Christmas in Japan

Christmas Light Show in Sapporo 2013

Christmas Light Show in Sapporo, Hokkaido 2013

Oh yes – ‘Tis the season to be jolly!

In Trinidad, most businesses and companies close at midday on Christmas Eve to facilitate final Christmas preparations and gift purchasing. Then, we have both Christmas Day (25th December) and Boxing Day (26th December) as holidays. So, this year, we have a very long weekend starting from midday Wednesday this week!

For us, Christmas is a very big event which has the whole country starting its Christmas countdown soon after Divali Celebrations – which is normally in November. Every day, Christmas songs of yesteryear, today and local favourites could be heard on the radio and blaring in the malls. Parang groups return once again for their seasonal serenades; while the familiar smells of pastelles, roast turkey or ham, fruit and black cakes waft through the air.

The bustling is also enjoyable. Malls’ car parks are slowing bursting with cars that are forced to even park on its perimeter! Once inside, your eyes are overwhelmed by the moving sea of people with the mission of getting the perfect presents for their friends, families and loved ones. Pop-up flea markets appear all across the country offering a variety of goods at prices that rival big companies.

Most homes, businesses and even public areas are adorned with colourful lights, Christmas ornaments and decor. Freshly painted homes with new curtains, furniture and big televisions are a familiar sight. Even businesses get even more in the festive spirit by hosting Christmas parties, breakfast or lunch functions. Employees even participate in games like ‘Secret Santa‘, a gift exchange where a name is randomly drawn and you have to buy that person a nice present within a price range.

Of course, donations and presents to orphanages and families who cannot afford is also part of the experience of Christmas in Trinidad. Churches are also busy in their preparations of ceremonies to be conducted between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Christmas Tree on display at the Narita Airport in Chiba, Japan

Christmas Tree on display at the Narita Airport in Chiba, Japan. See, I managed to sneak my little Coca Cola there in the picture!

You are probably wondering. ‘Why start with Christmas at home? When are you going to get to the topic – Christmas in Japan?

There are two reasons why I started with Christmas in my country of Trinidad:


  1. To highlight some of the traditions and customs from my country that may be the same with you, the reader, in his / her country.

2. To highlight that there may be some traditions and customs that may be different between our countries.


And if there are differences and similarities between our countries, the same could be said between Japan and your own country.

Additionally, I could only list the similarities and differences of Japan’s Christmas in relation to my own experience of Christmas in Trinidad. So, by giving one the idea of what Christmas is like in my country, one is able to better appreciate my perspective of Christmas in Japan.

So let’s get started on our Christmas experience in Japan!!!


Your eyes are not deceiving you – that is the Colonel all dressed up as Santa Claus!

In Japan, a barrel of chicken from KFC is as closely tied to Christmas, as your laces are tied to your shoes! The demand for it is so great that you have to preorder your barrel about 2 – 3 months in advance for Christmas!

So, where and when did this happen?

The story goes that a clever expat in the 1970’s commented that there was no roast turkey to celebrate the season and that the closest thing to it is KFC! An employee heard the comment and after a successful advertising campaign was launched, the rest was history!

Even if you do manage to miss placing that order, you could still go to an outlet and purchase your barrel – BUT BE WARNED! The lines are incredibly long and there is a very long wait!


CHRISTMAS DAY IS NOT A HOLIDAY.

Yes. You read that correctly.

In Japan, unless you applied for the day off, you would be off to work bright and early on Christmas morning.

So, to all expats living in Japan, it is essential to apply for those vacation days early well in advance if you want to enjoy your Christmas at home with friends and family – even if it is via Skype (like me).


Christmas Eve is considered to be a special and romantic time for couples.

Couples usually meet at a public location, go to a very nice restaurant, take a lovely stroll to see all of the lights that are on display and hopefully exchange meaningful gifts with each other.

It very much resembles the Valentine’s Day that we are accustomed to in the West.

Although it is very much a couple’s ‘holiday‘, people still purchase small gifts for their friends and / or loved ones if they want to show them a small token of appreciation.


Christmas is celebrated more on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day!

Remember that KFC barrel that you ordered months in advance?

Expect to most likely enjoy it with your loved ones on Christmas Eve!

Oh, and those presents?

Most Japanese families share their gifts on Christmas Eve as well!


They may not have Fruit Cake  . . . they may not have Black Cake . . . but by golly they have

C H R I S T M A S    C A K E!

