Whoa, 2021 zipped by so fast! We’re already in December and counting down the days to the new year. How crazy is that?
When the new year approaches, people of all cultures and traditions start preparing to welcome the upcoming year. In Japan, the new year is a big thing for the people here. It is, without a doubt, one of the most festive times of the year and brings about unique, local traditions that are only practiced in The Land of the Rising Sun.
In this article, we’ll look at the significance of the New Year in Japan, the unique traditions and customs practiced, and even a few useful Japanese phrases for you to try out this new year!
New Year in Japan
The New Year brings out the good in everyone. Regardless of culture, we all go all out when it comes to welcoming a fresh, full-of-potential new year. In Japan, the New Year’s is called shougatsu (正月), which translates to the Japanese New Year festival.
Festivities for this special occasion start well before the first of January and run through January 7th. For some regions, it extends till January 15th! On top of that, a lot of local companies and businesses are usually closed from December 29th till January 4th. Many people travel back to their hometowns to spend time with family and loved ones.
All over the country, there are firework displays and concerts held to celebrate and count down. One of the biggest countdown events in Japan is in the capital city Tokyo, at the heart of the city center in Shibuya. Thousands of people gather to scream at the top of their lungs the ticking time to midnight, before dispersing to clubs and bars to drink till the sun comes up.
Every 2nd of January, the Imperial Palace is open to the public. This is one out of two days in the year. Visitors can pay respects to Japan’s royal household as well as to hear the Emperor addressing the crowd of well-wishers.
New Year Traditions
On top of countdown events and partying, there are special New Year traditions that are greatly linked to Japanese culture. The traditions of Shougatsu are to express gratitude for the past year as well as wish for health and prosperity for the upcoming year.
The most practiced tradition of the New Year is the annual temple visit, along with eating New Year foods.
The most important practice of shougatsu is “hatsumode” (初詣). This is the first shrine or temple visit of the year. Over 100 million people visit a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple during this time of the year. The objective of the visit is to pray for good luck.
Some Buddhist temples would ring the bell 108 times when the clock strikes midnight. This is to represent the 108 worldly sins and desires in Buddhism. Some visitors are able to ring the temple bell too, which symbolises their sins being cleansed. This event is known as joya no kane (除夜の鐘).
Another part of the temple visiting tradition is the omikuji (御神籤), which is a fortune paper where people can draw their luck. If one draws a bad fortune, they can tie it to a tree on the temple or shrine grounds as a way to reverse the luck.
It’s also very common for visitors to buy omamori (お守り) on New Year’s. These are lucky charms in silk brocade and have pieces of small paper or wood inside them. There are various types of charms for various things, including love and pregnancy. Depending on what one wishes for the new year, they will get the charm for that.
New Year Food
A big tradition on New Year’s is the food. Like other cultures, family come together and gather to eat traditional dishes during this special occasion.
One of the most significant types of New Year food is osechi ryori (お節料理). This is a type of cuisine that has many small dishes. For New Year’s, there are at least 50 types, with each symbolising something different like health, longevity and happiness. Because it’s a common tradition, many supermarkets and convenience stores will sell them during this time of the year.
Another common New Year’s dish is the toshikoshi soba, also known as the year-end soba. It’s a simple meal served in hot broth to eat just before midnight. The shape of the long pasta represents the passage from one year to the next.
Mochi (もち) is also eaten on New Year’s. This is a type of chewy rice cake. A traditional activity on New Year’s is to prepare mochi yourself.
While those two are the main traditions often practiced during this time of the year, there are other traditions, of course. One of it is hatsuhinode (初日の出), where people get up really early to watch the first sunrise of the year on January 1st. People gather at the coast or mountain to witness the beautiful first dawn.
Some people also fly kites for the new year. Back in the day, people would fly kites in the form of Japanese demons, known as oniyouzu (鬼用ず), as a symbolic way to get rid of evil. Nowadays, normal kites are used.
Another unique Japanese tradition for New Year’s is sending greeting cards. This is known as nenga (年賀). People would send out cards to friends and family to wish them a happy new year.
Useful New Year Japanese Phrases
There are useful phrases to use during this time of the year. We have an article of a longer list of phrases for the holidays here. But for the New Year’s, there are two main ones:
The first one is “akemashite omedetou” (あけましておめでとう).
This translates to “happy new year”. You can make it formal by adding “gozaimasu” at the end to make “akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” (あけましておめでとうございます).
That phrase is used for on or after the new year’s. If you want to greet someone happy new year before the actual new year, you say it as:
“Yoi otoshi wo omakae kudasai” (よいお年をお迎えください).
The short form version is: yoi otoshi wo (よいお年を).
Another common phrase often said after these two greetings is:
“Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (今年もよろしくお願いします).
This translates to “I hope to count on you this year”.
Happy New Year! Yoi Otoshi Wo!
And that’s generally what you need to know about the Japanese New Year and their traditions! If you would like to know more, our Nihongo Master Podcast’s newest season, Season 9, covers all there is to know about Japanese Winter and traditions, which includes the very festive Oshougatsu! Check it out! Till then, Happy New Year everyone! Rainen mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu! 来年もよろしくお願いします！
Christmas is just around the corner. Aren’t we all excited for this festive season? I know I am! In Japan, they too celebrate Christmas. Over the years, the country has adopted many foreign customs and traditions, and that included this Western holiday.
However, just like everything else, Japan adds their own twist to this tradition and makes it their own. Of course, you’ll still hear jingle bells and Christmas tunes all throughout the country, but there are just a few celebrations that are unique to Japan only. In this article, we’ll take a look at the top 5 ways Japan celebrates Christmas differently from the usual.
1. A Holiday for Lovers
Generally, Christmas is known as a Christian holiday. Most of the Western world goes all out for this time of the year. Well, so do the Japanese. However, it’s treated more like a secular celebration regardless of religion. In fact, there are only a few percent of Japanese people that consider themselves as Christian, and mostly consider themselves as Buddhist or Shinto.
On top of that, Christmas is usually celebrated as a family. Members of the family come together and gather regardless of where they are in the world to be together during this time of the year. However, in Japan, it’s more of a celebration for lovers. It’s quite rare that you celebrate this as a family, unless you have young kids and make a practice of celebrating it the Western way.
Usually, couples would plan romantic dates for the Christmas period, like a dinner at a fancy restaurant or strolling around festive areas in town with Christmas lights.
2. KFC Chicken Feast!
Yes, the rumours are true. During Christmas time, the Japanese go crazy for KFC fried chicken! Rather than feasting on glazed ham and roasted turkey, the most popular choice for Christmas lunch or dinner is a good ol ‘bucket of fried chicken from the fast food chain KFC!
In fact, the popularity is so ridiculous that some outlets take preorders months in advance and the dates get sold out so quickly! Last year, I had friends who made orders as early as October! It’s no joke here for the fight for KFC chicken. It’s the real deal!
But hey, if you’re not fast enough to snag a bucket of KFC fried chicken, there are tons of other stores and convenience stores that offer them during this time of the year. They’re not the same, but they’re close enough, I reckon.
3. Christmas Illuminations & Markets
Japan goes all out for this time of the year. I love being in Japan during this season. Everything’s so colourful and lively. And that’s all thanks to winter illuminations that start up as soon as Halloween is over. Japanese cities are lit up with twinkling eco-friendly LED lights. Tokyo is probably the most festive city in Japan during this season. You see trees decorated with these lights, all down the street.
Attraction sites have their own winter special illumination events, too. Flower parks and amusement parks have special decorations just for this season. Even shopping malls turn an ordinary trip to the mall into a magical fantasy experience.
Speaking of decorations, shopping for Christmas decorations and decorating the house is also a thing here. And where else can you get them other than Christmas markets? Of course, local supermarkets and convenience stores offer them too, but you get unique, authentic ones at these Christmas markets.
From the beginning of December, a lot of them pop up, especially in Tokyo. The most popular one is the German Christmas Market in Roppongi that always brings in thousands of visitors every year! Other parts of Japan have Christmas markets too, including the northern city Sapporo.
4. Special Christmas Cakes!
When we think of Christmas desserts, we think of gingerbread men, other types of cookies and also pie. Japan is number one when it comes to dessert, so you would think they would have them all.
