Study Tips for the JLPT N3

In Japan, the summer testing date for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test has come and gone. This year, I decided to attempt N3, the newest testing level that claims to cover language used in everyday situations. To my surprise, studying for this level of the test was a bit harder than I thought it would be.

After N3 was added to the JLPT roster, tests from previous years stopped being released as study material. This coupled with the fact that N3 is fairly new makes it difficult to find official study materials outside of one textbook and online test. As soon as I realized this, I realized just how much material “everyday situations” could possibly cover, and I was quickly overwhelmed because I didn’t feel like I knew what would be on the test.

After taking the test, however, I think finally have a good idea of what the official study materials were trying to tell me to prepare for. So today, I’m going to talk about my tips for studying for the JLPT N3. If you’re studying for the test date in December or are thinking about taking this level eventually, I hope this can help you!

 

  1. Tone and Synonyms

If you look carefully at some of the practice questions in the official study materials for N3, you’ll notice that some questions have two answers that essentially mean the same thing. Often, what makes one answer right and one answer wrong is its tone and level of formality. To prepare yourself for these kinds of questions, make sure you have a good understanding of when certain words or phrases should be used.

Study basic keigo so you have some grasp of formal Japanese.

Study the casual counterparts of the keigo so you have an idea of what language is good for a variety of contexts.

Take note of how grammar and verb forms affect the tone. For example, what’s the difference between ~かもしれない, ~はず, and ~にちがいない? How about the difference between ~てもいいですか and ~たらどうですか? It’s good to know these by heart, and it’s even better to know when and why they’re used.

Take note of how vocabulary fits the tone of a composition or conversation. For example, when would you use したがって over それから? わけover 理由?

On the note of understanding vocabulary, knowing the synonyms of different words could help you. One pair of synonyms that I learned recently was おなかがついた and おなかがへった. Both of these phrases mean, “I’m hungry,” but I had never heard おなかがへった before I moved to Japan and started having conversations with my coworkers.

N3 won’t ask you to do a lot of reading for inference like higher testing levels might, but it will try to test your ability to read context, determine tone, and name synonyms.

 

  1. Hiragana and Katakana Vocabulary

If you’re taking N3, you clearly know hiragana and katakana. Make sure your vocabulary of hiragana and katakana words is as strong as your knowledge of kanji. This can help you on almost every section of the test simply by increasing your chances of understanding what’s written in front of you. The last thing you want is to be confronted with a question and not understand some of the content.

 

  1. Kanji

Of course, you can never know too many kanji either. Learn as many as you can for the same reasons you should build your hiragana and katakana vocabulary. It can only help you understand more. Just be careful not to focus too much on kanji, because a lot of the more difficult characters throughout the test will actually come with furigana. It’s still worth learning how to read these to understand their meaning, but don’t go overboard on kanji and neglect other parts of your study routine.

 

  1. Syntax

Understanding how different grammar forms fit together is essential for understanding the N3. Practicing this can be tricky, so take advantage of what you can find. Finish the exercises in the official study materials and make sure you understand why certain grammar fits together the way it does. Look up different grammar in dictionaries, and read through their rules. If you know someone who speaks a high level of Japanese, ask them what sounds right or wrong in terms of syntax and why.

By now you’re probably noticing that the names of the game in N3 are why and how. Why, why, why, why, why. How, how, how, how, how. This fits back in with my first tip about studying tone. The people who write N3 every year know that you know a decent amount of Japanese. What they want to know now is how well you understand the way this language actually works in everyday usage.

 

  1. Recommended Materials

The official N3 textbook and the online tests on the JLPT website are the best starting points for building your study routine. Both of these will give you a good idea of how the test will feel in each section, and what kinds of questions you’ll encounter. Outside of these materials, though, there are plenty of other resources that can help you.

Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui’s A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar was something I couldn’t put down when studying for N3. In addition to being easy to use, it gives great explanations of how the grammar you’re looking up actually works. It has several entries for particles like に so it can properly explain all the different ways this particle fits into Japanese grammar. In certain entries, this dictionary will also tell you phrases similar to the one you’re looking up, and clarify the difference between these similar phrases. Most helpful of all, the phrases in this dictionary are some of the most commonly used in the Japanese language and therefore, they’re things that you’ll likely find on the N3. (Side note, these authors also have dictionaries for intermediate and advanced grammar if you’re interested!)

If you still can’t find the explanations you need, though, asking someone who already speaks Japanese for help is one of the best things you can do. While I was going through the N3 textbook, I marked a few questions I couldn’t understand even after trying to look up the grammar and vocabulary and showed them to some of my coworkers. My coworkers were probably the biggest help to me while I studied.

If you don’t know someone who speaks Japanese, though, you can always try using online Q&A forums, because someone else has probably asked a similar question to yours before. Using Japanese media to study can also help. NHK News, for example, has a free app called NHK Easy Japanese News. This app lets you read daily news in N4 and N3 level Japanese. It also comes with things like furigana, vocabulary lists, videos, and settings where you can hide the furigana or begin looking at the news in more difficult Japanese. Look around for apps like these that expose you to real-world Japanese, and you might end up learning exactly what you need to.

 

  1. Before the Test

A friend of mine took the JLPT the same day I did, and he gave me some good advice for what to do the day before the test.

Don’t study.

According to him, the day before the test shouldn’t be about studying, it should be about mental preparation. As he puts it, studying up until the last minute probably won’t give you too much more of a chance of remembering your material than if you took a day off. On top of that, getting anxious or frustrated can be really detrimental to you during the test because you might not have a lot of time to spare. You want to be able to focus as clearly as you possibly can, especially since N3 covers a lot of subtle language points.

For all of these reasons, taking a whole day to just relax and not think about the test might be a good way to prepare, too. I can’t speak for you, but it definitely worked for me. I stayed at home and watched movies, did some cleaning, and tried some new recipes for lunch and dinner. By the time that day was over, I felt like I was ready to take the test. The day of the test, I went through my kanji flashcards one last time, but in general, I tried not to stress too much about cramming.

 

I hope these tips help you get a better idea of what to look for on the N3, and best of luck in all of your studying!

がんばろう!

 

 

 

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Anime Recommendations: Gegege no Kitaro 6

Featured photo credit: http://www.infogranny.com/gegege-no-kitaro-anime-2018/

Gegege no Kitaro was originally a series of comics created by Shigeru Mizuki in the 1960’s. It follows the half-human half-yokai (monster/spirit from Japanese folklore) boy, Kitaro, as he helps humans that are being hurt or haunted by various yokai.