This is a light sponge cake that is packed with fresh strawberries and fresh whipped cream.

Families preorder their Christmas Cakes in advance and enjoy it in all of its yummy goodness  . . . .on Christmas Eve!


Courtesy of: http://endtimeobserver.blogspot.com

Courtesy of: endtimeobserver.blogspot.com

Although most people in Japan are either Shinto or Buddhist, less than one percent of the population is Christian!

There are churches throughout Japan that hold all of the religious ceremonies that are associated with Christmas on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

From my observations, Hokkaido seems to possess the most number of churches per prefecture than any other throughout Japan.


The Christmas Village in Sapporo features a number of novelty stalls - especially from Russia!

The Christmas Village in Sapporo features a number of novelty stalls – especially from Russia!

As stated before, less than one percent of the population in Japan is Christian.

To a number of Japanese people, Christmas is a time of novelty and romance – which spells  COMMERCIAL SUCCESS to businesses.

Big shopping centres invest in a lot of Christmas decorations and provide a lot of sales during this season – even on Christmas Day itself!

Although it is clearly a big commercial event during this time; the products and services that they provide are so novel, unique and manages to find and touch on some sort of nostalgia that resides within your heart – that it becomes incredibly endearing!

And then you HAVE to purchase that item to hold unto that feeling!!!!

There are old cartoons, characters, etc. that you grew up with but are no longer popular in the West, yet they are still well and alive in Japan! For example, my friends ‘Peter Rabbit‘ and ‘The Snowman‘ were available in such a variety of products, that I had to restrain myself from buying the lot!

And the sales – they are really good. You really do get items of excellent quality at very good prices.

Such effective marketing!


Just around Christmas, people in Japan attend at least one bōnenkai (忘年会). Its literal translation being ‘Forget the year gathering‘.

It is a Japanese drinking party (with lots of food) held at the end of year with groups of co-workers or friends at an izakaya, pub, or restaurant. It is a way to informally socialize, close the year on a high note and look forward to the new year.

At the bōnenkais that I have attended, staff organized games that were Christmas themed. They even organized a little gift exchange before the party ended.

Unless otherwise stated, each person has to confirm their attendance in advance and make a contribution towards the bōnenkai – not surpassing around 5,000 yen. This covers the cost of food, prizes and drinks for the entire night.


I hope that this gave you another glimpse into daily life in Japan, and made you feel that you were experiencing the season along with many other Japanese people!

So, from JapanLime to you . . . .

M E R R Y   C H R I S T M A S!

Hiragana: めりーくりすます!

Katakana: メリークリスマス!

Romaji:  Meri Kurisumasu!


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Always be ready for a Disaster / Emergency

If you are living in Japan, it is absolutely essential to be prepared for an emergency.

This is not solely due to the tsunami that occurred a couple of years ago (yes, I was there); but it is something that has always been stressed and ingrained in the very fabric of modern Japanese culture. Schools, companies, government agencies, etc. routinely conduct extensive and frequent drills concerning various emergency / disaster scenarios. Responses are timed and training is given with regards to first aid medical assistance.

It is actually an amazing experience if you get a chance to be a part of it. The tools you learn and the amount of dedication, hard work, commitment and national participation that is placed into it, is indeed inspiring.

You are probably wondering at this point what has prompted this post. There have been no reported disasters or emergencies in Japan at the moment, so why mention this?

Actually, a couple of days ago, all of the schools in Iwamizawa (Hokkaido) were abuzz with the possibility of a terrible snow storm hitting Hokkaido within the week. Schools were already expecting to be snowed in, electrical outages, buses not working and the cancellation of some of the school festivals that would most likely be postponed. Among staff, contingency plans were discussed and settled to compensate for the loss of time / events that were scheduled for this week so that they could be fulfilled at a later date without compromising on the classes and upcoming exams of the following week. There was also mention that if the storm did hit, residents would most likely be confined to their homes until it subsided.

It then occurred to me that maybe a lot of people are unaware of all of the emergencies that do occur in Japan on a relatively frequent basis: the snow storms (Hokkaido), blizzards (Hokkaido), earthquakes, cyclones, tornadoes, lightning storms, thunder storms, fires . . .  And that it is very real and necessary to have that emergency bag and stash of goods ready at all times.

A normal snowy day in Iwamizawa - and yes - the snow gets that high and even higher!

