Monday, February 27, 2017

Hina Matsuri: Japanese Doll Festival - AKA "Girls Day"


Girls Day, AKA "Hina Matsuri" (雛祭り) is just around the corner! At almost every Japanese supermarket you can hear the music of Girls Day, and you can see Girls Day dolls display at many department stores and fancy hotels. In this blog post, learn about this Japanese tradition.

The Japanese have holidays celebrating children. Officially, the Japanese celebrate Children’s Day (子どもの日, kodomo no hi) on May 5th, which is supposed to be a holiday for children of any sex. In practice, however, the Japanese celebrate the birth of boys and girls on two separate holidays.

Children’s Day is an official holiday, and is one of the holidays of "Golden Week" (ゴールデンウィーク). It celebrates the health and happiness of all children, but it also just happens to fall on "Boy’s Day," a separate unofficial holiday, otherwise known as Tango no Sekku (端午の節句). There is a corresponding day for girls, known as Hina Matsuri (雛祭り), also known as the Festival of Dolls.

Hina Matsuri, otherwise known as "Girls Day," is celebrated on March 3rd, but it is not an official national holiday, which is a point of contention for some. (Why does only Boys Day get an official holiday?) This day is dedicated to girls everywhere, and it is used to pray for a girl’s healthy growth and happiness. The festival is not without traditional idealism however, as prayers were originally made for girls that they may develop the virtues expected in a “good” Japanese woman, namely respect for one’s parents, chastity and marriageability. Originally, the observation of this day was based on the Chinese lunar calendar, and it coincided with the blooming of peach blossoms, which is why this holiday was also known as the “Peach Blossom Festival” (桃の節句, momo no sekku).

The highlight of Hina Matsuri is a tiered display of traditional dolls, called hina in Japanese (雛), that is put out for the occasion. How the dolls are displayed and how many varies by region, but the set of dolls are essentially a married couple dressed in garb from the Heian Period, often interpreted as the emperor and empress. A full set of dolls usually also includes a court of three ladies, five musicians and three servants. Other items that could accompany the display are traditionally Japanese household items, such as furniture, tea ceremony utensils, a sewing kit, dishes, tools, etc., everything that a good lady should have.

 Full hina doll set; from top to bottom, the emperor and empress,
three ladies-in-waiting, and five hayashi musicians.
Musicians from left to right; shime-daiko (締め太鼓), okawa (大革),
tsuzumi or shoulder drum (鼓), shinobue or transverse flute (篠笛), and singer.

Nowadays, people live in cramped apartments, and it isn’t always possible to have a huge Hina Matsuri tiered display. In these conditions, often times miniature sets with just the male and female figure are displayed.

 Simple Hina Doll Set

Why dolls, and what does it all mean? Hina Matsuri stems from ancient Chinese beliefs that it was possible to transfer sins, impurities and bad luck to a doll, and that it was possible to rid one of these things by abandoning the doll somewhere. Thus Hina Matsuri was essentially a purification rite to rid girls of sickness and bad luck, and to ensure healthy growth. To date, there are still some parts in Japan where people practice some form of doll abandonment or doll burning ceremonies.

Girls setting hina dolls on the water. This practice is called "nagashibina." (流し雛)

 "Nagashibina" means "Hina that are washed away."

The display of a married couple with all the essentials for a good home was also a wish that the girls were able to find good husbands and marry well. The superstition was that if the Hina Matsuri doll display was not properly put away as soon as the festival was over, the girls in the family would have trouble marrying.

A few days before the festival, the dolls are taken out of their boxes and arranged on a tiered display covered by a red cloth called hi-mōsen (非毛氈). The dolls can be gifts from grandparents, or treasured family heirlooms.

Hina Matsuri was one of the very few occasions when little Japanese girls had their own special gatherings. It was customary for them to invite their friends over to parties where they would partake of special sweets and food offered to the dolls. These included hishi-mochi (菱餅), which was a special diamond-shaped, tri-colored rice cake, arare, which are brightly colored bite-sized rice crackers, konpeito (金平糖), which are small colorful candies, and amazake (甘酒), which is a sweet, non-alcoholic version of sake. Chirashi-zushi (散らし寿司), a dish of sushi rice topped with raw fish and other ingredients, and a special red-colored rice dish called sekihan (赤飯) are often served for the occasion.






 Chirashi-zushi and clam soup

A peculiar dish served for Hina Matsuri is a soup served with clams in the shell. Clam shells are a romantic Japanese symbol of chastity and love, since only a pair of clam shells from the same clam will ever fit together.

A pair of decorated clam shells; note the emperor and the empress

A Song for Hina Matsuri
The following is a song often sung on Girls Day. If you go to supermarkets and malls, you can hear this song playing in the background.