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Image source: https://otakukart.com/review/gegege-no-kitaro-episode-1-review/

Since its original release, the story has been adapted for both live action movies and animated TV shows. The most recent adaptation is the ongoing 2018 animated series, Gegege no Kitaro 6.

Kitaro’s story is an old favorite of mine because I absolutely love stories about yokai. This most recent adaptation of the series, however, is too good not to recommend for more than one reason.

Like many kids shows, the episodes often switch narrative styles between episodes centering on Kitaro and some plot, and filler episodes that show some extra adventures without advancing a plot.

Usually, I don’t care for filler episodes, but the fillers in Gegege no Kitaro 6 have actually been some of my favorite episodes.

Aside from being a good way to learn a little bit about Japanese folklore, this show, and many of the filler episodes released so far, are packed with social commentary that I’ve rarely seen in kids’ shows today. Moreover, the show presents these commentaries in ways that I’ve never seen a kids’ show deal with issues before. These episodes are memorable, engaging, and most importantly, they’re relevant.

For example, episode 7 was one of the scariest, most intense, most profound episodes I’ve ever seen in a kids’ show.

The main lesson of this episode is, “What goes around, comes around.” The story arc follows the boss of a small company and one of his employees making their way home after a night out eating and drinking. Very early on, it’s established that this boss is a terrible person. He cares little to nothing for his employees outside of what they can do for him, and even kicks Kitaro into a row of trash cans, saying that he looks at home with all the trash. By the way, although Kitaro is half yokai, he looks like a human child, and this boss we’re following throughout the episode doesn’t believe in yokai, so this scene establishes that this boss not above harassing a child he doesn’t even know. Anyway, after a warning from Kitaro that a person’s karma always comes back to them sooner or later, the boss and his employee arrive at the train station to find that there’s only one train left running for the night. Having no other choice, they board the train, and quickly realize they haven’t boarded an ordinary train.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THE END OF EPISODE 7 UNTIL THE END OF THE NEXT PARAGRAPH

 

 

 

The main lesson of the episode comes full circle when it’s revealed that, in truth, the boss and his employee have boarded a train to hell. It turns out that the boss of this company is such an abusive person, that he’s caused multiple employees of his to commit suicide…including the employee that’s been following him around all night. In fact, both the boss and the employee that we meet at the beginning of this episode have been dead for some time. The employee died from his suicide, and the boss died because the souls of everyone he tormented came back and pushed him into the path of a train. Now, the boss’s actions have come back to haunt him, and the people whose suicides he caused will take him to hell on this train.

 

 

 

 

END OF SPOILER ALERT

I was completely floored by the end of this episode and how they brought about the main lesson. It took a completely different turn than I was expecting, and, at least for me, was incredibly effective at getting me to think about everything I’ve done in my life and how one thing or another might have harmed someone else. Rather than presenting a simple resolution, the story in this filler episode gives you a painfully blunt consequence in order to make sure you understand the gravity of what it’s trying to say: if you’re not careful, your actions and lifestyle can literally mean the difference between life and death for some people.

I just realized another layer of genius episode 7 uses to drive its point. Before you meet the boss and his employee, you meet a young girl who, along with her friends, has been bullying a classmate. The story of the boss and his employee ends up being a cautionary tale to this girl about what she might be doing to her classmate, and what might ultimately happen to her if she doesn’t change her actions. I love that the writers of Gegege no Kitaro 6 included this, because it removes distance and age barriers from the episode’s message. It isn’t just abusive bosses who need to seriously think about how they treat others, but maybe also the young people who are watching this show every week.

When I was in elementary school and middle school, being bullied was part of a normal week for me and many of my friends. The most frustrating thing about this situation, though, was that the teachers at my schools seemed to have no idea how to talk to us about what consequences bullying can actually have. I distinctly remember having an assembly where one of the teachers stood in front of us and said, “We’ve gotten the impression that you all aren’t treating each other respectfully,” and I thought, “No duh.” It wasn’t until high school that we touched on what abuse or bullying can do to a person, but even then, the conversations were pretty glossed over. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve developed a vocabulary and knowledge to talk to people about why the way we treat others matters, but I don’t think I could have put it as clearly as episode 7 did.

Not all episodes of Gegege no Kitaro 6 deal with topics this intense. Some are exactly what you would think a monster of the week show would be. Some focus specifically on Kitaro and his growing friendship with different humans. Others, though, go a little bit further than that and test the waters of what a kids’ show can actually do. Episode 6 touched on Japan’s problem of rural towns slowly being abandoned by younger generations, and episode 1 took jabs at vloggers who do stupid things for views on their channel (the most impressive thing about this episode was that it criticized misuse of technology without saying technology is inherently bad). It’s a combination of all these different kinds of stories that make Gegege no Kitaro 6 so compelling for me, and if you decide to give the anime a try, I hope you enjoy it too.

Side note, apparently Shigeru Mizuki grew up in Sakaiminato, a tiny coastal town not too far from where I live. The street in front of the train station is dedicated to the show, and they even have a museum. I’m absolutely stopping by Sakaiminato soon!

If you want to hear a bit more about the social commentary in episode 1 of the newest adaptation of Gegege no Kitaro, Gaijin Goombah over on YouTube has a great episode on the subject.

Thanks for reading this recommendation! I hope I’ve gotten you interested!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunrise Izumo: Western Japan’s Sleeper Train

This was just a fraction of the view I had from my seat about an hour outside of Tokyo. I had left Izumo the night before, and was waking up on the other side of Japan.

According to the research I’ve done, sleeper trains used to be much more common in Japan. However, as bullet trains became the norm, many of them were discontinued. Now, the Sunrise Express is one of the last sleeper trains in Japan.

The Sunrise Express is made up of two trains that separate down the line: the Sunrise Izumo, which runs between Tokyo and Izumo, and the Sunrise Seto, which runs between Tokyo and Takamatsu on Shikoku island. At either end of the line, you fall asleep on the trip, and then wake up at your destination.

When I rode the Sunrise Izumo back in March, I had chosen the cheapest seat, the nobi nobi zaseki. These are long, carpeted seats arranged in double-decker rows with curtains that close around the front for some privacy. This seat also came with my own window. Once I got settled in, the first thing I did was turn off the seat light and watch Shimane passing by. We seemed to go just about everywhere from Matsue station, to train tracks that intersected tiny rural roads. Fun fact, these seats are free if you have a JR Pass!