A normal snowy day in Iwamizawa – and yes – the snow gets that high and even higher!

After experiencing the after effects of the tsunami and devastating earthquake, the list and guides below would truly be helpful to anyone in the future.

This is a general list of things that should be in your Emergency Stash:

  • First Aid Kit
  • General medication – headaches, flu, fever. pain, allergies
  • If you have a medical condition and are required to take particular tablets, injections, etc.; have extra doses for a few days available.
  • Copies of your passport, ID, etc.
  • Contact phone numbers and emergency numbers should be clearly printed
  • Extra phone (fully charged)
  • Small emergency radio that has to be cranked and / or solar powered
  • Portable charger
  • Have extra cash available. ATM’s may not work during this time.
  • Torchlights
  • Batteries
  • Lanterns
  • Candles
  • Matches / lighters
  • Extra kerosene
  • Thermal blankets
  • Regular blankets
  • Charcoal
  • Small, portable bar-b-que pit / coal pot (provide heat and possibly heat food. This should be used in an open area, not if you are confined in a closed small space or a fire could erupt.)
  • Scissors
  • Knife
  • Rope
  • *Swiss Army knife*
  • Flares
  • Whistles
  • Walkie talkies
  • Food that can be consumed without reheating or cooking – potato chips, for example
  • Water (for general use)
  • Drinking water
  • Sports drinks
  • Dried fruit
  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Crackers
  • Jerky
  • Jam or jellies
  • Energy bars
  • Canned food – soups, beans, spam, cooked meat products, seafood
  • Can opener
  • Baby items (if there is a baby in the house) – pampers, formula, water, blankets
  • Battery powered fans
  • Battery powered heaters (for the cold)
  • Heat packs and sticky heating pads that could be placed under feet, on the back or stomach (for the cold)
  • A small tablet (iPad, Nexus for example) that is charged and could possibly be used for communication in emergency.

It should be noted that your emergency items should not be confined to just ‘one bag’. Instead, (in my opinion and experience) the following is recommended:

  • Main stash for the homePrepare an area where all of the items in your emergency kit could be easily found. This would also contain several bulkier items, including food products. Remember that food products should last a few days.
  • A back-pack per personHaving bags prepared in advance per person would make having to escape with essentials easier and faster. Additionally, in the unfortunate event of separation, it would ensure that each person would be catered for.
    • – Having a yoga mat, large sleeping bag (that could hold more than one person and / or children) and / or a tent could also be useful in the long run.
    • – A printed page with emergency phrases in the foreign language would also help. Place for children as well.
    • – Having the same copies of pictures in each bag with family members’ names and contact information is also a good idea.
    • – Remember to have a first aid kit and relevant documentation with you – as well as copies.
    • – Keep extra cash on hand. It may not be possible to withdraw funds from an ATM.
    • – Make sure that your bags are waterproof!
    • – Change of clothes and toiletries.
  • Remember to also pack for children – Having essentials already packed for children would also be helpful.
    • – Sewing or attaching contact details on the bag or clothes is also a good idea in the unfortunate event of getting lost.
    • – Pack a special toy,book, picture and blanket. If there are babies present, pack essentials, medicine, etc. for them as well.
    • –  Place extra cash with children as well.
    • – Change of clothes and toiletries.
  • Key areas of the homePlacing a torchlight, whistle, small medical kit, batteries, energy bars, tiny radio and phone in different areas of the house could be a lifesaver in times of emergency. These places should be areas where you spend the most time. For example: your bedside, kitchen, living area
  • For your car – Have an emergency stash available in your vehicle.
    • – Also, try to maintain a full tank of gas. It was very difficult to get gas when the tsunami and earthquake occurred; causing food deliveries to not be possible and necessary travel very expensive.
    • – Additionally, this is good to have in colder areas (like Hokkaido) in the unfortunate event that a blizzard occurs and you are somehow stuck in your vehicle.
    • – Remember to prepare for children as well.
  • Copy your key – Make a couple of copies of your house keys / apartment keys and give them to a trusted neighbour, friend and family member.

Please remember  . . . .

  • To always switch off your gas lines! Open gas lines during a terrible disaster could not only mean ‘FIRE!’, but also the inhalation of fumes that could render you unconscious or ill.
  • If there is a power outage, unplug devices. If devices were in use when the power was cut, switch them off and unplug.
  • It is good and beneficial to discuss emergency plans, responses and medical aid with your family and neighbours. Routine practice of emergency response is also greatly encouraged. This would help reduce feelings of confusion, fear and anxiety that normally occur in a disaster and give more focus to the situation at hand and how to respond to it.
  • Frequently change your batteries and check torchlights and whistles to ensure that they are working.
  • Ensure that stored food has not expired. Frequently check and refresh stored items.