Close. They have Christmas cakes! Cakes aren’t only enjoyed during your birthday. During Christmas, getting a special Christmas cake is a big tradition practiced here! They’re not the usual fruitcake that you would usually eat in European and American countries. Instead, the most popular kind of cake for this season is the sponge cake-based strawberry shortcake!
This love affair Japan has with cakes date back to 1922, when the confectionery manufacturer Fujiya started marketing cream-covered cakes with the tagline “kurisumasu ni keeki wo tabemashou!” (クリスマスにケーキを食べましょう) to mean “let’s eat cake on Christmas!”
Although, while the most popular choice of cake is the strawberry shortcake, I have heard from my Japanese friends that they also opt for chocolate cake nowadays. Maybe the trends have changed now, and any type of cake, as long as it’s marketed as a Christmas cake, will do?
5. Japanese Version of Santa
We’re all waiting for the main question: what about presents? Not to fret everyone, the concept of Santa Claus and practice gift-giving is still alive and well in Japan. Kids in Japan look forward to a visit from Santa and opening presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Couples also exchange gifts, and usually done on Christmas Eve instead.
Here’s a fun unique twist: Western tradition has Santa climbing down chimneys. This is pretty difficult to do in Japan when a lot of people don’t have one in their homes. So instead, Santa is seen as some kind of magical ghost with exciting treats!
However, as compared to Western countries, gift giving isn’t that significant. It plays a much smaller role. It may be because that Japan has their own gift-giving day known as “Oseibo” (お歳暮) at the end of the year. .
Have a Merry Japanese Christmas!
If you abide by these five fun facts of Japanese Christmas, you’re going to have one hell of a unique holiday! Whether or not you live in Japan, if you’d like to spice up your holiday, why not celebrate Christmas the Japanese way? Have a merry Japanese Christmas, everyone!
Learning a new language can be tough. While the Japanese language is a beautiful one, it can be difficult to pick up in the beginning. But what you should take note of even before learning the language is that it’s a polite language. There are so many aspects of the Japanese language that are based on politeness.
To get you started, here are the top 10 polite words in Japanese that will definitely come in handy – regardless of whether you’re just starting out or you’re travelling to Japan soon. This is one of the best ways to learn Japanese fast and easy!
1. Sumimasen (すみません)
This word is one that’s super commonly used. “Sumimasen” (すみません) has a few different meanings and can use in a few different situations. Check out our podcast episode, Season 1 Episode 1, for a full rundown of how to use this phrase.
In summary, you can use this phrase to apologise for inconveniencing someone, kind of like “pardon me”. You can also use this phrase to say “excuse me” – for example, you’re getting off the train and there are people blocking your way. Say “sumimasen” to let them know you need to get through.
2. Gomennasai (ごめんなさい)
Another polite word to have handy is “gomennasai” (ごめんなさい). When you learn Japanese, this is one of the first things you’ll learn. Gomennasai translates to “I’m sorry” and it’s used as an apology. It’s similar to the first one, but this word can’t be used to say “excuse me”. Our Season 1 Episode 1 podcast episode also talks about this phrase!
3. Onegaishimasu (お願いします)
Also part of our Season 1 Episode 1 podcast episode is “onegaishimasu” (お願いします). This phrase can also be used in a lot of situations. It essentially means “please” when asking for help.
For example, the konbini (コンビニ) cashier might ask you if you want to heat up your food. You reply with “hai onegaishimasu” (はい、お願いします) to mean “yes please”. For more examples and situations, check our podcast episode!
4. Otsukaresama (お疲れ様)
The next word is “otsukaresama” (お疲れ様). I like this word a lot, because it has such a heartwarming tone. This word can translate to “thanks for all your hard work” and is often said to other coworkers after work or groups of people/friends after an event. You can use the longer form “otsukaresama deshita” (お疲れ様でした) or even cut it short with people who you are familiar with, to “otsukare” (お疲れ)
5. Itadakimasu (いただきます)
If you’ve watched anime (アニメ) before, you would probably have heard this phrase. Before eating a meal, you should say “itadakimasu” (いただきます) which can be translated to “thank you for the meal” or “I’m digging in!” Either way, it’s showing appreciation for the meal presented to you.
6. Gochisou sama deshita (ご馳走様でした)
After your amazing meal, don’t forget to show appreciation too. To do so, say “gochisou sama deshita” (ご馳走様でした) which is also saying “thank you for the meal”. Note that this phrase can only be used after a meal, and the previous word is used only before a meal. Don’t mix them up! This is a good pair of Japanese words to learn fast and easy!
7. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (よろしくお願いします)
I’m sure you recognised half of this phrase – see, you’re already learning Japanese! “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (よろしくお願いします) can have a few different translations. Oftentimes, this phrase is used after a greeting with someone new. In this case, it’s translated to “nice to meet you” or “please take care of me” or even “I look forward to working with you”.
Sometimes, you can use this when requesting someone to do something for you. In that case, this translates to “please fulfill my request”. You’ll see it quite often at the end of emails.
I would say the best English equivalent would be something like “thank you in advance”. It’s commonly used in formal situations. You can also cut it short to “yoroshiku” (よろしく), but it then becomes quite informal.
8. Shitsurei shimasu (失礼します)
Another common polite word or phrase in Japanese that you should learn is “shitsurei shimasu” (失礼します). This translates to “pardon my rudeness” most of the time. You can say this when you’re interrupting a conversation or basically anything. If you are walking through a group of people and they’re talking, you can say this as you walk through them.
You can use this phrase in the past tense too, to make “shitsurei shimashita” (失礼しました). This is often said after the ‘rude act’, and it somewhat translates to “sorry for being rude earlier”. It’s a pretty handy Japanese word to know and have, I think.
9. Ojama shimasu (お邪魔します)
Another phrase similar to the one before is “ojama shimasu” (お邪魔します). This one translates more to “I’m going to get in your way” or “I will disturb you”. Most of the time, this is used when you’re entering someone’s house. In my opinion, it sounds slightly harsher – or at least, the ‘act of rudeness’ is slightly harsher.
10. Ki wo tsukete kudasai (気をつけてください)
Last but not least, a polite word or phrase to have handy in Japanese is “ki wo tsukete kudasai” (気をつけてください). I personally have this as a personal favourite, because it shows so much kindness and warmth. This translates to “please take care”, and can be said to anyone.
When I get my food delivered by a delivery man, I often say this phrase to them. When parting ways with friends, we often say this to each other.I It’s just a nice sendoff for anyone.
And that wraps up our list of polite Japanese words and phrases to have in handy. This list is a fun and easy way to learn Japanese fast, because everything on this list is used almost on a daily basis! There are so many polite words in the Japanese language, but knowing this is a good start. Good luck!
When you plan to travel to a country, you’re definitely going to search up the best places to visit when you’re there. These hyped up areas are usually not as worth it as you might think. This includes Japan, too. Coming from one who has lived in the island nation for over three years, there are better places to explore, trust me.
So for those of you who are travelling to Japan for a limited period of time, you’d want to squeeze in all the ‘top 10 spots’ and ‘best attractions’ in your itinerary. This article will highlight five overrated Japan destinations with their replacements, so as to save yourselves some time.
Let’s take a look at these five places!
1. Sensoji Temple in Tokyo
One of the most visited Japan destinations is Tokyo. And in Tokyo, one of the top places to visit is the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. This is an ancient Buddhist temple and is the oldest one in the whole city. Those looking for a cultural experience would go here.
In between the entrance of the temple and the actual grounds itself are rows and rows of traditional Japanese shops. These shops sell all kinds of souvenirs including authentic and exquisite cultural items. You could get a kimono set conveniently from an English-speaking Japanese owner, along with all your other omiyage needs.
So in that sense, Sensoji Temple is more a touristic spot than a historical sight now.
Why is it overrated?
You’d expect for the city’s oldest temple to have the surrounding air filled with culture and peace. It once was. It was once a historical sight, expected to be preserved and active with temple rituals.
While there are still traditional temple activities taking place, the spiritual essence isn’t like what it was. You can’t walk down the street, from the entrance to the temple grounds, at your own pace and in peace. You’re going to get shoved around in the huge crowd that never seems to die down, regardless of day or night.