Definitely my favorite thing about riding this train was, true to the train’s name, watching the sun rise. I woke up a bit earlier than I planned, only to look out my window and see the sun over the Pacific Ocean. I grabbed what I’d brought for breakfast, and headed straight to the lounge car. There, I got to watch houses and cherry blossoms go by as we passed through Yokohama and rocked along towards our final stop. Normally, I don’t like waking up early, but it was something special to get to see the landscape before it had woken up completely. The fact that I don’t normally get up for sunrises made it even more special!

If you’re looking for a unique way to get to Shimane, you should definitely look in to the Sunrise Express. I will forewarn this, though, I’m five feet, six inches tall (about 160 cm), and I couldn’t help but notice that my head wasn’t too far away from the ceiling in the nobi nobi zaseki. If you’re much taller than me, you might want to get a single sleeper or twin sleeper, since those are actual rooms, with higher ceilings. Also, there’s no food served aboard the train, no pillows in the nobi nobi zaseki, and no towels provided for the shower, so make sure to be prepared and pack these things with you.

If you’re looking for some more information about sleeper trains in Japan, check out the JR pass website. Happy travels!

https://www.jrailpass.com/blog/night-trains-sunrise-express

On Disaster Preparedness: Tips for ALTs

When I first came to Japan, senior ALTs assured all the new arrivals that since Shimane Prefecture does not sit on the ring of fire in the Pacific Ocean, big earthquakes are rare in this area. However, the longer I’ve lived in Japan, the more I’ve asked myself questions about how prepared I really am for a disaster or an emergency.

Earthquakes can still happen in Shimane. Some of my teachers at my bigger school told me that the year before I arrived, there was a small earthquake in the middle of the school day. Nothing was damaged and no one was hurt, but school was cancelled for the day.

A couple of weeks ago, a chime sounded from everyone’s phones in the staff room. One of my teachers told me it was a test for the missile alert system; in case a missile from North Korea started flying over Japan.

Not too long ago, there was a fire at a hot spring near Izumo station. No one was hurt, and no other buildings except for the hot springs’ was damaged. But many of the buildings in Izumo are built so close together, that it could be easy for fires to spread if the conditions were right.

Like the rest of Japan, Izumo is full of narrow roads that are shared by cars, bikes, and pedestrians. If you’re using one of these roads, you have to constantly be aware that you’re not putting yourself or someone else in danger.

When I asked myself if I really knew what to do in any of these situations, I found I was pretty unsure. For that reason, I took the opportunity last Saturday to go to a disaster preparedness class for foreigners at Izumo’s Fire Station. This week, I want to share a bit about what I learned so that any current or aspiring ALTs can be a bit more confident should they ever have to face a disaster or emergency in Japan.

 

Earthquakes

  1. Phone Alarms

If you buy a phone in Japan that’s served by Soft Bank or one of the other big phone companies in Japan, your phone will come with a built-in alarm for earthquakes. When it goes off, this alarm will chime and say, “Jishin desu. Jishin desu.” Earthquake. Earthquake. When you hear this, protect your head, and get as low to the ground as you possibly can. Ideally, you should hide under a sturdy table and away from heavy furniture that can fall over.

I didn’t buy a phone when I came to Japan. I just switched the SIM card in my phone from the States. For this reason, I don’t have a built-in alarm. However, a friend told me that you can download disaster alert apps for earthquakes and other disasters. If you’re using a phone from your home country when you arrive in Japan, look up disaster apps that will work for your phone.

 

  1. The News

After an earthquake stops, you should listen to the news so that you can hear tsunami warnings. You can listen to the news either through a TV, a handheld radio, or possibly the radio in your car if you have one. Make sure you have some way of listening to the news in Japan. Specifically, tune in to NHK Satellite Broadcast on TV or NHK Radio 2 Broadcast.

 

  1. Gas and Electricity Safety

If you’re using the stove when an earthquake happens, DO NOT go to turn off the gas. Many gas ranges in Japan will automatically turn off during an earthquake. Once the shaking stops, though, you should turn off your gas valve and turn off your circuit breakers. If you smell gas, open all the windows, and call the gas company after you exit the building. DO NOT use any electric lights or open flames if you smell gas.

 

  1. Go Outside

If you’re inside when an earthquake happens, open doors and windows so that you have multiple ways to get outside. Turn off your gas and electricity, grab your emergency kit, and go outside as soon as you can. You should go somewhere that’s away from large buildings.

Around whatever city you live in, you’ll probably see signs that look like this.

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These are places you should go immediately after an earthquake happens. Take note of where the nearest ones to you are as soon as you can. The one closest to me is a park near my house. Many of the parks around Izumo are also evacuation sites. Wait here for instructions on what to do next.

 

  1. Shelters

In some cases, you may need to go to emergency shelters after an earthquake. Shelters in Izumo have signs that look just like the Evacuation Area signs, except they explicitly say that they’re a shelter rather than an Evacuation Area.

Like the evacuation sites, look for the shelters closest to you as soon as you can, and practice walking there sometime. Shelters could be places like schools, the city hall, or other places like community centers or event halls.

 

  1. Emergency Kits

Before an earthquake happens, begin gathering things for an emergency kit. At stores around Japan, you can buy things like backpacks, first aid kits, bottled water, and non-perishable foods to put in this kit. This is the checklist I got from the Izumo Fire Station.

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If you’re worried about the expense of buying everything at once, buy one or two things each time you go to the store. Or, better yet, if your house or apartment had other ALTs living in it before you, look around and you’ll probably find that you already have things like a basic first aid kit.

When gathering food for your kit, make sure you get things that you usually eat. This way, you can eat the food and replace it after a time to keep it from getting old. I’ve been told you should change the water you keep around every six months, and pay attention to the expiration dates on whatever food you gather.

Make sure you have enough food and water for at least seven days.

 

  1. Heavy Furniture

To keep things like bookshelves or refrigerators from falling over, you can buy tension rods like these.

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To use them, stick one between the furniture and the ceiling and extend it until it fits tightly between the furniture and the ceiling.

Also, take a look around the area where you sleep. If there is something heavy that could fall on you in your sleep, move it away from you or make sure to secure it. I had to do this recently. After hearing this advice, I realized that the clothes dryer I used was higher up and not secured. I put the dryer in a lower spot as soon as I realized that.

The last thing you should be wary of is objects on furniture. These could fall off during an earthquake, so make sure heavy objects can’t fall on you when you sleep or when you’re hiding under a table. If you can, figure out some way to secure these objects.

 

  1. Glass

In some stores, you can buy a sticky film to put on windows or glass casings. In an earthquake, this film will keep broken glass in place so that it doesn’t litter your floor. After an earthquake, make sure to be careful of any broken glass or other sharp objects. Have some shoes ready to walk around your apartment with so that you don’t injure your feet.