If there are any other ideas or suggestions, please be sure to comment so that others could benefit from your thoughts!

Autumn in Hokkaido: Autumn needs and Stink bugs

DSC_0036Ah yes – Autumn!

And in Hokkaido, the chill starts earlier than the rest of Japan!

It is the time to start wearing that extra layer or light jacket to give you that extra warmth that is needed in that slightly oh so chilled air. The sunrise is a little later (Yay- sleep!) but the sun starts to set a little bit earlier.

One thing to start purchasing ( that would still be used in the winter months) is Heat Tech clothing.  It would seem to be a light jersey and /or tights to wear under your clothes – but it does provide extra warmth to your body. UNIQLO, a popular clothing store in all of Japan, has a variety of colours, styles and cuts for both men and women at very reasonable prices.

Start wearing a light scarf and mittens if the air is still a bit chilly for you. A nice thick sweater also helps.

You would notice that some people start to wear boots for the Autumn. This is not necessary (I wore my same shoes throughout – but then again, I like the cold! ) but the boots do provide added warmth to your feet when compared to the sneakers, heels or other normal shoes that we wear everyday in Trinidad.

If you are going to buy boots, make sure that they have some sort of grip. If they are smooth, there is a high risk of falling and injuring yourself – especially when it rains and everywhere is wet.

 

One thing that you may start noticing by early October is the number of stink bugs in your apartment that have somehow made it through every nook and cranny that cannot be seen by the eye. The chill air is kicking their instinct to get warm fast – and they try to do this by entering your nice heated apartment one way or another.

And when I say number – it is a big number! Sometimes, one would reach home and just see bugs everywhere!

Although they do not really pose a threat and will eventually die in your apartment; the truth is that if you try to catch them or hurt them in some way, their bodies get defensive – DEFENSIVE WITH A VERY STRONG, ODIOUS SCENT!

 

So, how could you protect your nose from such a defense in the future?

Let’s start off with some cautionary measures:

1. Resist the urge to vacuum the little guys. They would still release their scent glands.

2. Do not – I repeat – DO NOT mash, smash, squeeze or do anything that could cause them bodily harm! It not only releases the scent they are famous for, but causes an explosion of it!

 

What can you do?

First off, try your best to seal any cracks, openings or crevices in your apartment with silicone filler or tape. This is something that would have had to be done before the arrival of winter to prevent cold air from outside flowing in – so the presence of the stink bugs are a good reminder of that.

Avoid opening your windows and doors for prolonged periods of time. This is like an invitation that they are all waiting for! I sealed the windows of my apartment with tape – and this helped to greatly reduce the number of bugs in my apartment.

If you do open your windows and back door, make sure that the screen door is placed over the opening to prevent the bugs from finding their way inside!

Invest in a stink bug repellant and place by all cracks or spaces that they could be entering by.

There is a bottle of powder with red and yellow labeling that is used for stink bugs and other pests. This could be sprinkled at the base of the genkan door as well as by the windows (once they are sealed).

There is also a spray that is used. It has a very clear picture of a stink bug on it – so spray the apartment at least every other day to ensure it helps to repel.

Additionally, there are sprays that could be used on the window (side facing outside) to repel most pests. This is something that is definitely worth investing in – not just for Autumn but throughout the year. But it also helped in the fight against the stink.

After all of this, there would sometimes be one or two little guys who made their way into the apartment. What should you do?

Well, normally I would leave them alone. They seem quite happy to be warm and play around the bright light in the dining room. Plus, they normally die in a couple of days.

 

Autumn is also the perfect time to start your preparations for the coming Winter . . . which is normally a challenge here in Hokkaido.

My next post will cover some of the preparations that will make you “Winter Ready” for this challenge! So, look out for it!

 

Hokkaido: Summer and its festivals

Hokkaido’s Summer Festivals

Summer, to the Japanese, means more than the humid weather and the sweltering heat.

It means FESTIVALS!

And, as mentioned in an earlier blog that was posted ( https://japanlime.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/japan-its-weather-and-seasons/ ), the festivals vary from location to location.