Sure, you can get your fortune slips and pay your respects, but about a few hundreds of others are doing the exact same thing as you at the same time. Groups of tourists would juggle around the fortune slip boxes, continuous snapshots of cameras and phones, and generally just very hectic.
Where can you go instead?
There are so many other temples in Tokyo that you should visit instead. Heck, even the neighborhood ones are just as beautiful, only without the crowd and noise. One iconic neighborhood temple is the Cat Temple in Gotokuji. It’s called so because of its hundreds of waving cat figurines all around the temple!
And if you’re going to other parts of Japan, there are plenty more temples there, too! Stop by Kyoto, as the temples there are extremely culturally rich. The spiritual essence and peace that you expect are present there.
2. Takeshita Dori in Tokyo
One of the most famous streets in Tokyo is Takeshita Dori. Everyone knows this street. It’s the fashion street in the fashion neighbourhood, Harajuku. This specific street was once the haven of dozens of fashion subcultures in Japan. So this used to be a famous hangout spot for rebellious teenagers. Some say it still is.
Different parts of the street “belonged” to different subcultures. And today, you could see it quite clearly based on the various types of stores that are set up in various areas. Artists and musicians also called this street home at one point. But now, Takeshita Dori is more of a tourist attraction than a creative hot spot. While there are still hints of creativity, the original essence has disappeared, along with most of the people who used to hang out there.
Why is it overrated?
It’s unfortunate but Takeshita Dori has been put on the spotlight by the media as the place to be to experience the Tokyo fashion scene. Fair enough, it is the heart of Harajuku, which was once loaded with fashion creatives. And while the fashion is pretty prominent there still, this specific street has lost its original vibe and is now a souvenir shopping street.
You can still buy Japanese subculture clothes and accessories. However the prices have been made “tourist prices” and some can even say these items are tacky (because they probably aren’t originally made in Japan, as how they should be).
Be prepared for streets full of sardine-packed tourists where you can barely walk. Say goodbye to personal space.
Where can you go instead?
If your intention for going to Takeshita Dori is for the fashion scene, skip it. There are so many other neighbourhoods that are fashion-centric and still maintain its vibe. Some of the neighbourhoods where the creative minds ran off to include Nakano, Koenji and Shimokitazawa. These various areas have their own unique vibe.
Fashion enthusiasts aren’t the only people you see in these neighbourhoods. You get artists and musicians too, as well as tons of other carefree people who express themselves through their dressing. Opt for these neighbourhoods for a slower, more hipster vibe than Takeshita Dori.
3. Chureito Pagoda near Fuji-san
A trip to Mt. Fuji is on every Japan traveller’s checklist. Never mind climbing it, just a clear view of the mountain is good enough. The best place for this is the Chureito Pagoda. Or so the numerous websites say.
Chureito Pagoda is said to have the best view of Mt. Fuji in the whole country, alongside a lovely pagoda on a hilltop. To top it all off, you can even get an amazing sunset. To be fair, you can get that amazing one shot of Mt. Fuji, but other than that, there’s nothing much around the area.
Why is it overrated?
All those photos that you see in pictures, that’s about it that you see. These heavily enhanced coloured photos that you see on social media have pulled in millions of travellers into scheduling this spot into their Japan trips. When you reach the spot, you might feel a bit disappointed at how unassumingly small the pagoda is. I certainly was.
After an extremely long train journey to a place quite distant from the main stations, and almost 400 steps up to get there, I expected the shrine to be magnificent. Don’t bring your hopes up. It’s pretty plain and pretty middle-sized.
There’s also the chance of not even seeing Mt. Fuji when you’re up there. Depending on the day, it can become cloudy and there’s a chance you won’t see the mountain the whole time. Some people wait for the sky to clear up, but it might not. Is it all really worth it, noting that every other shot is going to be the exact same?
Where can you go instead?
There are undoubtedly better places to view Mt. Fuji. I made my trip to the area for Fuji Q Highland, the amusement park, and booked a hotel with a view of Mt. Fuji. So my advice is to set aside at least two days and spend a night at a hotel that offers a perfect view of Mt. Fuji from your window.
Early mornings is the best time to see a clear Mt. Fuji. You will not only be able to wake up to the sight of the lovely Mt. Fuji, but you’ll also be able to spend a chill time going around the area without rushing.
4. Umeda Sky Building in Osaka
One of the highlights of Osaka is the Umeda Sky Building. Tall skyscrapers are huge signs in the sky for being the perfect spot for a view of the city. Buildings with viewing decks like Umeda Sky Building have viewing decks that give you a 360 view of the city.
And there’s no doubt that the Umeda Sky Building has a unique architecture. There are aesthetically pleasing spots to take your Instagram pictures. But let me warn you: the waiting time can be agonising. You might waste most of your day just in line to get up! Is it then worth it?
Why is it overrated?
In a lot of travel guides, you’ll find Umeda Sky Building as one of the main attractions of Osaka. Because of this attention, everyone makes it a point to put it in their Kansai itinerary. Not only do you have to pay to get up, but you’re also going to have to wait in line for an extremely long time.
What’s more, the only takeaway you get is the view, which you can also get from a few other tall buildings in Osaka. I do recommend you to visit the building, though. The architecture definitely deserves appreciation. You just don’t have to go up. You can appreciate it from below.
Where can you go instead?
If you’re looking for a good view of the city, go to the tallest building in Osaka: Abeno Harukas. This building stands at 300m tall, and you’re even allowed to enter for free till the 16th floor! To go up higher, you have to fork out a few hundred yens, I’m afraid.
On top of that, Abeno Harukas is a multi-purpose building. It’s not only a viewing deck. There are tons of shops and restaurants for you to leisurely browse and dine in. This makes your trip down more worthwhile!
5. Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto
Kyoto’s golden temple, Kinkaku-ji, is one of the most famous spots in the city. The sound of a golden temple is extremely attractive on its own, don’t you think. This Zen temple can be found in the northern part of Kyoto. The Kinkaku-ji temple was built to echo the extravagant culture of Kitayama in the wealthy social circles of Kyoto during the Yoshimitsu days. Each floor of the temple was made to represent a different style of architecture. The top two floors of the temple itself is covered in gold leaf.
The temple has been standing since 1397. The grounds itself is full of vibrant trees and well maintained gardens. While a visit to the Kinkaku-ji temple can be a wonderful experience, it can disappoint for some.
Why is it overrated?
Some might assume that the whole temple is golden. However, it’s only the top two floors. This can be a huge letdown, especially when some promote Kinkaku-ji as being fully golden.
Kinkaku-ji is also quite a distance from central Kyoto. You might need to take a long bus ride or cycle up that way only for it. If you only have a short period of time in the city, this might be one to cross out.
Kyoto is a city filled with hundreds and thousands of temples and shrines, just waiting to be explored. This ancient capital city oozes culture and history just on the streets. You don’t have to travel so far to this overhyped temple for that zen, intimate experience.
Where can you go instead?
Instead of travelling a chunk of time solely for a temple, why not head over to the Silver Temple instead, called Ginkaku-ji? The temple isn’t made of silver, despite the name, but you can easily find it at the foot of the mountains in eastern Kyoto.
This temple is one of the best examples of Japanese landscape architecture. It’s completed with one of the most gorgeous Japanese gardens surrounding it. Regardless of the time of the year you visit, you get to witness the entire landscape of Ginkaku-ji changing accordingly. It’s a whole new experience each time.
The area where this temple is located is pretty convenient as well. You’re near areas with food and souvenir stalls. So you’re not travelling solely for the temple.
While these tourist places can be overrated, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a chance at all. All of the five locations are flooded with tourists day in and day out, proving that they are still extremely popular among tourists and locals alike.
However, when you only have a limited time, these are the places that you can scratch off your to-visit list. Go for the recommended alternatives instead to save some precious time!
I don’t know about you but autumn is one of my favourite seasons ever. Autumn in Japan is beautiful – I’d argue that it’s just as beautiful as spring in Japan! Everyone in the country is looking for a bit of chill in the air after the hot and humid summer season.