9. Neighbors

Wherever you live, get to know your neighbors. In the disaster preparedness class I took, there was a lot of emphasis on helping each other during a disaster, and making sure you can provide some help to others.

Starting to get to know the people you live close to can be as simple as saying Ohayougozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwa whenever you see your neighbors. When you greet people, make sure to use polite Japanese, especially if you’re talking to older people. Going to international events as often as you can or participating in neighborhood disaster drills is another good way to get to know people in the community.

One way that I began talking with the people who live across from me was during a snowstorm this winter. My neighbor noticed me digging my car out of the snow so I could go to work, and he asked me if I needed help. He also asked me, “Don’t they cancel work during this kind of weather in the United States? Japanese people work too hard.” Offer people help when you can. Offer greetings when you see people. Whether you become close with your neighbors or not, it helps to at least know who they are so you can help each other during an emergency.    

 

Fire, Injuries, and Accidents

 

  1. Emergency Number

The emergency number in Japan is 119. Some cities have translation services (Izumo does), but not every city will. Find out if your city has emergency translators as soon as you can. Just in case there is no translation service, try to learn the Japanese vocabulary for “ambulance,” “accident,” “fire,” and other words related to emergencies. You should also memorize your address in Japanese and the names of any other landmark buildings and streets.

 

  1. Useful Phrases

Fire = kaji

            Ambulance = kyu kyu sha

            (Car) Accident = jikko

            Fire! = kaji da! (Shout this when you see a fire to warn other people in the  area.)

 

  1. Fire Extinguishers

Fire extinguishers in Japan are red. To use them, pull out the pin that’s on top of the extinguisher, detach the hose from the side, and squeeze the black handles when you’re ready to spray the fire.

A fire extinguisher’s spray will be able to reach about five to six meters, and will only spray for about fifteen seconds before it starts running out. Make sure you’re within five or six meters of the fire before you start spraying.

Also, DO NOT throw a fire extinguished into the fire. This won’t work the way you think it will.

 

  1. Car Accidents

If you hit another car, you must call the police to report it whether the accident is major or not. If you hit a person, it’s especially important to call the police, even if the person you hit says that they’re fine. The police number in Japan is 110.

 

  1. Drinking and Driving

If you drink any amount of alcohol, you are not allowed to drive or ride a bike. Whether you had one glass or five, you’ll get in trouble. If you go out somewhere and you plan on drinking, take public transportation or carpool with someone.

 

Typhoons

 

  1. Drive Safe

Typhoons (heavy rain and strong wind) are pretty common in Japan. Sometimes, school is canceled during particularly bad days (although staff is often still required to go to school). If you drive a car, make sure you drive more carefully than usual during a typhoon. The weather may make it more difficult to use a car or bike because it will limit your visibility, and possibly affect your steering.

2. Water Safety 

           If you live near water, keep an eye on how high it gets during a typhoon. You may need to put sandbags around water to keep an area from flooding.

 

I hope these tips help anyone who’s been worrying about this kind of thing. Whether you live in Japan, or are just traveling, it helps to know what to do just in case. If you live or have lived in Japan and notice something I missed, please let me know! I’d love to keep this up to date.

Stay safe!

 

 

On Graduation: Part Two, the Ceremony

Last Saturday, I had to be at school at my usual time in a black suit with black shoes. All the other teachers wore the same thing (except for two third year teachers who wore hakama), and every student showed up to school in their uniforms.

Did I mention this was on a Saturday?

The Saturday of the graduation ceremony! I wrote about all the rehearsal leading up to this in my last post, and after anticipating it all week, I loved seeing everything come together!

When I got to school, the main entrance was draped with flags printed with the school’s name. Tables covered in flowers were set up just inside the entrance for parents to sign in. The third year homeroom teachers went to meet their classes in their usual rooms, and the first and second years went to the gym to practice all the songs we’d be singing one more time.

 

The entire gym floor had been covered with mats, and the aisle between all the chairs for students and parents was lined with potted flowers. The gym’s stage was decorated with Japan’s flag, Izumo city’s flag, and the school flag. A large bonzai tree sat on the center podium. A few kerosene heaters were working to keep the gym warm. The first and second year students helped to set all of this up and clean the school the day before. Now, they got to see their efforts contributing to this event.

After the third years filed into the gym with the school band playing to welcome them, we got started. We stood to sing Japan’s national anthem, and after some words from the vice principal, students started being called to the stage to receive their diplomas. At all the graduations I grew up with, receiving diplomas was always the last thing to do in the ceremony, so I was surprised that it happened so quickly here. I was also surprised by the silence as the graduating students walked across the stage. Back home, you’re technically not supposed to cheer for students getting their diplomas until the very end, but everyone ignores that rule. That’s why, when the third years started walking across the stage, I really wanted to clap for them, but everyone else in the gym was completely silent, so I didn’t.

To receive their diplomas, a student would step in front of the principal, who holds out the diploma. The student takes the diploma first with one hand, then the other. Then they hold the diploma over their head, bow, and take a step to the side so that the next student can come to the podium. Once you see all the little steps students have to go through just to move around at graduation, you completely understand why rehearsal is so important. The third years had definitely taken practice seriously, because they seemed to know what to do without even thinking too hard. Actually, the formality of graduation reminded me a bit of Japanese tea ceremony. When you perform a tea ceremony, you have to be very aware of how you hold yourself, how you receive or give something, how you move from one thing to another. The same kind of idea seemed to be present in this ceremony.

After all the graduating students had been given their diplomas, the speeches began. The principal, alumni, and an underclassman all gave speeches congratulating the third years. The speech by the underclassman was especially touching. She delivered a speech thanking her upperclassmen for their leadership in club activities and other school activities, and to say how much she would really miss them. This was the point where I heard sniffles from somewhere in the gym. The student on stage seemed to be close to crying, too, but she held herself together.

After this came my favorite part of the whole ceremony. All the students stood up. The third years turned to face the underclassmen sitting behind them, and all the students sang the graduation song to each other. A good luck from the underclassmen to the upperclassmen, and a goodbye from the upperclassmen to the underclassmen.

After the ceremony was over, the third years went back to their homeroom classes to say some final words to their homeroom teacher and classmates, and to receive a small gift. Since the third years I knew the best were all in different classes, I walked around to see what each class was doing. One teacher brought a guitar and sang for his students, and after the final goodbyes were done, groups of students started gathering together so that their parents could take a class picture.

