Setsubun

Setsubun is a traditional Japanese festival for the change of seasons, celebrated on the 3rd of February, one day before Springtime. Like any other decent celebration in Japan, setsubun includes customs, traditions, special foods and rituals to bring good fortune, health and a better future. The rituals are then mixed to suit everyone’s taste. I did a whole bunch of traditions on my last whole day in Japan, plus an extra something: walking on burning coal!

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Setsubun includes mamemaki, throwing soybeans in order to ward off evil spirits. Beans are sold in stores as well as festival stalls. Some shrines have mamemaki events, where priests throw beans to people while yelling “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (demons out, luck in!). I participated in mamemaki in Nara, where I visited on setsubun. Sake was served, and the spirit for good fortune was all around.

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Amulets and charms are burnt in bonfires to bring luck. I got to participate in the big bonfire burning in Yoshida shrine, Kyoto. Unfortunately I have no pictures of that; Let’s just say it was about 10 times the size of Finnish midsummer fires. The festival stalls in Yoshida shrine were definitely great to experience before leaving Japan.
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It is customary in Kansai area to eat uncut makizushi called eho-maki (恵方巻) (lit. “lucky direction roll”) in silence on Setsubun while facing the year’s lucky compass direction (this year South-East), determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. My eho maki was sitting in a shrine, overlooking Nara.

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with all these evil-repelling activities (and at least a kilo of beans I ate), my Hong Kong time ought to be lucky!

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Kurisumasu Japanese way

My New year’s celebrations resembled the Finnish Christmas since I spent days indoors, surrounded with family and eating heaps of special foods almost non-stop. The real Christmas in Tokyo was rather unlike what I am used to, but it was definitely interesting, too!

The essence of Christmas: Fried chicken (combini style) and a santa suit, only thing missing is the strawberry cake!
The essence of Christmas: Fried chicken (combini style) and a santa suit, only thing missing is the strawberry cake!

 

The Japanese have adapted some parts of Christmas that suit their taste: the holiday is just like any other day, except for the fact that Christmas cakes are aplenty, restaurants are filled with couples or groups of friends, and the Christmas jingles are everywhere.

Jolly Santa with no presents
Jolly Santa with no presents

It was a bit last-minute, but I ended up spending my Christmas eating the most fabulous and abundant buffet possible (thank you Intercontinental Hotel), with live music and the most wonderful company possible: my father. I was sleeping in a nice hotel, in a Western bed with a real pillow for the first time in months. What a better way to spend the most important holiday of the year! On Christmas Day we went for a walk in Yoyogi koen, watched the crowds sitting in the sunshine in Harajuku, got lost trying to find our way to Roppongi Hills, and had a terrific dinner in an izakaya (6 days for dad in Japan without eating sushi, it was about time to have some on the last night!).

Since there has been enough food porn on the blog lately(and surely there will be plenty more to come), I will not post pictures about the Christmas feasts. I am not sure if your imagination will do justice to the delicacies, but oh well. I do have pictures of other things than food, too!

Blending in with the locals
Blending in with the locals

My dad traveled from Thailand to meet me, so his presents from Finland  had suffered a bit on the road and in the heat and moist climate. I can say that before I could have never imagined eating this, not to say enjoy it, but different sorts of salmiakki candy mushed and melted together, blended with scrapes of the paper bag they were packed in, served from a shower cap was rather enjoyable. I finished the whole kilo, and licked my fingers afterwards. This is what I call patriotism!

My goodie bag for Christmas, with an unconventional presentation
My goodie bag for Christmas, with an unconventional presentation

 

Traditional oshougatsu and osechi ryori

Back in Beppu, I now can only dream of the holiday season which was filled with good company and cooking exiting foods that have a long history and each represent something important. This year was my first new years’ eve to miss fireworks and it was all in all quite unlike any other; in a good way to say the least. In addition to eating toshikoshi (New Year’s) soba and other treats at midnight, I added a small Finnish twist to the holiday: sparkling wine at the turn of the year.

Cozy way to welcome the New year
Cozy way to welcome the New year

The traditional Japanese way to spend the New Year includes going to a shrine, but since it was cold and I was tired from all the cooking, we decided to watch the New Years’ show on tv. Good decision! I also missed the first sunrise of the year, which is another popular tradition. On the first few days of the year, millions of Japanese pilgrimage to temples to wish luck for the new year.