In Hokkaido, it is not very different. There are similar stalls selling familiar festival treats, most persons from the area or neighbouring towns come to enjoin in the festivities . . . but there are subtle differences.

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Cleanliness in the environment is always maintained!

Firstly, Hokkaido is a country that cherishes its environment and nature. Nature is very much respected and despite the occasion or the number of people there on location the area is always VERY clean.

The picture above was taken while at a festival in Kurisawa. Even though there was a lot of foot traffic, the area was spotless and free of litter and garbage.

Everyone found a bin to dispose used cups, bottles and food wrappers – and these bins were promptly emptied to avoid spillage and maintain the beauty of the festival’s location.

Furthermore, in Japan, recycling* is practised. Even at these public festivities, each individual takes the time to throw their used item in the appropriate bin assigned.

This is a behaviour and action that a lot of Trinidadians (on all levels) need to adopt. Most of the time, a sea of litter is often seen after a Trinidadian party – which, by the way, has to be cleaned by other people. But, if we all did our part, started recycling and bins are routinely cleaned; then our country would look just as a beautiful as the picture above.

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Kurisawa’s Summer Festival

Kurisawa's Summer Festival

Kurisawa’s Summer Festival

Secondly, there are more stalls selling fresh produce grown by local farmers.

Hokkaido is a country that is very proud of its agriculture and love their flowers. For example, the melons from Yubari (Hokkaido) are considered the sweetest and most desired in ALL of Japan – hence the reason why it is so expensive!

These stalls would boast a variety of goods – ranging from onions and cabbages to carrots, ochro, chile peppers and tomatoes.And the prices are a lot cheaper!

Stalls selling freshly cut flowers are also a common sight at these festivals.

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Besides the surprise that there was a Red Bull promotion at a local festival in Kurisawa, we all had bags of fresh produce purchased from the local farmers.

Thirdly, just as there were stalls selling grilled meat and beer, there were a number of stalls selling a variety of grilled vegetables… especially corn. This is similar to the corn that we purchase off the highway in Trinidad – all charred, smoky and oh so delicious. But the corn in Hokkaido is on a completely different level! Every bite is filled with a unique juicy sweetness that:

  1. It blows your mind and causes you to redefine the taste of corn!
  2. You swear that it was grown with sugar in the soil!

Even if you may not be a fan of corn, the corn in Hokkaido will definitely convert you!

Ending the festival at Kurisawa with a traditional dance that only females could partake in.

Ending the festival at Kurisawa with a traditional dance that only females could partake in.

Fourthly, each festival continues a tradition that is unique to the location. That is, the tradition in itself is the identity of the area.

For example, in Kurisawa, all of the females – both young and old – dance in a circle to the beat of the taiko drums (played by local elementary students) and the song being played. They have been doing this for generations!

The huge 'Mochi Pounder' that is used for the Iwamizawa Summer Festival.

The huge ‘Mochi Pounder’ that is used for the Iwamizawa Summer Festival.

On the other hand, for Iwamizawa’s Summer Festival, hundreds gather in the street, form long lines and hold thick long ropes that are attached to a colossal mochi pounder. Long ago, it was made from the trunk from a huge tree that was hollowed to facilitate the pounding of the mochi (glutinous rice that is pounded to flour and then used to make the mochi desserts that we are familiar in Japan’s popular desserts like ‘dango’). It is an event that the residents of Iwamizawa partake of yearly – as it bonds them with their past, reunites them with the present and creates new memories for the future.

Do you see how colossal this is?

Do you see how colossal this is?

One thing that I must say that stands out the most to me at these festivals (in all of Japan), is the fact that the teachers from elementary and junior high schools are there WORKING. They form groups with other schools and teachers in the area and patrol the festival area – ensuring that students are safe and not engaging in any illegal or bad activities.

DSC_0097

My Coca Cola was present at both of the festivals in Iwamizawa: the one in the city and here by the temple.

After the Iwamizawa Festival in the city, there is another festival at the Iwamizawa Temple that ends at night.

After the Iwamizawa City’s Festival, there is another festival at the Iwamizawa Temple that ends at night.

Hokkaido’s Summer Weather

As I mentioned before, the summer in Japan is hot – very hot AND humid. Luckily the summer in Hokkaido is cooler than the rest of Japan. It is hot, but definitely not as hot, humid and sticky as Tokyo ( for example). This is due to its northern location – as evidenced by the heavy snowfall it regularly receives.

