

"And what goals do you have in your life right now?"
"I want to reach hyakutōban!"

And everyone laughed. Let me explain. 110 is the number that one calls for the police or in an emergency. It’s sort of Japan’s 911. So he made a great pun by saying that he wants to call the police or–in this case he wants to reach age 110. That’s probably possible in Japan.

And of course he was awarded the special prize. Nobody could top that one! Sasuga!

  • Nodo Jiman – のど自慢 song show. Please read the wikipedia entry here. I can’t explain it in a few sentences and do it justice.
  • terebi bangumi – テレビ番組 television + program
  • kazoku – 家族 family. Note that if you are asking someone about their family you want to put an honorific in front of it and say gokazoku
  • nichiyōbi – 日曜日 Sunday
  • tokubetsu shō – 特別賞 special + award
  • genjitsu – 現実 reality, actualities
  • jishin – 地震 earthquake
  • otoshiyori – お年寄り the elderly. Honorific o of course!
  • mago – 孫 grandchild
  • hyakutōban 110番- Number 110 – the police number you call in an emergency in Japan
  • sasuga – さすが “indeed!” or as you might have expected

Spring has come

The first place I lived in Tokyo was right across the street from a big otera called Tōkōji. I had a nice view from my window and was able to observe it through the seasons. Lovely! And smack in the middle of Tokyo.

Tokoji – the view from my window

This temple had a large yōchien and the children would arrive by basu each morning. I would watch the sensei teaching them etiquette. As each child alighted from the basu, the sensei would bow and say good morning. The child would reply with their own “Ohayō gozaimasu, Sensei.”

It was always fun to watch, because the now didn’t come naturally to some of the children, and the Sensei would place a firm hand on the child’s atama and “assist” them in bowing.

One by one the children stepped off the bus and bowed to the adult in charge

I also learned a number of children’s songs thanks to this temple. As is true of many schools in Japan, the sliding glass doors to the classrooms were almost always wide open regardless of the weather. Children would run freely between classroom and the outdoor space. It’s a very healthy lifestyle. And when they were singing, I heard it all. The first uta I learned was this one:

So simple that I picked it up easily

There were more to come, but to me this one was the most charming. Living across the street from an otera with a yōchien was an unexpected bonus in my quest to learn the Japanese language.

  • otera – お寺 temple. Of course this word uses the honorable “o” in front of it. Remember, Temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto.
  • Tōkōji – 東光寺 the name of a temple in Meguro Ward. It’s very much off the beaten track so only locals would visit it. Or parents of the students at their kindergarten. It also has a cemetery as the temple was created in memory of the death of a ten year old.
  • yōchien – 幼稚園 this usually gets translated as kindergarten, but can include classes of 3,4 and 5 year olds. It contrasts with daycare centers which are called hoikuen.
  • basu – バス bus
  • Ohayō gozaimasu, Sensei – おはようございます 先生 “Good morning, Teacher”
  • atama – 頭 head (part of body)
  • uta – 歌 song

The Crow

Before I went to Japan, I didn’t have much interest in kodomo.

That all changed when I turned twenty-seven and the proverbial biological clock went off with a vengeance. I quickly got pregnant and started learning to be a mother. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by other okāsan—three of us even gave birth in the same month. We got into a routine of spending our days together. There were five of us with infants who regularly gathered each morning.

Our apartment in Tokyo. Bottom left is us and there’s me… still pregnant

Each morning we’d gather at Naoko’s house for kōhī. We took turns coming up with snacks, or we gave Naoko money to cover it. Anyone who received a package of treats from their inaka would bring it to share. We’d put the babies down on the floor. As they grew older and began to crawl, we’d all keep an eye on them, but since the apartment and the room was so small, it was easy to do. The babies amused themselves as the mothers secretly compared their growth.

I was a little surprised when I saw the mothers put the babies on their laps and wrap their hands around a hot teacup. Each time they’d do it, they’d say “achichi” which is baby talk for atsui. This is how they taught the babies the meaning of hot. The babies would feel some discomfort and pull their hands away. At first it seemed like a mean thing to do, but the babies quickly learned that when somebody said “Achichi” it meant it could hurt, and it would stop them in their tracks. This was important because our homes were heated with gas and kerosene space heaters. Babies need to learn not to touch them or go near them. As our babies started to crawl, they’d hear a chorus of “Achichi” if they went too close to the space heaters.

Japanese child rearing practices at that time dictated that a baby must spend three hours outside every day. If you went out by yourself with your baby, three hours passed very very slowly. But in a group, we could make it tolerable. We’d put the babies in their bebīkā and hang out in front of the buildings.

The three babies born in the same month in their strollers

I learned something new when our babies became toddlers. We’d take them outside and they’d toddle around the area in front of the buildings. Sometimes there would be a fall, or a toddler would be running and bang into something. When the inevitable tears started, the mothers would not immediately rush to check for injuries or to give comfort. Instead, they’d point up at the sky and say, “Ah! Karasu ga tonda!” Translated literally it means, “Oh, there is a crow flying.”

It was said with great excitement—as if this event was too good to miss and everyone’s eyes would turn towards the sky. If the injured toddler immediately stopped crying and was distracted, then the mother knew the injury was not serious. And most of the time that is exactly what happened. This makes for a tougher kind of kid that doesn’t get unnecessarily coddled as do children in the United States. It seemed harsh to me at first, but I began to use it myself with great success.

A famous song in Japan

I wondered why it was a karasu. Why wasn’t it just “Look at the birdie?” But karasu are impressive big black birds. I suppose they would be more worthwhile and interesting to look at than just any old bird. And crows appeared in children’s culture in songs and books. All children knew “Nanatsu no ko” which is a song was written in 1921. I doubt there is a Japanese person alive that doesn’t know it. But the karasu is also seen as an evil spirit or a sign of bad luck in Japanese culture as well. Thus the fascination for children. You’d want to watch out for them and they have the thrill that comes with something slightly scary. 

I felt fortunate that my daughter got a strong start in life with many loving adults around her. Days passed quickly, and quite often Naoko’s husband would return from work to find us still lounging around. We all took breaks at lunch and returned to our own homes to let the babies nap and to do some household chores, but mornings and late afternoons would always find us together. I’m very glad that I had that introduction to motherhood.

  • kodomo – 子供 child
  • okāsan – お母さん mother(s)
  • kōhī – コーヒー coffee
  • inaka – 田舎 hometown. This word and concept comes up a lot. Some translate it as ancestral homeland. You never forget your roots in Japan and your inaka is where you go for longer holidays.
  • achichi – あちち This is how you say “hot” to a baby or child. It’s baby talk.
  • atsui – 熱い hot
  • bebīkā – ベビーカー stroller (for a baby). Notice that it is literally “baby car.”
  • Karasu ga tonda カラスが飛んだ “Oh look, a crow is flying!” It’s an expression used to distract a toddler or small child. Kind of like telling a child to look up at an airplane to distract them.
  • Nanatsu no ko – 七つの子 The name of a famous folk song that everyone can sing the first few lines of.