To end the whole day, me and most of the other teachers gathered inside the entrance to the school, and sent off the third years as they walked out of the school for the last time. This was the point when I could actually say goodbye to the students myself. Everyone took their time leaving as they tried to find teachers they wanted pictures with and talked with their friends. A lot of students had started crying at this point. From what other people have told me, it’s very common in Japan for middle school friends to go to different high schools. For that reason, graduation can be a really emotional time for some students. One student I was saying goodbye to actually started crying as we were talking.

After a long time mingling outside, some of the teachers, had to get ready to host club activities for the first and second year students, so one of the teachers came out of the school with a megaphone and told the third years they had to go home now.

Every school’s graduation is a little bit different in setup depending on what level of school it is and where you are. In general, though, if you go to a graduation ceremony in Japan, here are some essential things to know:

1. Unless you’re a student, dress code is a black suit. If you’re wearing a tie, wear a white one! Don’t wear a black one because those are associated with funerals. 

2. It’s probably going to be cold wherever the ceremony is held, so dress in layers. 

3. If you don’t know what to do, ask one of the teachers. They’re been doing this for years and they’ll know how to help you. 

4. Be prepared for the possibility of crying. 

For any current ALTs out there, I hope you enjoyed this graduation season and can enjoy many more if you’re staying in Japan for a while longer! I definitely enjoyed my first experience with graduation. Seeing everyone graduate has already got me thinking about the next school year. In just a few weeks, new first years will be coming and the second years I’m teaching now will only be a year away from their own graduation!

卒業をおめでとう!

 

On Graduation: Part One, Rehearsal

Graduation for all my students is this Saturday. This is definitely one of the busiest times of the year! On top of final exams for this term, students and teachers need to prepare for the graduation ceremony, and get ready for the school’s closing ceremony, which is a couple weeks from now. Since graduation in Japan is something that’s pretty unique when compared to other countries (especially my home country), I want to dedicate these next couple of posts to talking about my impressions of middle school graduation in Japan!

During Tuesday’s fifth and sixth periods at my bigger school, we had our first graduation rehearsal. The first thing I noticed was how seriously everyone took this. Every grade of students attended, and they had to bring their own chairs from their classrooms into the gym and line them up by class. For the first part of the rehearsal, the students had to practice bowing.

One of the teachers stood in front of the students and told them to stand up.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up. The teacher immediately said, “Too slow, sit back down.”

The students sat back down.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up.

“Better. Boys in the center, you’re slow. You over here, fantastic! Try again.”

The students sat back down.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up.

“Excellent! Now rei! Bow!”

The practice continued like this for a while. Stand up quickly, bow for a count of two and then stand up straight again at a count of three, sit back down all at once when we tell you to sit down. Before and after all of this, don’t move, don’t turn you’re head to look around. You’re either third years or one step closer to becoming third years, so you can do this!

I asked some of my teachers about the reason behind the formality of everything, and they told me that it’s just because graduation is such an important occasion. Leaving middle school is a milestone, and so it’s important to acknowledge that by taking the ceremony seriously and having good manners.

The second half of rehearsal was dedicated to practicing the graduation song. There are a few different songs that are popular to sing at graduations in Japan, and we sang one called “Tabidachi no hi ni.” One student sat on the stage playing the piano. The rest of the students stood up and sang as the music teacher directed them. We took the song a verse at a time, and the music teacher would give the students directions on when and for how long to hold notes, which syllables to enunciate, et cetera. The song is really beautiful! It’s about spreading your wings with courage, and riding the wind with hope.

Today, the Friday before the actual ceremony, we had no classes. This morning, two people from the school’s alumni association came to give a speech to the students. They also presented each of the third year with gifts; an inkan, a name stamp that’s used as a signature in Japan, and a round case for each student to hold their graduation certificate in.

From here, we practiced more key parts of the graduation ceremony. We practiced the graduation song, the school song, and Japan’s national anthem. The third years practiced walking in and out of the gym, which was actually pretty exciting to watch! Before the third years walked in, the doors to the gym were closed. Some members of the school band stood on the second tier of the gym and played trumpets. Then, some teachers opened the doors to the gym and the whole school band started playing while the third years walked in two by two. Teachers and the other students had to clap for the third years the entire time they were entering and exiting the gym. There are a lot of students at my bigger school, so clapping for them gives your arms more of a workout than you would think!

So far, I think my favorite part of the graduation ceremony is when the students sing “Tabidachi no hi ni.” Not only is the song beautiful, but to sing it, the third years will turn around to face the second and first years. The students sing the song to each other. In this way, the third years get to tell their underclassman goodbye and good luck, and the underclassman get to say it back to their graduating class.

I like that the whole school gets to participate in the graduation ceremony. Doing this seems to make graduation a celebration for the whole school, not just the graduating class. I like the little bit of significance that this adds to the passing of each grade’s time. Not everyone is leaving school on the day of the ceremony, but it’s still good to acknowledge passing from one grade to the next. Also, it seems good to send off each year’s graduating class as a school. Events throughout the year like the Sports Festival and the Culture Festival have given the students a lot of time to work with each other outside of their own classes and grades. It’s nice that everyone gets the opportunity to take part in saying goodbye to the upperclassmen.

The ceremony starts early tomorrow. I can’t wait to see it!

Kakuzo Okakura and Lafcadio Hearn: Recommended Reading from Meiji Period Authors

I wanted to try something different again for this week’s post. I’ve already posted a lot of information about Izumo and a bit about what I understand of the history and traditional culture of the area. My expertise, however, only stretches so far. That said, I want to dedicate this week’s post to some recommended reading. Specifically, recommended reading from authors of Japan’s Meiji Period.

The Meiji Period is most often known as Japan’s emergence from isolation, and shift to modernization. During this period, Japan managed to shift from an isolated country governed by a feudal system, to a player on the global stage, in the span of only a few decades. Of course, this rapid shift sparked a lot of questions. Specifically, questions about how exactly the country should modernize. How could Japan preserve its cultural heritage while also going toe to toe with nations such as the United States or the British Empire? The ways in which this question was answered are really interesting to look at.

Much of the preservation of Japan’s history and cultural heritage during the Meiji Period was done by ordinary people. For example, Matsumoto castle, now considered a national treasure, was slated to be demolished in the Meiji Period. The only reason it wasn’t, was because of efforts led by Unari Kobayashi, a middle school teacher, and Ryozo Ichikawa. These two men gathered support from everyday people, and eventually raised enough money to buy the castle and the land around it, and preserve the area as a public monument.

The two Meiji Period authors I’m going to talk about today led their own efforts to preserve Japan’s cultural heritage through their writing. Maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you haven’t, but their names are Kakuzo Okakura, and Lafcadio Hearn.

