Golden Week

May 12, 2011

I realize that I’ve missed the chance to talk on time about the Golden Week (April 29th – May 5th). So – I’ll write on the topic *now*.

Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク), also known as Ōgon shūkan (黄金週間, “Golden Week”) or Ōgata renkyū (大型連休, “Large consecutive holiday”) is a collection of four national holidays within seven days and one of the busiest Japan’s holiday seasons. Not all the days are officially holidays, so many Japanese people take paid time off on the intervening work days to fully enjoy this time; anyway, some companies also close down completely.

After the promulgation of the National Holiday Laws in July 1948, the week spanning from the end of April to early May, in which so many of them were concentrated, became the luckiest time for leisure-based industries. After the film Jiyuu Gakkou, in 1951, recorded higher ticket sales during this week than any other time in the year, the director of Daiei Films named it as “Golden Week”, based on the Japanese radio lingo “golden time,” which denotes the period with the highest listener ratings.

The holidays included in this period are:

  • April 29: Showa-no-hi (Showa Day)
  • May 3 : Kenpou-kinen-bi (Constitution Memorial Day)
  • May 4 : Midori-no-hi (Greenery Day)
  • May 5 : Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day)

April 29th was originally the Emperor’s birthday. Then, after Emperor Showa’s death in 1989, the holiday was renamed “Greeneray Day”, which lasted until 2007, when it was changed again, into a memorial day of the late Emperor.



April 12, 2011

These days cherry blossoms are blooming – not only in Japan: today I went and see those in my city; this gave me the hint to write a post on the Japanese custom of Hanami.

Hanami at Himeji Castle


Hanami (花見) literally means “flower viewing” and usually refers to cherry blossom (sakura, 桜) viewing.

Sakura is a symbol of Japan; unlike other cherry trees it does not yield fruits and it’s grown only for its beautiful pink flowers.

Cherry blossoms flower at different times throughout Japan, according to the different climates. They start blooming in January in Okinawa, they are at their peak in late March to April in Honsh, and eventually they reach Hokkaido in May.

Evey year the weather bureau announces the blossom forecast (桜前線, sakurazensen ), so that people can plan their flower viewing.

Paper lanterns

In modern-day Japan, Hanami mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the Sakura trees during daytime or at night. Hanami at night is called Yozakura (夜桜, literally “night sakura”). In many places paper lanterns are hung for that purpose.

In places which are especially popular for hanami,  such as Ueno park and Aoyama Cemetary in Tokyo, it’s common to reserve a picnic spot in advance, since they are going to be very crowded. Usually, groups spread their picnic sheet early in the morning and either mark it with their name or have one of them positioned there, other friends arriving after work. The new employees are traditionally given this job of sitting all day long to reserve space for the company celebration (those who have seen “Bengoshi no Kuzu” might remember such a scene).

The picnic consists of a wide variety of foods, snack foods and sake or other drinks. The activities often include dancing and karaoke in addition to the cherry blossom viewing.

Among elderly people and those who enjoy a more quiet style of Hanami, Ume (梅, plum blossom) viewing is another popular traditional celebration.

There are two theories on the origin of Hanami.

One of them says it orginates from the ancient court custom of Hana no En (花の宴, literally “flower banquet” ), a sort of elegant amusement among aristocats, who composed Tanka praising the blossoms of Ume tree. Such custom is said to have been practiced at Court from around Na

ra Period (710-784) to Heian Period (794-1185). During the reign of Emperor Saga, Sakura took the place of Ume as a typical flower for this celebration.

The word “Hanami” was first used as a term analogous to cherry blossom viewing in the Heian era novel “Genji monogatari”. Whilst a wisteria viewing party was also described, fro

"Under the Cherry Trees" by Kunisada, 1852

m this point on the terms “Hanami” was only used to describe cherry blossom viewing.

According to another theory, the origin of Hanami dates back to ancient Japanese rural culture, even before the Nara Period. Sakura trees were very important to the ancient Japanese farmers: they believed that Sagami, a deity who lived in the mountains during the cold winter season, would come down from to temporarily stay in Sakura trees and later move on to the rice fields.