Additionally, there are a lot of mosquitoes and bugs that enter your home at this time. Purchasing a bug repellant that diffuses remedies this problem. Once the seal is removed, over time, it diffuses a scent that repels bugs. It is very effective!

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The summer in Hokkaido is very short. Be sure to use it wisely!

Also, another surprise about the summer is the time of sunrise . . . about: 4:00am! You would be fooled several times upon waking up that it is after 7:00am (yes, that is how bright the sun is at that time!). So, be sure to check your clock before rushing to change your clothes and catch the bus to work – you may be too early!

Changing the curtains in the bedroom to darker ones, or investing in a sun blind for the window, would both help to ensure that you keep those extra Z’s that you so badly need to get through your coming day.

Ready for one more surprise?

The summer in Hokkaido is short – very short. About one month and a half – two if you are lucky. By the time what appears to be Autumn in Hokkaido, it is still clearly summer in the rest of Japan!

So, be sure to capitalize on your short summer in Hokkaido!

*We will talk more about recycling in Japan in another post soon!

Japan: Its Weather and Seasons

Ask a Trinidadian which season they like the most, and they would answer either:

  1. The Dry Season.”
  2. The Rainy Season.”
  3. “Does it matter?”

YES, that’s right – we only have two seasons.

As a Trinidadian, we basically know whether we prefer the sunny weather in the first half of the year, as opposed to the wet, rainy weather that is rampant in the second half of the year. There are no shades of grey. We either prefer the heat or the cold (which to most of us here, means the rain). The topic of ‘the weather’ also seems incredibly boring to us.

But in Japan, the weather is a topic of conversation.

As Japan is a temperate country, its location presents one with the opportunity to experience all four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each period is usually marked by changes in the weather and the environment. These changes also dictate that certain activities, crops and food are only possible for a few months at a time. . . leading to special events to commemorate the beginning of each season.

Spring in Japan is usually highlighted by the blooming of the cherry blossom or "Sakura" trees.

Spring in Japan is usually highlighted by the blooming of the cherry blossom or “Sakura” trees.

Spring (the end of March –  start of June):

Spring is usually celebrated by friends and family meeting under the delicate pink blossoms of the Sakura tree. This is called “Hanami” – meaning “Flower viewing“.

Picnic stations are set under the blooming trees. There, many people can be seen eating either cute bentos (which are home-made) or popular street food (like takoyaki) that were purchased from nearby stands that were set up specifically for this event. While engaged in such merriment, time is taken to enjoy the view of these delicate flowers that are in bloom for such a short time.

The Japanese seem to have attached a deep meaning to the Cherry Blossom and the event of its blooming.Its significance may be tied to important life events and changes in one’s life in Japan.

Unlike Trinidad, Japan’s new school year begins at this time- around April. Government institutions also rotate their staff across different departments / locations / areas too. Seeing the cherry blossoms at this new change and part of life is what may be the key that further resonates a deeper nostalgic and sentimental feeling between cherry blossoms and the Japanese heart.

To me, it seems to represent the fragility and fleeting life of the world and the moments it is made up of. It also seems to signify renewal, or a new, fresh beginning in life.

People also use this time to clean their homes and cleanse it of bad spirits. The Setsubun Festival  celebrates this cleansing at temples all across Japan.

Although Spring lasts for a few months in the mainland of Japan, Hokkaido is different. It could last for only about a month. The viewing of the sakura is also very short – only a few days!

Scattered showers and warm days are typically experienced during Spring. This paves the way for the melting of snow and young, green shoots emerging from the once cold ground.

Preparation of fields for rice.

Preparation of fields for rice planting.

To take advantage of the rainy weather, seeds and seedlings are normally planted during this time. Some of the crops, like watermelon for example, would be ready for consumption by summer. Other crops, like rice, would be ready to be harvested by autumn.

Sorry that this is a little blurry. The Tower of Lights as seen here in Kuki’s Matsuri (Saitama) were spinning so fast! Yes, SPINNING!

Summer (June – Early September)

I remember that the first time that I was going to Japan, my Japanese teachers (who are Japanese) warned me of its summer heat. In my mind, I thought, “I am from the tropics. The heat cannot be worse than here.”

Boy. . .  was I ever so wrong!

In Trinidad, even though it is hot, there is still a lot of breeze.