 

Okakura and The Book of Tea

 

Kakuzo Okakura was the son of a former samurai, and born just as the Meiji Period’s modernization began. He was educated both in the English language, and in Chinese classics. He spent several years studying in a Buddhist temple, later attended Tokyo University, and spent a period of time working as a consultant for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In his childhood, he was educated in chanoyu, the way of the Japanese tea ceremony.

The Book of Tea, is Okakura’s defense of the significance of the Japanese tea ceremony to both Western nations, and to Japan itself. To Western nations, Okakura claims that both they and Japan can come to better understand each other through a mutual enjoyment of tea culture. To Japan, Okakura writes that chanoyu is not simply a performing art, as Meiji Period officials wanted to classify it, but a philosophy and a way of life.

I love this book for so many different reasons. For one, Okakura does an excellent job of clearly explaining the importance of each part of the tea ceremony. He explains the design of Japanese tea rooms, human nature as seen through the tea ceremony, the philosophy of flower arranging, and the symbolism behind sharing a cup of tea, all the while remaining accessible, relatable, and funny. I’ve never had the opportunity to formally study tea ceremony before, but after reading this book, I have a much better understanding of why the tea ceremony is so special in Japan’s culture. On top of that, Okakura offering his personal thoughts on modernization at the start of this book helped me to better understand the general mindset of the Meiji Period.

Another reason to love this book is Okakura’s, for lack of a better word, sass. In the first chapter, “The Cup of Humanity,” Okakura writes something that essentially says, “Look, I’ve heard all the unflattering things you Westerners think about Japan. It doesn’t bug me, though. Japan has been making fun of you guys for way longer than you’ve been making fun of Japan. Check out some of these things we’ve written about you!” Okakura doesn’t dwell on this, though, and moves on to say that nations should stop hurling insults at each other and just enjoy a cup of tea. After all, tea is the one thing we can all enjoy, and life is crazy, so let’s enjoy the little things together.

Probably the most important reason I keep going back to The Book of Tea, is to absorb the philosophy of life that Okakura lays out. Here are a couple of quotes from the first chapter of The Book of Tea that I go back to read time and time again:

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence…It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

“(Teaism) is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humor itself–the smile of philosophy.”

By explaining the philosophy behind each aspect of the tea ceremony, as well as the symbolism of the tea ceremony itself, Okakura inspires readers to think about how one can apply the philosophy of tea in their own lives. Ultimately, Okakura encourages readers to find beauty in the little things they see every day; to seek out harmony; and to live simply so as not to miss out on what truly matters in life. Okakura encourages readers to do this especially when times are difficult, uncertain, or violent. For this reason, the philosophy of The Book of Tea is extremely relevant today.

To close this section on Okakura, here is one final quote from the end of chapter one:

“The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practised for the sake of utility. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

 

Lafcadio Hearn: Outside Coming in

 

Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece to an Irish father and a Greek mother. He was raised in Ireland by his aunt from his father’s side, and lived in Cincinnati and New Orleans for a part of his adult life. Here, he notably wrote about Creole culture and cuisine, before traveling to Japan. He was sent to Japan as a newspaper correspondent, but quickly ended that assignment. Instead, he took up an English teaching position in Shimane Prefecture’s Matsue. In the years that followed, Hearn made his home in Japan, moving from Matsue, to Kumamoto, to Tokyo, and writing book after book all the way. He wrote extensively about Japan’s national character, everyday life, religion, spirituality, and folklore, as well as his own travels and observations. Eventually, he married Setsu Koizumi, and became the Japanese national, Yakumo Koizumi.

In Matsue, the city about an hour away from me, Lafcadio Hearn is something like a literary rock star. The express train that connects Izumo and Matsue to main bullet train lines is called the Yakumo Express, after Hearn. There’s a whole museum dedicated to Hearn in Matsue, and nearby this museum, one of Hearn’s former residences is preserved.

The reason for Hearn’s popularity appears to be the effort that he put out to truly understand the inner working of Japanese life. Kakuzo Okakura himself mentioned Hearn as a rare example of a foreigner attempting to really learn something from Japan. According to an aside from Okakura in The Book of Tea, the Meiji Period was a time when most Westerners came to Japan to take or to impart, but never to learn or to receive. Meanwhile, Japan was doing everything it could to learn from Western nations. Then, in the middle of this time period, here comes Hearn. Here comes a Westerner writing books claiming that not only should Japan maintain its cultural identity, but also that the West should make more of an effort to learn from Japan, because Japan is better off than the West in some cases.

If you’re interested in Japanese folklore and mythology, Hearn’s Kwaidan would be an excellent read. Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese ghost stories and examinations of traditional customs that have connections to spirituality in Japan. Hearn wrote at least a couple of different books covering folklore, and from what I’ve read, Hearn was able to write books such as these thanks to his wife, Setsu. According to information from the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue, the two of them would often stay up at night with Setsu telling Hearn all the ghost stories that she had grown up with. Also according to the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, Kwaidan is considered to be Hearn’s masterpiece among his books about folklore. The catalog of the museum writes that the stories of Kwaidan “describe the affection, kindness, wisdom, and morality of ordinary people, and the connection between their actions and the spirit world.”

Other books from Hearn are excellent for learning about life in Meiji Period Japan as well. Books such as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan are Hearn’s observations of the character and daily life of people he knew and encountered throughout his life in Japan. I read Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan some time ago. This particular book focuses on Hearn’s travels throughout Japan, and his observations of everyday life. It was really interesting to read Hearn’s observations of the Izumo area. In reading this book, I realized how much Izumo has changed since Hearn’s time. For example, in one chapter of Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Hearn talks about his desire to see Hinomisaki Shrine. Apparently, at the time Hearn wrote this anecdote, it was difficult to get to the shrine from Izumo. One would either have to make a long journey over land, or a journey by sea. Today, if I want to visit Hinomisaki shrine, I just have to drive about thirty minutes down a windy coastal road.

Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life is another work I read recently. It’s a collection of short stories by Hearn and focuses more closely on the character of people in the Meiji Period (hence the name, Kokoro, which means “heart”). This book of short stories is food for thought on human nature and society. The opening story, “At A Railway Station,” details a real incident in Kumamoto, where a man convicted of murder meets the son of the man he murdered. This incident supposedly moved an observing crowd, and a policeman, to tears. Another story from Kokoro that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about is “In The Twilight Of The Gods.” This is the story of an unnamed narrator looking through a collection of relics that a Westerner has stolen from Japan and plans to sell to the British Museum. The narrator is well versed in Japanese culture and understands the value of each of the relics, while the collector does not. In watching the narrator examine the collection and hearing the collector comment the relics, you get a glimpse of the ignorance of Westerners at the time, and the weight of what Westerners can and should learn from Japan.