Therefore,  the blooming of Sakura trees meant that the deity has arrived. Peasants made offerings of food and Sake, partaking them to share some time with the deity, praying for rich harvest in autumn. It is also said that the farmers divined that year’s harvest with Sakura, regarding when the blossoms fell all at once ephemerally in only a few days as a sign of bad luck.

According to Yoshida Kenko (1283? – 1350?), court Hanami and the Hanami in agricultural communities were different traditions, that later got together to develop into the present one.

During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), some of the court customs, including Hana no en, were handed down to the Samurai families from the court nobles, getting gradually merged with the rural worship of Sagami. The custom got more and more spread during the time and, during Edo period, was encouraged by the Shogunate: Tokugawa Yoshimune had a lot of Sakura trees planted in the suburbs in order to promote tourism and to improve the government’s economical situation in those days.

Traditionally, Hanami is seen as a meditation on life,  that such as Sakura is ephemeral even though beautiful. However, most of those who contemplate sakura nowadays are more interested in having fun rather than in thinking to the nature of human life. The teasing proverb “dumplings rather than flowers” (花より団子、 hana yori dango) hints at the real priorities for most cherry blossom viewers, meaning that they care mainly about the food and drinks accompanying a hanami party.

For those of you who are into pop culture, the title of the famous manga/anime “Hana yori dango” stems from this proverb, but it is written as “花より男子” (even though the usual reading of 男子 would be “danshi”), meaning “boys over flowers”.

I’ve just realized how late I am! Actually, this year’s Shunbun no Hi occurred on March 21, that is to say last Monday. 遅くなって、申し訳ありません。

Shunbun no Hi (春分の日) is a public holiday, that occurs on the date of the vernal equinox, which can be on March 20 or 21. Since astronomical measurements are needed, the date is not declared until February of the previous year.

The original celebration of Spring Equinox dates back to the eighth century and was known as Shunki Korei-sai (春季皇霊祭), a tradition related to Shinto: from 1878  to 1948, this was a day in which the Japanese worshipped the past Emperors.

After 1948, like other Japanese holidays, this holiday was repackaged as a non-religious public holiday for the sake of separation of religion and state in Japanese Constitution.

Nowadays it is a national holiday in Japan; it is considered a day to spend with nature and to express our affection for all living things. In the seven-day period surrounding the Vernal Equinox Day (彼岸 Higan), Japanese people pay respect to their ancestors, just like on New Year’s Day and Obon: they visit their family graves to clean them and offer flowers and incense. They also offer Higan dumplings called Ohagi and Botamochi (springtime treat made with sweet rice and sweet azuki) on thier household altars. These kinds of food have oval or round shapes since, according to the tradition, ancestors’ spirits prefer round food.

They say that after Vernal Equinox Day “the chill of winter finally disappears” and temperatures start to rise. Cherry blossoms, marking the beginning of spring in Japan, often begin to bloom around this time, starting from the southern parts of the country and gradually moving up north as temperatures increase. 




March 3, 2011

Since March 3rd is Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day) in Japan, I am dedicating today’s post to this ceremony. Pretty obvious, I know, but anyway a good chance to learn something more on this tradition.

Hinamatsuri (雛祭, also known as hina-no-sekku, 雛の節句, or momo-no-sekku, 桃の節句, joshi-no-sekku,  上巳の節句) has its origin in an ancient Chinese custom in which people transferred thier misfortune to a doll and then floated it on a river in order to ward off evil spirits. In the middle of Heian period (794 – 1191) this custom was brought in Japan, 上司の節句, where it took the name of  Hina-nagashi (雛流し, “floating dolls”). A fortune teller called onmyouji (陰陽師) used to pray and offer seasonal food to the Gods, then paper dolls were floated on a river or the see.

This is a Nagashibina set with a pair of paper dolls, a male and a female; however I've read that in Kitagi dolls are floated in groups of 13: 12 women and one man, the "sendo-san," to row the boat.

Hina-nagashi (or Nagashibina)   is still celebrated in some sanctuaries, such as the Meiji Shrine and  the Shimogamo Shrine near Kyouto, as a part of Girl’s Day; anyway, since fishermen complained about catching the dolls in their nets, they are now sent out on boats, and when the spectators are gone boats are taken back out of the water and burnt into a temple. Then habits are a little different in every area, for instance at Meiji Shrine dolls are rather made by fish-food so to be environmentally safe.