Not in Japan, my friends. The air is still as the heat swells. The body automatically compensates for the absence of breeze to cool the body by cooling it itself.

Basically – you are constantly sweating.

It really is just like in the animes and manga that so many of us are fond of: the complaints of the heat, feeling like passing out, thirsty, fanning, the wearing of lighter clothes, the excursions to the beach and the pool – all in the sake of cooling oneself of the incessant heat. Even the nights are incredibly humid!

Because Japan is environmentally conscious, there is a restriction on how low one can set the temperature of their air conditioning units : 23 degrees celsius.Believe me, you would still feel very hot! That is why looking for alternate ways of cooling oneself becomes so important!

Even when you go to the malls, people distribute free bottles of water to everyone. This is because the heat is so intense during this time, that around two hundred people a year die of heat stroke in Japan!

And during this time, there is very little rain! So the heat keeps building!

As a precaution, be sure to wear caps or hats while out in the sun. Keeping hydrated is also very important during this time.

But in all of this heat, there is one thing that most people look forward to: Matsuris.

A Matsuri or festival is normally held in the local village or town one resides in. Each town has its own traditions – thus the festivals that may be held in one prefecture / county of Japan may differ greatly from each town / village there. That is why people attend so many festivals across Japan.

Carrying of the Mikoshi – a portable shrine of the local guardian – is conducted by some communities before the start of the festivities.

Although a typical matsuri in Japan takes place over two days; in actuality, its preparations start about a couple of months before.

Locals volunteer hours of their time a few times a week after school and work to make the festival a success. They are either involved in practising Taiko (playing of the large drums), cleaning of the shrine, organizing stalls and events . . . just to name a few. It is definitely a local group effort to get everything underway.

That is why on the days of the festivities, locals are so jubilant and happy – they get to see and partake the results of their hard work over so many months.

The first day is normally marked by a brief period of executing the formalities of opening the festival to the public.This is then followed by the opening of stalls and an invitation to the public to partake in its activities. The second day continues in much of the same way, but ends with all persons involved in preparations, etc. go out, drink (even more) and be merry!

                       A stall selling various masks to highlight the festival at hand.

One thing that is present at all matsuris – stalls! The myriad available at times could be astounding!

Food stalls typically offer the Japanese favourites:

  • Yakisoba – noodles quickly prepared on a grill with meat and vegetables.
  •  Edamame – blanched soy beans that are lightly salted.
  • TakoyakiBits of octopus cooked a ball of batter over special grills.
  • Yakitori – grilled pieces of meat offered on skewers.

They also offer a variety of desserts – from bananas covered in chocolate to shaved ice and taiyaki (fish shaped batter that is cooked and stuffed with anko or red bean paste, custard or cream).

There are also a lot of games that one could play. . . the most popular being goldfish or turtle scooping. These stalls are normally teaming with patrons – especially elementary school kids who want to try their best to capture an elusive goldfish or turtle.

Do not be fooled! This is harder than it appears to be! It is mostly due to the fact that the scoop itself is made of a very thin film of paper. Once it gets wet or any weight is placed on it for too long (a matter of seconds!), the paper would break and the goldfish or turtle would fall back into the pool it came from.

Chocolate covered bananas are a popular festival dessert in Japan.

            Chocolate covered bananas are a popular festival dessert in Japan.

As a Trinidadian, when I heard about this festival, its activities and the fact that most of it occurs during the night, I thought that I would be up all night taking part in everything. Imagine my utter surprise when at 10:00 pm all of the music promptly stopped, stalls closed, streets cleaned and police began patrolling the area – ensuring that no one driving or riding home was drunk (in Japan, it is illegal to ride your bicycle drunk). This was my expression: ( ‘.’ ) I was really shocked.

I was so familiar with our Trinidad nature of partying for long hours and days, that I believed that it was the same everywhere. I was speechless to see how early everything finished on both days!

And of course, people look forward to seeing ‘Hanabi’ or fireworks after the festival.

However, in smaller areas, fireworks are not always possible due to the proximity of buildings to each other. But, vast, open areas like by Tokyo Bay, annually have their summer fireworks to mark its end.

In Trinidad, schools are completely desolate. Students are home enjoying the long summer vacation that is given to them.

But, in Japan it is different. Schools are only closed for ONLY one month – August. Although there are no classes, teachers still come to school every day to prepare their lesson plans for the next semester, while students still come to school to partake in club activities!

The arrival of Autumn could be seen in the changing colours of the leaves.