あかりをつけましょ ぼんぼりに
お花をあげましょ 桃の花
五人ばやしの 笛太鼓
今日はたのしい ひな祭り

お内裏様と おひな様
二人ならんで すまし顔
お嫁にいらした ねえさまに
よく似た官女の 白い顔

金のびょうぶに うつる灯を
かすかにゆする 春の風
すこし白酒 めされたか
赤いお顔の 右大臣

着物をきかえて 帯しめて
今日はわたしも はれ姿
春のやよいの このよき日
なによりうれしい ひな祭り

Ureshii Hina Matsuri

akari wo tsukemasho bonbori ni
ohana wo agemasho momo no hana
gonin bayashi no fue taiko
kyo wa tanoshii hina matsuri

odairi-sama to ohina-sama
futari narande sumashigao
oyome ni irashita neesama ni
yoku nita kanjo to shiroi kao

kin no byobu ni utsuru hi wo
kasuka ni yusuru haru no kaze
sukoshi shirozake mesaretaka
akai okao no udaijin

kimono wo kikaete obishimete
kyo ha watashi mo haresugata
haru no yayoi to kono yoki hi
naniyori ureshii hina matsuri

Joyous Girls Day
Let us light the mounted lanterns
Let us offer flowers, peach flowers
The sound of flutes and drums from the 5 musicians
Fun Girls Day is today

The emperor, empress and their retainers
Both of them side-by-side with fixed expressions
The white-faced lady-in-waiting
Looks a lot like older sister on her wedding day

Light shines off the golden folding screen
The spring wind rocks it gently
It looks like he had a little too much shirozake to drink
The red-faced retainer on the right

Dressed in kimono, fastened with obi
I'm looking my finest today
With the Spring of March and today's sunny day
There's never been a more joyful Girls Day

You can hear the song below:


Monday, February 13, 2017

Japan's Obsession With KitKats

Japan has a love-affair with KitKats. So much that, they're always coming out with some crazy, unique, new flavor. Just recently, Nestle Japan decided to put out new KitKats shaped like sushi. (Don't worry, it only *looks* like sushi.) Touched off by my last post on Valentine's Day, I thought I'd write a post to show a few varieties of KitKats that you will only find in Japan.

 Lemon KitKat

Lemon Cheesecake KitKat

"Golden Citrus Blend" KitKat

 Choco Banana KitKat

Cherry Blossom Green Tea KitKat

 Uji Green Tea KitKat (Uji, Kyoto is famous for its tea.)

Hokkaido Grilled Corn KitKat

Pumpkin Pudding KitKat

Japanese Sake KitKat

Cola and "Lemon Squash" (they probably meant "squeeze") KitKat
 Melon KitKat

Hokkaido Melon With Mascarpone Cheese KitKat

Premium Mint KitKat

 "Tochi Otome" Strawberry KitKat

The list goes on and on, but these are just some of the few examples of the different kinds of KitKat that have been released in Japan. Apparently, Nestle Japan has introduced over 200 different flavors since 2000.

Bit of trivia; KitKats are often given to people as a good luck charm. The Japanese love puns and plays on words, and KitKats are given to people going to undertake certain tasks, such as taking entrance exams or playing sports games, because the word "KitKat" in Japanese, "Kitto Katto," sounds a lot like the Japanese words "kitto katsu" (きっと勝つ) which means something like "certain victory."

On the back of Japanese KitKat packages, you can often find a little space where people can write "give it all you got" messages.

"You'll win for sure!"
"Pass With Qualifications"

Valentine's Day in Japan

The Japanese celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, but not in the way people from the West might expect. Similar to Christmas and "Christmas Cake" (In Japan, Christmas is just an excuse to eat cake and KFC, but that's a post for a different time), St. Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a marketing ploy used to sell chocolate. But whereas in most of the West, St. Valentine’s Day is a day for friends and lovers to exchange cards, gifts and/or candy, in Japan, it is a day when, specifically, women give men chocolate.

There are two kinds of chocolate given; honmei-choko (本命チョコ, lit. “true feeling chocolate”), and giri-choko (義理チョコ, lit. “obligation chocolate”). How much honor a Japanese man has is measured by how much chocolate he gets from women on St. Valentine’s Day, so he feels utter shame and embarrassment if he doesn’t get any chocolate. Giri-choko is relatively cheap, obligatory chocolate given out by women to men around them for whom they don’t have any particular feelings of affection, so that they don’t feel left out.

Honmei-choko is chocolate given by a woman to a man for whom she has particular feelings. It’s usually a bit more expensive than giri-choko, and sometimes it’s homemade; this is to indicate to the man that the woman has “gone that extra mile” for him. It is usually accompanied by other gifts such as clothes, jewelry or neckties.

White Day
It would seem unfair that St. Valentine’s Day in Japan is a one-way street; this is where the complementary “White Day” comes in. White Day takes place on the 14th of March, and it is a day where men express their gratitude for the chocolate they got on St. Valentine’s Day. A man is expected to “return the favor” and give chocolate back to the women that helped maintain his chocolate honor. The term sanbai-gaeshi (三倍返し, lit. “thrice the return”) is used to describe the general idea that the chocolate a man gives on White Day should be a bit more expensive than the chocolate he got on St. Valentine’s Day. A marketing ploy capitalizing on the importance Japanese place on feelings of obligation (義理, giri), White Day is a purely Japanese phenomenon.

Black Day
Didn't get any chocolate on either Valentine's Day or White Day? South Korea has a special holiday for you. Meet Black Day, the day when all the singles who went unnoticed get together and bitch about the fact that no one bothered to give them chocolate or gifts. The day takes place on April 14th as a direct response to Valentine's Day and White Day, which also take place on the 14th of February and March respectively. (Valentine's Day and White Day are also celebrated in South Korea.)

Apparently, people get together wearing black, and complain to each other about not having been noticed on Valentine's Day or White Day while eating black-colored food, especially jajangmyeon, which is noodles in a black sauce.

Bowl of jajangmyeon noodles