Anyway, the mos typical tradiction of Girl’s day is the display of a set of dolls, which comes from a combination of the practice described above and the Hina-asobi ( 雛遊び, “playing with dolls”) that was common among women and children in the Heian court, of which we find descriptions in Murasaki Shikibu’s “Genji monogatar” and Sei Shounagon’s “Makura no Soushi”.

From the combinations of these two customs stems the still practiced Hinamasturi, that was legally established as a national festival in 1687. The ceremony consists in the display of a set of ornamental dolls (雛人形, hina-ningyou) on a platform (雛壇, hinadan) covered with a red carpet.  Few days before the festival, girls and their mothers take out the hina and arrange them on the red cloth. Peach blossoms are a typical decoration of the festival since they represent fertlity and positive feminine qualities such as grace and tranquillity.

Families offer to the altar also shirosake (white sake)
and mochi, either flavored with a wild herb or colored
and cut into festive diamond shapes. after the festival
they are immediately taken down, since according to
the superstition leaving them there would result in a late
marriage of the daughter.
The hina ningyou set represents a royal wedding on a spring day at the imperial court of Heian and dolls have luxury clother that reproduce the style of that time. Dolls are not ordinary ones, nor old style paper dolls, but are made of a base material (generally wood), covered by gofun, a substance made principally of oyster shells and responsible for the dolls’ luster. Traditionally, the hair was either human hair, horsehair, or silk, although now there are many fibers used.
The altar is typically made of seven steps.

– On the top one, there is the Dairi-bina (内裏雛) or Dairi-sama, that is to say the Imperial couple. The two dolls are usually placed in front of a folding screen (屏風, byoubu), that is the most important decoration of the altar and may be plain, golden, or elaborately decorated. Optional are the two lampstands, called bonbori (雪洞), and the paper or silk lanterns that are known as hibukuro (火袋), are usually decorated with cherry or ume blossom patterns. The doll representing the Emperor has the richest clothing and a tall hat; the Empress has the traditional juunihitoe (十二単), that is to say a twelve-layered kimono. The traditional arrangement had the male on the right, while modern arrangements had him on the left (from the viewer’s perspective).

– The second tier displays three court ladies san-nin kanjo (三人官女), wearing scarlet pantaloons, each of them holding a sake equipment. Serving the dairi bina sake is part of the Shinto wedding ceremony, so they may be priestesses or miko.

– The third tier holds five male musicians gonin bayashi (五人囃子).

– The fourth displays two Ministers: the Minister of the Right  (右大臣, udaijin), depicted as a young person, and the Minister of the Left (左大臣, sadaijin), represented as much older.  They are both armed, usually with bows and arrows, and occupy the far ends of their step. Between them there are covered bowl tables (掛盤膳, kakebanzen), and diamond-shaped stands (菱台, hishidai) bearing diamond-shaped ricecakes. Hishidai with feline-shaped legs are known as nekoashigata hishidai (猫足形菱台).

– The fifth tier, between the plants, holds three helpers or samurai as the protectors of the Emperor and Empress. They are the Maudlin drinker or nakijjougo (泣き上戸), the Cantankerous drinker or okorijougo (怒り上戸) and the Merry drinker or waraijougo (笑い上戸).

– On the sixth  step there are items used within the palatial residence: a tansu (箪笥) a chest of drawers; a nagamochi (長持),  a long chest for storing of kimono; two hasamibako (挟箱), small clothing boxes that together are a little shorter than the nagamochi and therefore are placed on top of it; a kyōdai (鏡台) a chest of drawers with a mirror on top; a haribako (針箱), that is to say a sewing box; two hibachi (火鉢), or braziers; and a daisu (台子, which is a set of  utensils for the Japanese tea ceremony.

– On the seventh tire there are other items, that have to be outside the palace: a jubako (重箱), a set of nested laquered boxes for carrying food; a gokago (御駕籠 or 御駕篭), a palanquin; and a goshoguruma (御所車), an ox-drawn carriage favored by Heian nobility; less common is a hanaguruma (花車), an ox drawing a cart of flowers.

Then decorations are different in the various areas of Japan, according to local traditions: for instance, Kyouto-made altars have miniature kitchens and hearths for cooking, which you’ll never find in Toukyou ones.