Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine's Day

February 14

Happy Valentine's Day!

It's been a busy week or 2. Last Friday was Harikuyou, a memorial for needles. We should stick our sewing needles into a block of tofu or konnyaku to give them a rest from all that hard sewing for a day, and give a prayer of thanks for their efforts and also pray for our sewing skills to improve. Since few people still sew, it's probably not a huge occasion, but I wouldn't be surprised if some fashion designers here followed the tradition. Some shrines like Egara Tenjin in Kamakura hold thanksgiving services for needles.

The Harikuyou service at Egara Tenjin... a giant block of tofu acts as a pin cushion.

Monday was a national holiday (National Foundation Day) and today is Valentine's Day, so this is a great week for the average salaryman: a day off, and hopefully, a lot of chocolate. Not so much fun for the average housewife though: an extra day of cooking 3 meals and making 'honmei choco'.

The macaron craze continues - Muji has make-your-own macaron kits for 'honmei choco'

Got these beautiful silicon chocolate moulds at Muji, to make 'wagashi' shaped chocs and cookies.

My own efforts weren't so photo ready. White chocolate is NOT chocolate!
They're only as good as the chocolate you use.

Every year though, it seems fewer women are buying 'giri choco' - those chocolates one feels socially obligated to buy for male co-workers and sempai - and more are buying 'tomo choco', chocolates for their female friends. This year's commercials for Meiji chocolate shows a typical high school girl making chocolates for her friends at school, intercut with her and her friends laughing and hanging out. Boys don't get a look-in. Even Arashi's Matsujun, who is magically 'supervising' her cooking, misses out on the chocolates.

Here's Matsujun looking more like someone's grandpa for Meiji

And he finds out the high school girl didn't make him any chocolates.

As a result, the packaging is getting girlier every year. I still saw sake flavour and even Tabasco flavour chocolates, aimed at men, and a lot of novelty packaging (chocolates wrapped to look like dried abalone, dried sardines, etc was popular with the high school boys I saw at Loft).

In case you forgot the date, Plaza stores will wrap your gift in bold arrows.

Some of my hubby's haul (the Ghana will be made into Gundam-shaped chocolates today). I really hope the 'dried fish' ones don't taste like fish!

Chocolate Nano blocks to build a 'beer' nanoblock. "Love for Boy"' sounds a bit too much like "boy love" , but anyway...

Popular stores like Loft, Tokyu Hands and Plaza also give out free instructional magazines full of recipes and decorating ideas.

I'm not sure what message this breath mint cocktail sends to the man in your life, but there are a lot of old dudes on the rush hour trains who could do with a few strong mints.

This shopping bag will proclaim your feelings to the world.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013



Spring is coming! It doesn't feel like it today (and it snowed again yesterday) but last weekend, the weather teased us with a few balmy sunny days, up to 17 degrees. Sunday 3rd was setsubun, marking the transition to spring or risshun.

The camellia tree on our street, lightly frosted.

Originally, setsubun was celebrated just before New Year – when Japan followed the Chinese calendar. It kind of made sense to chase out the bad luck of last year, so that we can start afresh. 

You can pick up the oni masks for free when you buy the soy beans to throw.

We should throw beans to chase away evil spirits before we start the new year. Think of it as spiritual spring cleaning. I wrote about it here, last year. 

At the station last Saturday, they were having an Akita promotion, complete with guys dressed up as Namahage – the local oni, who traditionally go house to house at New Year to scare naughty children. No one was scared of them this time – kids were happily posing.

Does this kid look scared? Not at all.

We sat in this year’s direction - SSE to eat a whole sushi roll without stopping or speaking. One of my friends told me that growing up, ehomaki was only a Kansai tradition, and Tokyo people thought it was weird and funny, but now everyone does it. I just bought ehomaki at the convenience store for lunch on Sunday, but when I went to the supermarket later in the afternoon, they had about 6 metres of refrigerator cabinet dedicated to ehomaki, and the crowds were crazy.  For people who don’t eat sushi, a lot of stores are selling roll cakes done up as ehomaki:  a long roll of sponge cake filled with cream and strawberries and wrapped in a chocolate crepe to mimic the nori. Delicious!

We had a roll cake "ehomaki".

Liza Dalby describes the many setsubun traditions celebrated in Kyoto in her book Geisha.
If you live in Kyoto, you can also visit 4 shrines in the 4 directions (this is called Shiho mairi), a tradition that many geisha still follow. Stalls sell shougazake – ginger sake – basically the milky sweet sake, with grated ginger. It's nice and warming at this time of year, but I’d rather drink Stone’s Ginger Wine, or just add ginger to regular sake.