And not only is the weather a bit cooler, but the colours of the scenery changes too! The lush greens gradually change to vibrant shades of red and orange. And just like how people go for cherry blossom viewing (or hanami 花見) in spring, they go for autumn leaves viewing (or momijigari 紅葉狩り) in fall! I personally went from north to south of Japan just to witness this changing season.
But that’s not all. Japanese autumn is full of cultural festivals. As I always mention, the Japanese love to celebrate anything and everything! While summer is the season with the most festivals, autumn is a runner up. Here we have a list of 9 culturally exciting autumn festivals for you to consider when visiting Japan during this season!
1. Otsukimi (Nationwide)
One of the most exciting festivals to look out for during autumn in Japan is otsukimi (お月見), which translates to “moon viewing”. Somewhere from the middle of September and lasting till the beginning of October, you’ll get the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the ancient calendar. This is known as the juugoya (十五夜), which is the night of the harvest moon and believed to be the most beautiful moon of the whole year!
During this time, the Japanese celebrate the cultural practice of moon-viewing to show their appreciation and pray for a successful seasonal harvest. Some even throw moon-viewing parties with friends and family. Decorations are put outside of houses, which includes pampas grass to resemble rice stalks and white rice cakes (dango 団子) to resemble the moon.
2. Shichi-Go-San (Nationwide)
Another autumn cultural festival that happens worldwide is the Shichi-Go-San (七五三), which literally translates to 7-5-3. This cultural festival involves families bringing their kids aged 3, 5 or 7 to the local shrine on the 15th of November. However, nowadays, families would schedule their visits for weekends close to the date to avoid the crowds.
The history of this festival goes way back, believed to have originated in the Heinz period. This cultural festival is a way to celebrate the healthy growth of kids and also to pray for their future. The ages 3, 5 and 7 are odd numbers and believed to be numbers of good luck. So this festival involves a ceremony where they celebrate the healthy growth of the children into middle childhood as well as pray for their future.
Children are all dressed up and dolled up in the prettiest kimono and hakama, which are traditional Japanese costumes. Girls, particularly, are polished up in pretty makeup and hairstyles.
3. Tori no Ichi (Nationwide)
Good things come in three. The third nationwide cultural festival in Japan is Tori no Ichi (酉の市). This is translated as “The Day of the Bird” and is one celebrated since quite a while back, since the Edo Period. While this cultural festival is famously celebrated in Tokyo, Tori no Ichi is actually celebrated nationwide with street parades, stalls and decorations.
The cultural festival falls on the day of the rooster in the lunar calendar. In the olden days, this day was the best day for farmers to sell their goods and harvest that they got from the autumn harvest. It’s also a day that signifies the start of an economically strong year.
4. Takayama Autumn Festival (Gifu)
In Gifu Prefecture, a cultural festival that’s pretty well known nationwide is the Takayama Autumn Festival, celebrating for more than 350 years in early October. More than 100,000 visitors from all over the country travel to Takayama City every year to attend this festival.
The highlight of this cultural festival is the festival floats, each having their own theme based on Japanese traditions. But while the actual festival day itself is the highlight, the days leading up to the parade are no bore either. Food and drink stalls as well as artisan vendors are set up, along with the best entertainment on the streets.
There’s also a Takayama Spring Festival if you missed out on this autumn festival. It’s not the same, but it’s a good replacement!
5. Kurama Fire Festival (Kyoto)
One of the biggest autumn cultural festivals in Japan is the Kurama Fire Festival in Kyoto. The main object of this festival is….fire! You’ve got to travel into the mountains of Kurama for this event, but it’s not too far away from the capital city Kyoto.
At the end of October, the festival starts right after sunset. Guests and participants dress in costumes to carry torches down the streets towards Yuki-jinja Shrine. At the end of the march, there’s a huge bonfire! It’s kind of like the summer festival Obon, because both festivals are about welcoming spirits. The difference is that this festival welcomes spirits from the shrine into the village. These spirits are believed to offer protection.
6. Zuiki Festival (Kyoto)
Another Kyoto autumn cultural festival is the Zuiki Festival, which dates back to 947. This is another event that is a show of thanks for a good harvest, taking place between the first to the fifth of October. During this festival, you get to see a portable shrine known as mikoshi (神輿) that is decorated with taro stems being carried around the shrine grounds. This portable shrine is accompanied by about 350 priests and shrine parishioners!
Performances are also part of this cultural festival. Some special ones open and end the event. One of them is a dance called yaotomemai, which means “sacred dance”, that’s performed by elementary school girls from the local area.
7. Saga International Balloon Festival (Saga)
This is one of the lesser known cultural festivals by foreigners but definitely one extravagantly celebrated by the locals. Saga International Balloon Festival takes place in Saga prefecture at the end of October. This annual balloon festival is the largest in all of Asia!
At around 5:30 in the morning, more than 50 hot air balloons start floating into the sky! But if you’re not there that early, there’s a night show where you can catch these balloons all lit up. Stick around for the huge market in the area, selling Saga-made products, food and drinks, and crafts.
8. Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival (Fukushima)
In Fukushima at Nihonmatsu Shrine, the annual Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival takes place at the beginning of October. This is such an old cultural festival that has been going on for almost 400 years! Around 300 lanterns are involved, along with 65,000 people visiting annually!
This cultural festival is a way to honour the Hachiman and Kumano gods of the Nihonmatsu Shrine. These gods are believed to be the ones giving power to the rice plants and harvesting season.
The shrine priests perform ceremonial prayers before sunset. A lot of incense is being burned too. Then, the lanterns are placed on seven floats, with some tied to long bamboo poles and stand up on the floats to represent rice plants. The marching parade only starts after sunset, accompanied by taiko drums and flute music. and after sunset, the parade starts with taiko drums and flute music to accompany the march.
9. Supernatural Cat Festival (Tokyo)
Last but not least, a more modern yet still cultural autumn festival in Japan is the Supernatural Cat Festival in Tokyo! Every year on the 13th of October, you’ll find people dressed as cats roaming the streets of the Kagurazaka neighbourhood. Anyone can participate, and to participate, all you need is to pay the entrance fee and a cat costume!
If you don’t have a cat costume, get your face painted by an on-site makeup artist! And just like any other Japanese cultural festivals, you have food stalls and dance performances to accompany the parade.
Get your cultural experience at these top festivals!
There are tons of other Japanese cultural festivals in autumn, and if I were to list them all, it’d be an endless article. To get you started on that autumn festival checklist, these 9 festivals are a good starting point. Which ones will make it to your Japan autumn itinerary?
In our current day and age, marrying someone of a different race is totally normal. However, because cultures are so different, it can lead to a few culture shocks. One of the more commonly known culture shocks when it comes to Japan is when it comes to marriage.
There are some things about Japanese marriage that are not common in other cultures. So, to shed some light on the matter, especially for those who are keen on getting into one, we’re going to look at the top 10 Japanese marriage culture facts!
1. Arranged marriages still exists
Even though Japan is very modernised, the custom of arranged marriages still happens. Sometimes, the first day you meet someone is also when they become your legally wedded husband or wife. Your parents can pick a wife for you, even though you can definitely pick one for yourself.
During the wedding ceremony, there’s an event called the san-san-kedo. This is where the pair show their sign of fidelity to each other by sipping sake three times from three different cups. It’s believed that when they take their first sip, they officially become spouses.
3. Hiring actors to be family is normal
It might sound strange, but it’s completely okay to hire actors to play as family members at the ceremony. Image is so crucial in Japanese culture, so it might look bad if your side doesn’t have that many people. There’s a special service for this actually. These actors will cheer for you, greet your other guests, and greet you just like your own family.
4. Guests get gifts
In Japan, sometimes guests get gifts during the wedding. The bride and groom will give back to the wedding guests whether it’s in the form of a physical gift or money. It’s believed that a gift is given as a way to share happiness on top of giving back.
5. There are horns on the bride’s outfit
Wedding outfits are important in Japanese weddings. The groom is usually in all black, wearing the traditional kimono and pleated hakama trousers. This is topped off with a family haori jacket.