At the end of the day, I believe Hearn’s intention in writing his books was to show the Western world just how little they really knew about this country that had just opened itself to the world. Japan has a history that goes back about two thousand years; how many Westerners in the Meiji Period could say they knew very much about any of that history, let alone what daily life in Japan was really like? The wonder Hearn experienced in learning from Japan is tangible in his writings. I believe that in writing his books, he hoped that Westerners would come to experience a portion of that wonder themselves, and truly learn something of what Japan had to teach the world.

 

The works of Kakuzo Okakura and Lafcadio Hearn are what first made me interested in reading more from Meiji Period authors. If you have any interest in Japanese culture or history, I can’t recommend these two authors enough. I’ve especially come to love reading from the Meiji Period because of what experiencing that era of time might teach us today. The Meiji Period was an era of immense, rapid change, that Japan was able to pull through. Today, we are also living in a period of change. Take two seconds to look at current events, and you find conversation after conversation about why and how something about the world as it is now should change. There is support, there is resistance, there are so many screaming matches and literal fist fights. In a time like now, it’s refreshing to look back on authors who also witnessed a tumultuous time of change, but still managed to write about people coming together in mutual respect of life itself. Whether you have an interest in Japanese culture and history, or you want to look at how a society might survive a period of change, I recommend taking a page from the books of these two Meiji authors.

 

Works Cited:

Dixon, Heather, and Junko Yokoyama, translators. Lafcadio Hearn: Tracing the Journey of                 an Open Mind: The Catalog of Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. By Bon                                 Koizumi, Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, 2016.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Tuttle Publishing, 1971.

Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. Kodansha International Ltd., 1989

On Destiny: Kamakura monogatari

Featured Image Source: http://kamakura-movie.jp/

This week, I’m going to do something a little bit different and write about a movie that I saw recently; Destiny: Kamakura monogatari (or Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura in English). This movie came out in December and is directed by Takashi Yamazaki, an award winning director who has also worked on titles such as Space Battleship Yamato (2010), Stand by Me Doraemon (2014), and Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005). He was also born in Matsumoto, the same city I just got back from visiting!

 

『DESTINY 鎌倉ものがたり』 ©2017「DESTINY 鎌倉ものがたり」製作委員会

Source: https://www.cinra.net/news/gallery/137741/3

Based on the 1980’s manga series, Kamakura MonogatariDestiny follows mystery writer, Masakazu Isshiki and his wife, Akiko. The two live in Kamakura, a city where sighting ghosts, spirits, and other mythical beings is a daily occurrence. Masakazu is closer to this side of Kamakura than most, as he helps to solve mysteries related to the supernatural in addition to his writing (by the way, one of the detectives he solves mysteries with is actually a fox). The plot of the movie thickens when Akiko’s spirit is separated from her body and her body disappears. This prevents her from being able to come back to life, and forces her to go to Yomi-no-kuni, the spirit world. To save Akiko, Masakazu has to find her body, and then travel to the spirit world himself to bring her back.

 

I went to see this movie not really sure what to expect, and ended up loving it! I grew up watching movies like The Princess Bride and Spirited Away, and Destiny reminded me of both of those movies! It has equal parts adventure, comedy, magic, suspense, and cute romance moments. On that note, my favorite part of this movie hands down was how it handled all the characters! Aside from Akiko and Masakazu, there were several supporting characters present throughout the movie, and all of them were unique and memorable. The subplots these supporting characters brought to the story made the world of the movie feel really expansive, and gave way to a couple of unexpected twists. Best of all, the side characters didn’t cause the overall story to feel crowded or confusing. Each character had some kind of purpose in the movie’s world that added to the overall experience in the best way possible. Plus, the characters’ personalities were interesting and didn’t follow a lot of the tropes you might normally expect.

The best example of a character who doesn’t follow expected tropes is Shinigami, or the Grim Reaper.

Source: https://hlo.tohotheater.jp/net/movie/TNPI3060J01.do?sakuhin_cd=014912

Shinigami (on the right with lighter hair, played by Sakura Ando) is responsible for escorting souls to Yomi-no-kuni. The thing that immediately drew me to Ando’s character was her appearance. She’s a Grim Reaper, but she’s in a trench coat and bowler hat and looks super friendly (despite being able to take off her face, showing a more skull-like face underneath). None of the cloak, scythe, or creepiness that I’m used to seeing in portrayals of a Grim Reaper. This extends to Shinigami’s personality, too. The audience’s first encounter with this character is Masakazu running into Shinigami escorting the husband of someone he knew to Yomi-no-kuni. Once Shinigami realizes that Masakazu is able to see her, she excitedly introduces herself. You run into Shinigami throughout the movie and each time, she’s meant to be likable. Yes, whenever she shows up, it means someone has died, but she’s also totally willing to help Masakazu bring Akiko back to the world of the living because Akiko’s soul was forcibly separated from her body. In short, I’m used to seeing Grim Reapers as antagonists, or at the very least, creepy. Destiny‘s Shinigami is none of these things. She does her job, but she’s also totally willing to cut you some kind of slack if she can.

Another quick example of a character who doesn’t turn out like you expect is Bimbogami, the god of poverty. He isn’t in the movie for very long, but ends up becoming a pretty endearing character. As I say his character is endearing, remember, this is a god of poverty I’m talking about. Bad luck constantly follows this guy and the people he’s close to. By the time he leaves the main narrative of the story, though, you’ve been able to watch a couple of sweet scenes with him at the center, and by the time the movie ends, you’ll probably like him even more because of this one little thing I won’t talk about because it’s a spoiler.

The best characterization in my opinion, though, is Akiko and Masakazu’s relationship. These two characters are married with basically zero drama. Conflict happens, sure, but it’s almost always from something outside of the two of them. Disagreements happen, sure, but it’s minor disagreement. There is one scene where they actually do have a conflict between the two of them, but they make a point to smooth it over a couple of scenes later. They know immediately after this conflict happens that whatever started the fight isn’t worth lingering over if it puts a rift between them. And how do they fix this rift? By talking to each other and opening up to each other. I cannot count the number of movies and TV shows that use a lack of communication as a means to move plot forward and it drives me up the wall every time because seriously? The problem these characters are having could be solved by a few good lines of conversation, but the characters refuse to have that conversation because plot reasons. That’s not how relationships should work, and it’s definitely not how a relationship worth admiring should work.