      The arrival of Autumn could be seen in the changing colour of leaves.

Autumn (Late September – November)

As it gets closer to the end of September, the days get a little cooler and the sun seems to set a little earlier. The rains return once more.

Of course, as Trinidadians, we have our fair share of rain and take it a bit lightly.

But the rain in Japan is not just rain. . .most of the time, there are thunderstorms! And when I say thunderstorms, I mean storms with heavy rain, very strong winds and very, very, very loud booms of thunder followed by the cracking of lightning.

You will notice a lot of Japanese people screaming at the thunder, cowering and even not allowing anyone to leave a compound due to the thunderstorm.

This is because it really is a serious matter.

With the rain falling so heavily and lightning is everywhere, it is easy to get electrocuted or injured in some way.

Plus, the torrential downpour of rain is so much at times, that when riding your bicycle to work, you end up completely drenched. More than once has that happened to me, despite wearing a raincoat.

The following precautions and preparations should be made during this time:

  • Invest in a very good raincoat.
  • Always have an umbrella.
  • Make sure your bag is waterproof. If not, place all of the contents in your bag in a plastic bag that could fit in the bag that you are using. This would protect your stuff from getting wet and damaged.
  • Buy a good pair of rain boots or shoes that could withstand moisture.
  • Pack an extra set of clothes for changing.
  • Prepare an emergency kit at home in case electricity goes – canned items, first aid kit, bottled water (and Coca Cola!), batteries, torch lights, candles, matches, portable charger for your cellular / mobile phone.
  • Make sure that your bicycle tires are not smooth and are fully pumped with air.
  • Pack two extra small towels: one to wipe your bicycle seat and the other for you.

Preparations for the coming winter are also done in the colder parts of Japan – but that we would cover in another post.

Harvesting of rice crops, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, etc, are also done during this time. To commemorate the harvests, on the day of the Autumn Equinox, families often gather in the late afternoon and have bar-be-ques at home. This includes the roasting of vegetables and meat over an open flame.

DSC_0267

Snow covered trees in Iwamizawa City, Hokkaido

Winter (Late November – March)

In most of Japan, the weather is a lot cooler now and gets colder as the months pass by. Keep warm by investing in the following:

  • A scarf
  • Mittens – waterproof is best.
  • Hat
  • Heat tech – these are garments worn under your clothes to keep you warm. The store Uniqlo normally offers a wide selection of heat tech for both males and females.
  • Warmer shoes / boots with grips.
  • Small heating packs that come in a variety of sizes for your back, shoes, socks, stomach – even to just hold in your hands. Those that come with the sticky glue are to be stuck on your garments in the specific area – not on your skin! Also, please avoid falling asleep with them on as they could burn your skin! The hand held ones would not burn your skin though.
  • A winter coat / jacket
  • Sweaters
  • Finer yet warm clothes that facilitate ‘layering’ (this will be explained more in another post).
  • Portable heater (if your place does not have one or you have several large rooms and need to provide heating in more than one).

Depending on the area that you are residing in, you may need more items (like if you were living in Hokkaido) or less (living in Tokyo or Kyushuu for example). Be sure to ask people around you what are their normal preparations for winter, as well as figure out what works for you.

A thorough list of winter preparations would be presented in another post.

During this time, one would notice that the vending machines would now offer a variety of hot drinks along with their cold selections. Be sure to try the hot cocoa (very delicious and chocolatey – yum!) and corn pottage! It really warms you!

Hokkaido, the most northern point of Japan, generally has a lot of snow during winter.That is why they host a number of snow festivals – particularly in the month of February – when the snowfall is at its highest. A later article covering Hokkaido’s winter in detail will be posted soon.

Forgive me for the length of this post, but I hope that it provided you with a general insight and understanding of the weather and seasons in Japan, and how greatly it affects and guides the daily life of the Japanese people.

Winter's arrival

Winter’s arrival

Sapporo Oasis

Sapporo Oasis

Our orientation for the JET Programme took place in Shinjuku.

But for those of us who were supposed to work in Hokkaido, another orientation and conference was organized for us by HAJET (Hokkaido AJET). That meant two days of training and seminars in none other than Sapporo.

Very blessed that Iwamizawa City itself is just about an hour by bus or 45 minutes by train.

Even within the city, this beautiful oasis was found in the park at the heart of Sapporo.

DSC_0031 Sapporo Oasis