The bride is in a white kimono and accessories. The most eye-catching of the outfit is the elaborate headgear that’s voluminous. Sometimes, it can be a wig, sometimes it can be a big hat. Regardless of what it is, it’s often decorated with horns that are very well hidden by a white veil. This represents jealousy and hiding it shows that she will not be jealous.
6. You can marry a virtual program in Japan
You read the title right. In Japan, you can marry a virtual program. You can marry your anime pillow, a stuffed animal, or even a hologram. A guy recently married a hologram of Hatsune Miku, who is a worldwide famous singer. He had a proper wedding and all, with his family, friends and colleagues.
7. Japanese weddings are expensive…for everyone
This is the one I hear most often. Japanese weddings are expensive not only for the couple but for everyone. Guests are expected to bring wedding gifts in terms of cash, and depending on where they are in the country, the amount differs. It can be up to 50,000 yen for relatives! There’s a phrase commonly used for this type of thing: “poor from celebrating”.
It is very different from European and American weddings where wedding gifts come in the form of housewarming items.
8. The wedding day is not the anniversary date
Usually, a wedding is celebrated during the registration of a marriage. So your wedding day is your anniversary day. This is pretty common worldwide. In Japan, it’s not always the case. You can register one day, and celebrate your marriage a year after! It’s common in Japan to have the wedding ceremony after the registration of the union. However, the anniversary date is then the registration date and not the wedding day.
9. Japanese law states that married couples must have the same surname
In some countries, like in Europe and America, surnames can be double barrelled. For example, if Mary Johnes married Bob William, she could be Mary William-Johnes, or Mary Johnes-William.
In Japan, there is a law and incredible social pressure for women to take their husband’s last names. Family lineage is extremely important in Japan, and record keeping is very strict. As everywhere, a woman must completely change her name on all legal documents and with all government institutions, which is a laborious task that new generations are fighting to change. 70% of Japanese people want the ability to keep their own names, but it keeps getting voted down in the government. In rare instances, a man will be the one to take the women’s name, this usually includes the man being officially “adopted” into that other family and losing all ties to his own legally. This is done typically when the woman’s family has a higher standing or more money.
10. Common-law marriage is not a norm
In many countries, common law marriages are the norm. You don’t have to get married but you can still come under the same laws as a traditional marriage for situations like taxes and housing.
In Japan, there’s no such thing. You’re not accepted as a marriage unless you have the whole shabang of a traditional wedding. You can’t get the same rights as a traditional marriage if not. For example, you won’t be able to sign off on any medical related issues because it’s difficult to prove the family relationship as a spouse.
Which cultural fact surprised you the most?
Japan still follows traditional customs when it comes to marriage, as you can tell, even though the country is pretty modernised in other parts. These are just a few things you have to take note when dealing with a Japanese marriage, whether you’re going into one yourself or attending a ceremony. Regardless, which Japanese marriage cultural fact is the most important surprising to you
This traditional Japanese clothing is quite ubiquitous. The word and style of “kimono” is obvious to everyone that it belongs to the Japanese. Once it was a basic piece of clothing, but it now has become a fashion symbol not only in Japan but also worldwide. But did you know that the kimono has a very culturally rich history? Every piece of kimono is significant to the wearer and there are various types of it to suit different occasions.
To the untrained, naked eye, you can’t see the difference, but with this article, you just might. Here’s all you need to know about the kimono — its history, significance, and what the piece of cloth resembles today.
What is the kimono?
So first thing’s first: what is the kimono? A kimono is a traditional wear for the Japanese. The word “kimono” is made up of the kanji characters 着 (ki, “wear” in Japanese) and 物 (mono, “thing” in Japanese). When you combine them together, you get “thing to wear”.
These are usually full-length robes sewn in a T-shape manner. They are often made of different pieces attached together for the various forms. Depending on the style and type of kimono, there are multiple factors that are included — pattern, style and types of parts are just a few things to note.
History of the kimono
During the Heian period, about 794 to 1192 AD, this is when the kimono was first created. The kimono was just a simple garment for the people to wear conveniently. Just like the kimono we are familiar with now, it consisted of straight cuts and made to fit every size and body type.
The kimono rose to popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868). The Japanese wore it proudly, regardless of age, social status or gender. Many were wearing the same type of clothing, so some became more experimental with the kimono designs. People started customising.
This was also the time where the geishas and kabuki actors featured the kimono in their craft.
However, not long after the Edo period, the fifth shogun Tokugawa banned the people of Japan from wearing the kimono and flaunting the expensive types. But the Japanese people were smart, and designed some that could only be seen as luxurious if you’re really close to the fabric.
Skip a few centuries and when the Meiji era (1868-1912) came around, the government ordered the citizens to wear Western clothing instead. This was part of the country’s fast-paced Westernisation. The kimono slowly disappeared from everyday streets. People were wearing Western clothing like suits to work.
But the kimono wasn’t gone. People were wearing them at home, during formal occasions and festivals. These customs are still upheld today.
What Does The Kimono Symbolise?
There are no two kimonos that are the same. Every kimono is unique. A small alteration in a kimono represents something. It can be a significant change in meaning or it can even be a subtle one. But no two kimonos symbolise the same thing.
Material is one of the major factors that affect the symbolism of kimono. Traditionally, Kimonos were traditionally made of handmade fabrics and also decorated by hand. Usually, these are silk, linen and hemp. The lower class was more often seen with kimonos made of cheaper fabric like cotton. The upper class wore kimonos made of more expensive fabric like silk and satin. These were used to express their social status. Today, status and class don’t matter as much. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and rayon are even used now!
The motif of the kimono is also used to communicate social status. These motifs are also a way to express personality traits and other characteristics. Designs can come in forms of symbols and patterns. Popular motifs are inspired by natural elements like blossoms, birds and leaves. It’s similar to traditional Japanese art like woodblock prints. Some motifs are also specially made for a clan or royal family.
Another factor is colour. The first two differentiated classes back in the day. Colour symbolises the kimono’s characteristics. A great example is a blue kimono, which is seen as a repellent against insects as the colour comes from indigo. Indigo has long been used to treat stings and bites, hence the connection is made there.
Wearing The Kimono Today
Wearing a kimono now and back in the day are for various different reasons. It all began as just essential clothing for the Japanese. It then evolved into a way of communicating and representing social status and one’s personality traits and features.
Nowadays, though, all levels of social status and hierarchy from the kimono might as well be considered gone. Silk was considered luxury because it was a premium fabric to get. Now, silk is just as easy to buy as cotton.
When wearing kimono in the present day, it’s a sign of respect to the Japanese people’s traditional roots. Most of the time, kimonos are worn during formal events and occasions.
The current generation is seeing many interpretations of the traditional kimono presented in a myriad of ways. There’s a new modern take on the kimono, involving everything from the wrapping method of the kimono and prints to the silhouette and structure.
Would you wear a kimono?
So as you can see, the kimono has come quite a long way – from significance and meaning to design and reason to wear. It has a significantly rich history encompassing various types of them. We have an article just about the various types of kimono – check that one out!
One thing’s never going to change is that the kimono will always have a strong symbolism in the Japanese culture.
The kimono is one of the most significant Japanese cultural wear to date. If you don’t know what a kimono is, check out our previous article about all the things you need to know!
So what you might not know is that there are a few types of the kimono. They vary for occasions, and each type is different in components and ways of wearing. You definitely don’t want to accidentally attend a formal wedding in a casual yukata, do you?
We’ll look at the general parts of a kimono, the top 3 types of kimono, and where you would wear these various types of them.
Parts of a kimono
The kimono is most often considered as a whole piece of garment that is a simple robe. While it may be true to a certain extent, the term actually refers to the entire outfit rather than just one piece of clothing. The outfit consists of intricate parts to make up the kimono. Let’s take a look at some of the names of the main parts:
Sode (袖) refers to the sleeves of the kimono. The sodeguchi (袖口) is the armhole, and the sodetsuke (袖つけ) refers to the inner armhole of the garment. Kimono sleeves can come in a few different lengths. It’s believed that the longer and brighter sleeves are worn by younger maidens. The simpler sleeve styles, usually black and normal length, should be worn by married or older women.