However, Akiko and Masakazu’s relationship is, in my opinion, something worth admiring. Not only do they actually talk to each other and have great chemistry as characters, but you can tell in every scene how deeply they care about each other. Especially once the major conflict of the story begins. When the stakes start getting high, both Akiko and Masakazu are willing to sacrifice literally anything to save each other.

While watching Destiny, I imagined that if I were watching this movie back in America, there would be more than a few people who said they didn’t like it because the plot centers around Akiko being saved. However, I don’t think that’s a fair point to dislike this movie on, because Akiko is a very active protagonist who participates in the final fight in her own way. Firstly, Akiko goes to Yomi-no-kuni of her own accord. Secondly, she later puts her life on the line in order to try and save Masakazu. Finally, the whole reason the movie has a happy ending is because of something Akiko does in the movie (not saying what that is because spoilers, but the ending couldn’t have happened without her making it that way). Director, Hayao Miyazaki, was once quoted saying that he favors portraying a relationship between a male and female protagonist that isn’t necessarily romantic, but a relationship in which the two protagonists mutually inspire each other to live. Miyazaki says that if he can do this, he may become “closer to portraying a true expression of love.” Akiko and Masakazu’s relationship is one where each inspires the other to live, and it’s also romantic.

To conclude, I have no idea if this movie will ever be released outside of Japan or if it will ever be available with subtitles. If, however, it does become available (and I really hope it does), I can’t recommend this movie enough. If you want to feel nostalgic with a fantastical adventure and explore the work of a director you might not be familiar with, this is a great movie to check out.

 

On Osechi and New Year’s Food

New Year’s in Japan is something that should be on more than a few bucket lists. It’s a fantastic, fun, colorful celebration, and if you have friends to spend it with in Japan, even better!

Growing up in America, New Year’s celebrations have always been small compared to everything I did this year in Japan. Back home, New Year’s celebrations mainly take place on New Year’s Eve. I either go to a party at a friend’s house, or my family hosts a party with friends at our house. We stay up to watch the New Year’s countdown in Times Square, eat a lot of food, drink a lot of drinks ( I don’t drink, though), and eventually go to sleep after midnight. New Year’s Day is basically reserved for sleeping late, and that’s it for New Year’s in America.

New Year’s in Japan, however, is a completely different affair. This year, I stayed with a friend of mine and her family in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture (I’ll write more on Matsumoto some other time, because it’s an amazing city). I arrived on December 29th, and basically from the moment I arrived, we were working on preparing for New Year’s. The most preparation by far went into making osechi, a boxed spread of food eaten on New Year’s Eve. Osechi are holiday meals that only come once a year. Most interestingly, though osechi vary slightly from family to family, every bit of food in these boxes has a meaning attached to it. Often, the meaning comes from the food’s name, and its homophones in Japanese.

 

Image may contain: food

Just three examples: kuro mamekonbu, and taiKuro mame, or black beans, share a homophone with mame, the Japanese word for “health.” Konbu, seaweed, sounds similar to yorokobu, which means “joy.” Finally, tai, red sea bream, shares ties to the word, medetai or omedetai, a congratulatory event.

One of my favorite osechi foods, which I got to help make, was kuri kinton; mashed sweet potatoes with sweet chestnuts. The kin in this food’s name sounds like the Japanese word for “gold.” On top of that, the gold yellow of the potatoes and the sweet chestnuts suggest gold. Therefore, eating this represents luck with money or business in the coming year.

I could go on and on with the meanings of all these foods but basically, each of them represents a wish for health and good fortune in the new year.

By the way, osechi are huge, and they’re not the only food your supposed to eat on New Year’s. Basically, if you spend New Year’s in Japan, prepare to eat until you feel like your stomach is going to burst. After osechi, you eat toshi koshi soba; soba noodles meant to represent long life. The key to eating these noodles is to not bite them in half while you’re slurping them up. Slurp them whole, and then chew. The noodles themselves represent the long length of life that you want, so you don’t want to bite them any shorter.

The special food doesn’t stop after New Year’s Eve is over. From January first to the third, we gave ourselves a few extra wishes for good fortune by eating peanuts, chestnuts, persimmons, and wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets. We ate each of these things before we ate anything else on the mornings of the first, second, and third. My friend told me that peanuts are called mame, so there you have the homophone again; the wrinkled skin of dried persimmons represents a wish for long life; and the wagashi are usually molded into different shapes that each have a kind of symbolic or festive meaning. In the case of this year, some of the wagashi were shaped like dogs to celebrate 2018 as the Year of the Dog.

On top of all of that, we ate soup with the mochi that we prepared a few days before (See my post, “Mochi Day”: https://mspayneinshimane.wordpress.com/2017/12/29/mochi-day/   ), monaka, which are wafer-type sweets filled with red bean paste, and all the food still leftover in the osechi.

While New Year’s in America is a holiday you can share with either friends or family, the New Year in Japan is all about spending time with family. Together, you hang out under a kotatsu (heated coffee table with a blanket. They’re awesome!), watch New Year’s TV specials, play card games like hanafuda, and eat good food nonstop. It’s all about time together as the new year comes around.

In conclusion, New Year’s in Japan is a fantastic experience, and I’m so happy that if I couldn’t be back home with my own family, that I could still spend the holiday with people I love.

 

Mochi Day

For New Year’s, I’m staying in Matsumoto with one of my friends and her family. According to her mom, December 29th is supposed to be a lucky day. So, of course, that means we need to make mochi*!

Traditionally, making mochi involves pounding rice with a giant hammer, but we took a modern approach. A mochi-making machine! This machine takes about 40 minutes to make fresh mochi; 30 minutes to cook the rice, and then about nine or ten minutes to knead the rice. It reminded me a lot of a bread-making machine, and it was pretty fun to watch.

At first, the rice just sat in the machine in a pile like this:

 

But soon enough, it turned into this:

 

Once the mochi was in its cake form, all we had to do was scrape it out of the machine, roll pieces of it into balls, and cover it with one of two toppings; anko (sweet red bean paste) or kinako (roasted soybean powder). Kinako is my personal favorite. It tastes like peanut butter!

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We ate all the mochi covered in toppings today, but we also set aside a large portion of mochi to eat on New Year’s Day. Until then, there’s still a lot to do to prepare for the New Year, much of which includes food. I’ll makes posts about all of that later on!

 

 

*Mochi is made from mashing a certain variety of cooked rice together until it forms a sort of gooey cake. It can be eaten as a sweet or savory food, but is most often seen as a sweet.