The four shrines are: Yoshida shrine to the East; Kitano tenmangu to the west  which has gorgeous plum blossoms and a famous flea market on the 25th of each month; Akiba Jinja (to the north) and Mibu temple near the centre of Kyoto (just south of Nijo castle). 

And if you want to see geisha at setsubun, your best bet is Yasaka shrine in Gion, where, if you’re lucky, you might catch a little package of beans and sweets thrown by local maiko. 

Setsubun celebrations at Yasaka shrine, courtesy of kyotoguide.

Monday, January 14, 2013

seijin no hi 成人の日

January 14

Coming of age and the coming of snow

Long time, no see. We escaped to Australia for a warm Christmas and New Year. How I missed fresh, cheap mangoes, warm nights and dry, sunny days. But we're back to Tokyo, and the cold.

Yesterday was "Seijin no hi", or Coming of Age Day, when everyone turning 20 this year, has an official celebration. It was also the worst snow in the Tokyo area for about 17 years. Cue scenes of girls in elaborate furisode (long-sleeved kimono worn by unmarried women), complete with platform zori shoes and little socks, shrieking as they plunged ankle-deep through the snow.

Cold feet!

I teach part-time at a university, and a lot of my students were looking forward to Seijin no hi, which for the girls, involved getting up around 4am for hair and makeup and dressing (you can get a package including kimono rental, hair etc and studio photos, but it books up early - like a year in advance). Some of my more traditional, "ojousama" girls were going to wear their mother's kimono. The girls from AKB48 wore quite retro kimono this year, and it seems to be a bit of a trend to wear an old-school design.

One of the AKB48 girls - don't ask me who - with a very retro pattern.

The serious fashion girls are more into taisho and early showa styles, with very simple hair. I think they look particularly gorgeous, but they're in the minority. Most girls go for very fluffy, cutesy styles with extra frills, diamantes and over-the-top hair.

Aoi Yu in the drama "Osen", playing a hard drinking restrauteur with a taste for taisho-style kimono

A nice example of "taisho chic" with bold prints and simple accessories.

Most guys wear suits, though a few go for traditional hakama styles. There were some "yankee" guys (badly bleached hair, inexplicably shaved eyebrows, etc) in very colourful hakama.

So what's it all about? It's a way to mark the official transition to adulthood - at age 20, they are free to marry who they please, vote and drink. Actually, most 19 year olds already drink. Local councils hold official ceremonies for the year's 20 year olds, where they get small presents and stirring speeches. Some councils had collected and kept letters that the kids (sorry, I'm old - anyone under 25 is a kid to me!) wrote to themselves at age 10.  One of the biggest celebrations is at the Yokohama Arena with thousands of kimono clad young adults, but those lucky enough to live in Urayasu, Chiba, can go to Disneyland and be welcomed by Mickey. Those in Shibuya met another new 20 year old, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who lived up to her zany reputation with a modern kimono decorated with flying horses.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

Some of the Shibuya gals - fashion's adventurers - went for the "Oiran" look this year, modelled on Edo-era courtesans. Although with their bared shoulders, they were more like Anna Tsuchiya in "Sakuran" than traditional oiran.

Anna Tsuchiya in Sakuran

Apparently, Seijin no Hi has been around since AD 714, when a young prince decided to dress up to celebrate becoming an adult, but it's been widely popular since 1876, when the official age of adulthood was set at 20.

And so, that snow. Around 10.30am, it started to snow. And snow. It snowed for about 7 hours, stopping trains, airplanes and cars and closing down the highways.

It started innocently enough...

And didn't stop.

Our gate with little snow caps.

One of our neighbours started shovelling snow around midday, but he was losing the battle. Finally, around 5pm, the snow turned to light rain and we all headed outside to make a path. We live in a quiet cul-de-sac, so we're responsible for our own road. While it was light and fluffy, shovelling was pretty easy, but the fear was it would freeze into hard lumps overnight. It's certainly a good workout! With the neighbours working together, it was actually quite cheerful. That's one of the things I like about living here - everyone pulls together. They were disappointed that it wasn't "my first snow sighting", though. Within an hour, we had a walkable path down to the main road, and everyone had a safe driveway.

Digging a path

Our "road".

Through the night, as the snow thudded off our roof, I had to remind myself that it was just snow, not people jumping on my head. This morning, I looked out and I could see treacherous ice. Kind of scary. The TV is warning everyone to be careful not to slip. I'll be stomping like a crazy woman in my heavy boots. Not at all elegant, or fashionable, but I won't be the one with a wet backside! Keep safe, everyone!