The lower part of the sleeve that’s unsewn is known as the furi (振), which can be swung about freely. Performers like kabuki actors take advantage of this form of the kimono for their acts. There’s also a hidden pouch inside the furi part of the sleeve known as the tamoto (袂).
Only on the female kimono, there’s a small opening under the sleeve called the miyatsu-kuchi (宮津口) for the female kimono. This is used to adjust the fit of the kimono.
Eri (襟) refers to the kimono collar. The ura-eri (裏襟) is the inner lining part of the collar while the tomo-eri (とも襟) is the top piece of fabric,used as a protecting part that’s easily replaceable ifstained or damaged.
The inner lining of the kimono is called the do-ura (銅羅). In a female kimono, it’s usually a simple lining. The male kimono is often seen with more decorative patterns. This comes from the concept from ancient times where the men would flaunt their wealth based on the inner lining of the kimono. The lower lining has a different name called the suso-mawashi (裾回し).
One of the most popular types of kimono is the yukata (浴衣). This is a casual type of kimono made of thinner fabric like cotton, linen or hemp. That’s because it’s specially designed for summer use.
Unlike the other kimono types, the yukata doesn’t have an inner layer. It can be worn directly on your skin and tied off with the obi. The yukata is often worn with the traditional Japanese wooden sandal called the geta (げた).
When to wear?
Back in the day, yukata was worn for different reasons. The word literally translates to “bathing cloth”. That’s because the yukata was exclusively worn by the upper class as a bathrobe after they had taken a bath.
Now, the yukata is quite famously known as the most informal wear of all the kimono types. Unlike the rest, you can wear the yukata to sleep!
The most popular event to wear the yukata is to outdoor events like summer festivals and fireworks displays.
The furisode (振袖) is recognisable by its long sleeves and bright colours and motifs. It’s arguably the most glamorous of them all. This is made on purpose to symbolise the energy and beauty of youth. This type of kimono is exclusively worn by women, and more specifically unmarried women. Sleeves can be as short as 114cm to as long as 124cm!
When to wear?
The most common time to wear the furisode is during the Coming Age Day ceremony. Happening every start of the year, this is a celebration that marks the coming of age and maturity of young girls and congratulating them. The celebration is for both men and women, though.
Other occasions to wear the furisode is a wedding ceremony. You’d probably see more girls wearing this during a traditional Japanese wedding. The bridesmaids and female guests will put on their elegant furisode for the occasion.
Last but not least, there’s the tomesode (留袖). The best way to differentiate this type of kimono from the rest is by the motif position. This type is distinguished by having the patterns only below the waistline. There are two types of tomesode: one is the coloured one called the irotomesode (色留袖) and the other is the black coloured one, known as the kurotomesode (黒留袖).
The kurotomesode is the most formal type of kimono. It holds the family crest at five different places: one on each sleeve, two at the front of the chest area, and one at the back. The kurotomesode can only be worn by married women
Unlike the kurotomesode, the irotomesode can be worn by unmarried women and they’re not as formal as the other.
When to wear?
The kurotomesode is one of the highest levels of kimono. Because of that, it is only worn during the most special of occasions, like the mother of the bride or groom at a wedding.
As for the irotomesode, it’s not so strict. But it is still on the higher end of the kimono spectrum. It’s still worn during special occasions but not as exclusive as the kurotomesode. Other members of a wedding will put on this type of kimono.
What kimono type do you want to try?
These are only three of the many types of kimono. It’s so interesting to see how motifs and colours affect the use of the kimono, don’t you think? What kimono type do you want to try when you come to Japan?
In Season 2 Episode 5 of our podcast episode, we’re all about that packed lunch in a box, also known as a bento (弁当). When I was growing up, a lunch box wasn’t the coolest thing you could bring to school.In Japan, however, the situation is totally different — opposite, in fact.
Lunchboxes are the norm, and if you don’t bring one, you’ll be the one getting looks. Bento culture is a thing — not only does it save you a few bucks throughout the day, bentos are often curated with a balanced diet in mind, the ideal nutritional value and lots of love.
This article is a recap of what we talked about in our podcast episode: how this bento craze came about, what it signifies, the various types of bentos there are, and just a few do’s and don’ts when making one for yourself. For the full info, tune in to the original episode!
History of Bentos
Packed lunch in Japan has been around for about ten centuries, dating back to the Kamakura period of 1185 to 1333. The word “bento” comes from a slang word of the Chinese Song Dynasty, “biàndāng”, to mean “convenient”. In the early days, people carried around sacks of cooked and dried rice to eat at work.
The Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568 – 1600) was when the iconic lacquered boxes were produced. These boxes were used to store and hold food, and oftentimes they were used for occasions like hanami (cherry blossom viewing), koyou (autumn leaves viewing) and outdoor tea ceremonies. They were like really fancy picnics.
The bento craze was full on during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) — it became an essential part of not only outdoor events but general travel as well. There was even a type of waist bento called koshibento that was used to carry around onigiri rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves!
Bento only became more popular as time went by, and by the time the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) rolled around, it was a staple for everyone, from students to workers. This was also the time when rail systems in Japan were booming, and a type of bento box made of aluminium started selling at stations. Bento became a status symbol over the next couple of decades, depending on what nutritional food the bento consists of and how it’s prepared.
Then, in the 1980s, plastic boxes were used in place of metal ones, thanks to the amazing creation of microwaves that eliminated the need for heat resistant boxes. Wooden bento boxes were used less as well. We also have to thank the convenient konbini scattered everywhere in Japan for the boom in bento popularity.
And so that brings us to today — bento is used for basically every occasion under the sun.
Types of Bento
We looked at a few types of bento boxes. The first one is the Makunouchi. Makunouchi is what one refers to when talking about a traditional Japanese bento. Popping up in the Edo period, this type of bento box includes small onigiri with sesame seeds sprinkled on it and a couple of side dishes to go along.
The next bento type is probably the oldest one on the list — sageju is a type of bento that was used back in the Azuchi Momoyama period for outings, fully equipped with wares like dishes, chopsticks and sake cups. It’s like a neatly-packed, multi-functional box with everything you need for a picnic. Lacquered wooden bako is often used for this type of bento.
Then there’s the eki-ben, probably second to makunouchi when it comes to popularity. Dating back to the Meiji era, this type of bento is the one that’s sold on train stations during the blooming days of railway systems. The first ever eki-ben sold is believed to be in Tochigi Prefecture back in 1885, at a station called Utsunomiya Station.
The original eki-ben was just a simple meal — an onigiri with bamboo sheath wrapped around it. It evolved to become a part of local tourism, with lunch boxes made using local ingredients, featuring local specialties and sometimes promoting local aspects of the city on the box itself.
Significance of Bentos
A bento is more than just a packed lunch box. It takes up a huge part of Japanese culinary culture that it’s quite significant. For Japanese people, bento is like a form of communication between the maker and the eater. You can feel the thought and care, and literally see the effort put in to making the bento just for you.
In Japan, some parents and partners get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning just to orchestrate the perfect onigiri shaped to your favourite cartoon character, or cut the nori in cute shapes.
Do’s & Don’ts
Back in the day, bento wasn’t solely a meal to be eaten; it was a whole experience that tingles all the five senses. While there is tons of content out there dedicated to help you curate the perfect bento, I have a few do’s and don’ts to set you off on the right foot.
First off, make sure you prepare a bento with popping colours. And while you’re choosing the food, harmonise the flavours — don’t have all the varieties be strong in flavour; have some delicate ones that complement each other.
Above all, you have to think about crafting the perfect balanced diet with the right nutritional value. Have some food that is cooked, some raw (if you fancy) and even pickled — variety is always welcome.
The first don’t is to never have both rice and bread in one bento — it’s never good to have too many carbohydrates, and plus, it makes the bento look dull with the neutral colours.
Depending on the situation, try not to make a bento which contains food that needs to be heated up. If you’re making for your kid, there’s a solid chance they don’t have a microwave in class. But if your partner’s office has one, then that should be no problem at all.
Also, opt for food that doesn’t really have a strong fragrance!
