Archive for February, 2016

Happy Birthday, Japan. National Foundation Day

February 11, 2016

Today, February 11th is Japan’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Japan!

How old is Japan? Very old, that’s how old Japan is. So don’t expect a birthday cake because it’s unlikely we could find one big enough to accommodate the appropriate number of candles.

Japan’s oldest chronicles, Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, tell us Japan was founded in 660BCE on February 11th with the ascension of Jimmu, the first emperor, to the throne. February 11th, not at all accidentally, also coincides with the beginning of spring and the beginning of the New Year by the ancient way of counting.

In modern Japan, the occasion has nothing of the birthday party about it. In fact, it is a sombre day, in contrast with the colourful and sometimes boisterous celebrations that mark many of Japan’s festivals and holidays. Office workers and school kids have the day off, flags are flown in public places. In fact, it’s probably valued as a day away from work more than an occasion to remember the nation’s origins.

While the observance of Japan’s national day is somewhat muted, the origin of the nation is the exact opposite. The founding of Japan is an epic tale of gods, conquest and adventure.

The sun goddess Amaterasu created the islands and mountains of Japan, but it was her great-grandson who forged the nation. Seeking a central location to rule the country he set out from Kyushu to conquer Naniwa (which is now Osaka) but was defeated by the local ruler.

Realising that he lost because he was battling east, into the sun, he tried again, this time approaching Osaka from the east and heading west. In this manoeuvre he was aided by an eight-legged crow. The ploy was successful, and after his victory was accepted as emperor of all Japan.

According to the chronicles, Jimmu lived to 126 years old, an auspiciously long life for the founder of a nation.

Jimmu started his mythical quest from Kyushu, which interestingly, in the real-world, was indeed a focus of power and culture in Japan’s early history. Kyushu is also the venue for one of Dragonfly’s tours, the Japan Gateway Tour, which explores the dramatic volcanoes and hot springs of the region, and which also provides the traveller with a few days in Osaka, Jimmu’s goal in his quest for nationhood. The Kyushu Gateway tour runs annually in May, and there are spaces available on the small group tour of Japan in 2016 and 2017.

Kyushu Gateway Tour

While we may not be raising the roof for Japan’s birthday, I think we can raise a glass to the Emperor Jimmu for giving us this fine country to celebrate.

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The National Flag of Japan

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Beans, sushi and the devil

February 3, 2016

DTJ_0528After a long, hard day at the office, Dad wearily approaches his front door. Suddenly, he is ambushed. The air is filled with chants of ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ and he is battered by a hail of flying beans.

Uh-oh! It’s Setsubun again.

Setsubun: tradition has it that this is the eve of spring and therefore a day to celebrate the cycle of life and annual renewal. The name, rather blandly, means ‘division of the seasons’. Bad luck in the form of malicious spirits is banished from your home, and you welcome the good things that the new year is going to bring.

You could say that Setsubun is spiritual spring-cleaning.

So why pick on Dad? What has he done to deserve this assault and battery with dried soy beans?

Traditionally one member of the family — usually the father — would put on a devil costume or a devil mask to represent the spirits to be driven away: the chant of the children ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ literally means ‘Devil go away! Luck come in!’ The custom, which is called mamemaki or ‘scattering of the beans’, was imported from China about 800 years ago. The beans, which are normally roasted soy beans, are thought to symbolise good luck, though to find out why we might have travel back in time to ask the ancient Chinese.

For many kids these days, the significance of the rituals takes second place to the opportunity to legitimately pelt their father — who has probably forgotten what day it is — with small, hard objects. After this, each member of the family will eat the same kind of beans (though presumably not ones they’ve picked off the floor), one for each year of their life plus one for luck.

The bean ceremony is not the only way of celebrating this venerable and colourful festival.

Many people will make their way to shrines to take part in larger, wilder bean-oriented food fights or string up dried sardine heads outside the house or drink ginger sake — many of these activities depend on where you live.

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There is a tradition that started in Kansai that is catching on across the country. This involves eating a whole, uncut makizushi (rolled sushi, or fish and salad rolled into a tube of rice and seaweed) while facing in that year’s lucky direction — the lucky direction is another import from Chinese feng shui and will vary from year to year. Effective marketing and the opportunity to gorge yourself on one of Japan’s signature dishes in the name of good fortune has made this practice increasingly popular across the country and can be enjoyed with the family or as part of outdoor community events.

And for Dad, stuffing himself with makizushi more than makes up for the bean assault he suffered earlier in the evening

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End of Ski Trip Tour in Kyoto

February 2, 2016

I was fortunate enough to meet with this bunch a couple of days ago in Kyoto at the end of their private ski trip tour. As always there never enough time, have a safe journey home guys!

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