We introduced a few new vocabulary words in the episode, so here’s a quick vocab recap in the form of a list:
Hoshi-ii (干し飯) — cooked and dried rice, but it literally translates to “dried meal”
Bako (箱) — box
Hanami (花見) — cherry blossom viewing
Koyou (紅葉) — autumn leaves
Koshibento (コシ弁当) — waist bento
Onigiri (オニギリ) — rice ball
Makunouchi (幕内) — a classic Japanese bento
sageju (さげじゅ) — a type of bento that was used in the old days for outdoor events
Eki-ben (駅弁) — bento sold at train stations
Ensoku (遠足) — school outings
Kyara-ben (キャラ弁) — character bento
Okazupan (おかずぱん) — savoury bread
Okashipan (お菓子ぱん) — sweet bread
Iro (色) colour
Aji (味) — taste
Gyoza (餃子) — fried dumplings
Korokke (コロッケ) — similar to the French dish, croquette
Onigirazu (おにぎらず) — sushi sandwich
Now you’re a bento expert — from the different types of bento and how the culture came about, to the tips and tricks to making the perfect bento! If you’re interested in knowing more about bentos and Japan’s crazy bento culture, tune in to Nihongo Master podcast Season 2 Episode 5!
Halloween season is upon us, and Halloween is just around the corner! In our Season 1 Episode 12 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, as part of last year’s Halloween special episode, podcast host Azra was excited to become your guide through another part of Japan’s unique culture. Well… maybe excited isn’t the word — today’s topic is the sort of thing that keeps her up at night with my head hidden under the covers.
In the episode, we did a bit of storytelling about Japanese ghost stories. Nippon horror tradition actually goes way further back than The Ring and The Grugdge. Superstitious villagers in Japan have been swapping ghostly folk tales called kaidan for centuries, and plenty of them could give any modern Hollywood horror flick a run for its money.These stories are filled with restless spirits, flesh-eating monsters, and enough blood and guts to make George A Romero weep with joy.
We looked at three different ghost stories from Japan, which were collected and translated by the famous gaijin writer Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in Japan around 120 years ago! Of course, this article is a summarised version of our full episode, so if you want to listen to the full spooks, tune in to our podcast episode!
The Wife’s Revenge (Of a Promise Broken)
The first spooky Japanese horror tale we looked at started off with jealousy. Jealousy is natural — every couple has to deal with it at some point or another, it’s just a matter of how you process it: do you communicate openly and honestly; do you become passive aggressive; or do you maybe reach out from the afterlife to dish out some murderous vengeance?
The first Japanese horror story proves that grudges can be ten times as toxic if you hold onto them past death…
In the city of Izumo, in the far west of Japan, a young samurai sat by his wife’s bedside as she struggled through the final few hours of her life. With her strength fading, she told him that she wasn’t afraid to die and she was ready for it. What worried her was imagining someone else coming to take her place as the woman of the house. Her husband said, “I’ll never love anyone else as long as I live.”
She was overjoyed — the love of her life would only ever have eyes for her, and now she could have the ideal funeral of being buried at their home. The samurai vowed that he would place her tomb in the most beautiful part of their garden.
She had just one more request; could he possibly get her a little bell? Those holy trinkets were all the rage among pilgrims, so she wanted one placed beside her. The distraught samurai promised he would, and with that, watched the woman he had planned to spend his life with slip away for good. Well… so he thought.
But hey, life went on. The samurai went about his samurai business, while his wife rested in peace at the end of the garden. That could’ve been the end of the story, but the samurai didn’t have any kids yet. Asian parents can get pretty pushy, and as the sole son in the family, the samurai could only put up with the pressure for so long.
So he got himself a hot new young bride. Not only did he marry her, but he also brought her into his home to live — the same home where his ex was buried at the end of the garden!
At first, the couple were living happily ever after…for like a week. Then the samurai was called out for a night shift at the castle, leaving his wife all alone in their big, old house. As the hour of the ox rolled around, she heard a noise outside: a faint tingling. As it grew louder, the young woman recognized the sound: a Buddhist priest’s bell. Ring a bell?
The noise didn’t pass. It got louder. And louder. And soon it was right next to the back of the house. The woman tried to get up to investigate, to call for some help, but she was completely paralyzed from head to toe. And then — in the dim twilight — she saw a figure drift through the screen door…
Hanging over her bed was a woman — her eyes rotted out, skin tight and dry, and grey hair hanging in thin clumps from her skull. She was wrapped in a dirty and tattered funeral shawl, and in her hand, held a pilgrim’s bell.
This unsightly corpse hung there in the air for a moment before speaking — “I’m the lady of this house. Leave at once, and if you tell anyone the reason why, I’ll tear you into pieces.” And with that, she was gone…
As daylight rolled around and her limbs started working again, the young girl started to rationalize what she had seen — it could be a bout of sleep paralysis or just a bad dream. No such luck, because the next night, with her husband still away at the castle, the exact same thing happened, with the exact same warning. It seemed the ex wife really had returned!
So when the samurai came back from the castle, he found his new wife distraught. She came to him crying, begging to divorce him and go back home, spilling the beans that the ex wife came back as a horrifying corpse ghost.
The samurai chalked it up to stress, and convinced his bride that it really all was just a nightmare. But still, he felt sorry that he’d left her all alone like that.
When he had to return to the castle again that night, he brought in two of his most trusted and cheerful men to distract his wife with jokes and stories. Then, when it was time for bed, the guards ducked down behind a screen in the bedroom, and settled in for the night watch.
When dawn came, the samurai returned home and when he slid open the bedroom door…
Lying on the bed, he saw his young wife at the centre of a pool of blood soaking into the futon. Her head was torn from her body entirely. He scrambled over to behind the screen, where he found his two guards frozen still. When he shouted at them, they came to, and gaped in amazement at the gore all over the mattress.
The three men then followed a trail of blood which led through the bedroom doorway. It took them towards a back entrance to the house, then past the bamboo groves and ponds of the garden.
At the end, they reached the grave beneath the plum trees where the samurai was reunited with his wife — both of them, actually.
Because standing in front of the open tomb, was the grey and decayed body of wife #1, and in her hand, the head of wife #2 — her face twisted in terror. Rather than doing the sensible thing and running away to the other side of the planet, one of the guards swung at the standing corpse with his sword, which crumbled into a heap, with one rotten hand still ripping at the face of the dismembered head on the floor.
The Floating Heads (Roku Rokubi)
The second story in the podcast episode also featured heads parted from bodies, sure, but not in the way you think. You see, in addition to standard ghosts, scary Japanese spirits come in all shapes and sizes — there are faceless demons, flesh-eating cat monsters, flaming wagon wheels with screaming heads in the middle… The list goes on and on, and gets even weirder the deeper you go.
This next story features one of Azra’s favorite strange Japanese spooks, which could make for a pretty impressive halloween costume if you’re stuck for ideas this year. This is a story about the rokorokubi…
Long ago, there lived a samurai named Taketsura-san, from the southern island of Kyūshu. He made a name for himself serving a clan in his homeland, but by the mid 1400s this clan had fallen apart, and Taketsura found himself out of a job. He decided to become a priest and wander throughout Japan to preach in some of the most remote corners of the country.
One night, on one of those mountain roads miles from civilization, darkness began to fall, and Taketsura decided to call it a day. As he settled down on the comfiest patch of moss he could find, he heard footsteps coming down the road.
It was a woodcutter, with a bag of chopped wood slung over his shoulder. He spotted this mad guy just lying out in the open and invited the ex samurai turned priest to stay over at his hut nearby.
So the two set off for the cabin, scrambling through bushes and scratching themselves on branches, until they reached a clearing at the top of a hill. They went inside, where the priest was introduced to the four other occupants — two men and two women. Something about the fancy way they all spoke sounded strange for a group of secluded peasants, so Taketsura had to ask: “You don’t sound like commoners. Did you guys used to be part of the nobility or something?”
The woodcutter seemed pleased that he asked. “Yes, that’s right. Actually I was born a samurai, and I was pretty successful. Buuut, I loved the sake and the ladies just a bit too much and… well, let’s just say it didn’t end well. Now it’s my life goal to make amends for the damage I caused — every chance I get, I try to do good. In fact, that’s why I invited you here tonight.”
Taketsura sensed the guy was genuinely full of remorse, so he told him that he shouldn’t be so hard on himself and that he would pray for him tonight. And with that, they all went off to bed.
For a few hours in his little side room, Taketsura sat by candlelight reading some passages from his holy books. He started to feel tired but also started to feel thirsty. Remembering the bamboo pipe out back, he tiptoed to the bedroom door, careful not to wake up his hosts.
When he slid open the screen door he froze. It didn’t look like his hosts would be waking up any time soon: they were dead — beheaded, more specifically. Five bodies lay heaped around the fire pit.
One second… Why was there no blood? If bandits had broken in and cut five people’s heads off, surely there would have been some blood — or some noise, for that matter. Then he noticed the stumps — the necks of the bodies were totally smooth and flat.
That’s when it clicked: these weren’t people at all, they were yōkai. Taketsura racked his brains, and eventually he remembered the name: these were rokurokubi — monsters who could detach their heads at night, and send them flying off to hunt for prey.
Luckily, he also remembered the way to beat them. If you find the unattended body of a rokurokubi, you should hide it, because if the head returns to find its body missing, it’ll cry out, smash itself into the floor three times, then die.
So that’s what he did. Taketsura dragged the woodcutter’s body and dumped it out of a window. Then he snuck to the back door, unlocked it, and creeped out into the woods. Looking out into the clearing, he saw five heads slowly flitting about through the air — every now and then drifting down to the floor, and rising with a mouthful of dirt-covered worms. Between bouts of munching on bugs, the heads were speaking to one another about eating the priest…one was ordered to check on him too!
One of the women’s heads floated high into the sky, drifting down through the smoke hole in the roof of the house. Moments later, it flew out in a panic, flitting from side to side, letting the rest know that the priest is gone, and so are their bodies!
The head of the heads freaked; he ordered the rest to find the priest. Taketsura was shaken, feeling terror for the first time. He grabbed a thick branch from the floor, just in case. And at just that moment, he was spotted behind the tree. The heads all turned screaming, and rushed through the air at the priest. With the branch in hand, he smacked the first one away, then the next, and on and on as they kept on flying at him.
As he began to tire, he missed the woodcutter’s final rush, and found the head chomping
down on the sleeve of his robes. He smashed at the head over and over again, but its jaws were locked tight. After a few more solid knocks to the temple, and with one last moan, it stopped thrashing around, and hung lifeless from his arm.
By this point dawn had started to break over the treetops. The beaten and bruised heads panicked and fled back into the house, then ran into the forest with their bodies attached once more. After taking a few moments to collect himself, Takestsura continued on his merry way, with the woodcutter’s head still hanging off his clothes.
As he reached the next settlement on the route, people were less than pleased to see him: a priest, marching through the streets carrying a human head, giggling like a straight up
psychopath. Obviously, he was arrested, and brought to trial for murder. When he shared his story with the court, the officials assumed he must have been munching on some forbidden roadside mushrooms, and sentenced him to death.
But just before he was dragged off to be beheaded, one old magistrate stopped them. He asked to see the head, which Taketsura brought up to the front of the hall. Sure enough, it was just as the old man suspected: the neck showed no sign of being cut — it was as smooth and clean a joint as on a Lego figure, and on the stump were some strange red kanji which are a dead giveaway for rokurokubi.
That means our hero could walk free, and go on to preach the good word for years to come.
So I guess the moral of the story is… don’t trust anyone? Always hide beheaded bodies? Ehm, maybe there’s no real takeaway here.
The Corpse Rider
The final story on the podcast episode is a little like the first, in that it has a touch of domestic drama. The ghost at the center of it is another woman wronged — she was divorced.
This is the story of how to beat a literal ex from hell with nothing but a touch of magic and a decent amount of upper body strength. And of all our stories, it has the most fittingly black-metal title: The Corpse Rider.
Around a couple of hundred years ago, a newly-divorced man headed out for a trip. She had been totally devastated, which made for a messy divorce. After a few days out on the road, the man returned home to his village. But when he got back, he wasn’t met with friendly faces; people turned to him with panicked eyes, and whispered to each other as he passed.
As he got to the center of town, he was approached by one of his neighbors, who told him the bad news: his ex-wife was gone — dead of a broken heart. And if her final words had been anything to go by, this broken heart was filled with rage for the one who had left her. When he heard this, he got goosebumps.
Someone who died with that much anger wouldn’t pass on easily, unable to rest until they had their revenge. In fact, everyone in the village knew this was the case, so they hadn’t even bothered to bury the woman!
There was someone kind of like an old-timey Ghostbuster the mancould call: the local shaman. So he visited this elderly wise man and told him about his predicament. The shaman made the unhappy bachelor swear to obey his every word, and the two returned to the village together as sunset loomed near.
As they approached the house, everything was eerily quiet all around because all the neighbours cleared out just in case they became a piece of collateral damage. The two slid open the door and the two of them stepped through. In the center of the main room, they saw the body of the woman lying there peacefully, face down. They looked on for a moment in silence.
The shaman said: “Get on her. Sit on her back, like you’re riding a horse. Do it.”
He did as he was told even though he was terrified; he closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and sat down on the body, ice cold underneath him.
“Okay, now you’ll want to grab the hair, and grab it tight. If you let go before morning, you’re dead for sure. You have to promise to stay in that exact position until I come get you.”
The man agreed, what choice did he have? Hours went by, and total darkness seeped into the room. Then, the body threw itself upwards with a start, and the man was almost sent rolling across the room. Slowly the corpse rose to its feet, its joints creaking and cracking as it moved.
After a moment, it began to walk, then suddenly bounded outside, throwing open the doors as the onryō and its rider took off into the blackness. The man held on with all his strength as they rushed down the pitch-black country roads, thin branches whipping against his arms and legs.
Hours passed like this, with the man paralyzed in terror and hanging on for dear life. After what seemed like an eternity, he found himself once again moving up the front steps of the hut. He slowly processed what had happened: the corpse had made its way back through the village, and now it was settling down onto the tatami of the house, in the exact same position as before.
The man was relieved but kept clinging onto the body, clenching his teeth and clamping his eyes shut, until he felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned in shock.
It was the shaman. Morning had come, and the first sunlight was filtering in through the windows. The man finally let go of the hair which was wrapped around his fists, both of them crumpled and trembling from the effort.
As the shaman helped the man up to his feet, he explained that now they had tricked the corpse into thinking he was gone for good, she wouldn’t be bothering him ever again.
We used a lot of spooky-related vocabulary in the episode, so here we have a list of all of them accumulated:
Osōshiki (お葬式) — funeral
Bochi (墓地) — cemetery or graveyard
Boseki (墓跡) — tombstone
Ohaka (お墓) — tomb or grave.
Onryō (音量) — a vengeful spirit, like Sadako from The Ring, for example. But the more general word for any kind of ghostly spirit is yūrei (幽霊).
Akuma (悪魔) — nightmare
Warui yume (悪い夢) — bad dreams
Chi (血) — blood
Ume (梅) — plum tree, but it’s also the word for the fruit itself
umeshu (梅酒) — a sweet plum wine
Sōryo (僧侶) — Buddhist priest
Koya (小屋) — a hut, cottage, or shed
Taki (滝) — waterfall
Shinda (死んだ) — dead
Satsujin (殺人) — murder
Korosu (殺す) — to kill
Yōkai (妖怪) — a wide word for all kinds of Japanese goblins, spirits, and monsters.
Mimizu (ミミズ) — worm
Kyoufu (恐怖) — fear, terror, dread
kyōfushō (恐怖症) — phobias.
kumo kyōfushō (クモ恐怖症) — arachnophobia (the fear of spiders)
Kōsho kyōfushō (高所恐怖症) — Fear of heights
Rikon (離婚) — divorce
rikon shita (離婚した) — to divorce
Torihada (鳥肌) — goosebumps
Ryū (龍) — dragon: the Chinese style of dragon specifically
Nichibotsu (日没) — sunset
hinode (日の出) — sunrise
Jumon (呪文) — a magic spell
Kimo wo hiyasu (肝を冷やす) — an idiom meaning terrified: kind of like “scared stiff”. The literal meaning is that your liver is frozen, because the liver (the kimo) is used in a lot of Japanese idioms to express severity.