Jubako filled with home-made onishime, traditional osechi ryori
Jubako filled with home-made onishime, traditional osechi ryori

After getting lost in the super market with all the last-minute osechi grocery shoppers, we started cooking for some of the various Japanese osechi ryori. In our table, there was for example the pictured nishime to represent good foresight, and many other dishes for other purposes.

Sashimi and various osechi ryori in the jubakos
Sashimi and various osechi ryori in the jubakos

Kuromame (simmered black beans) to work hard; “mame mame shiku hataraku”
Kazunoko (salted and marinated herring roe) for fertility
Kuri kinton (mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts), the golden color of which is a wish for wealth and good fortune
Tai (sea bream) to bring luck due to its’ name, which resembles medetai: auspicious and joyous
Kamaboko (fish paste cakes) also ward off evil, and cleanse the spirit
Tazukuri (tiny crunchy fish) for abundant harvest

We also had a version of the ozoni soup, which varies from region to region.
I was in charge of making few dozen not so traditional harumaki (Vietnamese fresh spring rolls), which turned out quite well! For dinner we had oden made from scratch, which was definitely better and healthier than any oden I can imagine: in stead of the deep fried fish paste, the stars of this dish were daikon radish, shirataki noodles, fresh tako (octopus) and boiled eggs, among other less-processed ingredients.

Oden, onishime and buri shabu shabu
Oden, onishime and other “left overs”

In a way, this holiday resembles Finnish way f celebrating Christmas: it’s all about family and food. This food was thousand times better, though! I was constantly told that I could be Japanese, which for a foodie like me is of course a big compliment. After eating this well for a week, it might be a “slight” shock to come back to the dorm life…

More travel treats to come, there are loads!

Old fashion (Oshogatsu) activities

In the good old days, long before people got occupied and carried away with anime and manga, people had fun activities and spent time together rather than with machines! Other than making mochi together (without the magic machine, it takes one to pour water while another pounds the rice), Japanese people played card games, for example. The following examples used to be popular during Japanese New Year’s.

Hanetsuki bats
Hanetsuki hagoitas

Hanetsuki is a game similar to badminton though it doesn’t have a web. The wooden paddle is called hagoita and there is also brightly colored shuttlecock.

Fukuwarai “Lucky Laugh” is the Japanese equivalent of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, which is usually played by children. In Fukuwarai, blindfolded players pin different face parts onto a blank face, making funny results.

Iroha-garuta and other games
Iroha-garuta and other games

Iroha-garuta is a card game that requires only the ability to read hiragana. One person reads a proverb, while the others try to find the corresponding card.

Origami made by someone other than me
Origami made by someone other than me

Last but not least, the mother of all things Japanese: origami, traditional art of paper folding. I had true masters, the Japanese obaasan instructing me on making boxes from old advertisements and newspapers. Of course we also made the famous crane, 1000 of which are called senbazuru. One who folds 1000 cranes is granted a wish, such as long life and recovery from illness and injury. (I am 995 cranes short!)
The crane is a symbol of long life in Japan, and they are presented as offerings to a shrine or temple.
The thousand origami cranes also symbolises world peace, since a girl radiated in Hiroshima atom bombing believed that creating thousand cranes would cure her leukemia.

Skilled sensei
Skilled sensei

I have admit, that my results in origami was only thanks to the great instructor. I doubt I could make them again. Previously I have looked some instructions online and in books, but it is definitely different to have someone guide you through it, even in a foreign language!

Kurisumasu

Prima ballerina
Prima ballerina

Christmas in Japan is not a big deal in the same sense it is in Europe. Of course you can hear the jingles and buy all the very necessary decorations, cards, cookies and chocolates here as well, but the way of spending the holiday is completely different.

Christmas market in Vienna, Austria (2011)
Christmas market in Vienna, Austria (2011)

Christmas markets are abundant all over Europe, and though it’s mostly unnecessary knick knacks and foods they sell, the spirit is indescribable!

In Finland, Christmas is by far my most favorite holiday. It is a time for family, candles, good smells, over eating and staying indoors. Basically what New Year’s is to the Japanese. My first Christmas time away from home has not felt like Christmas at all: being in the mountain isolated from all the commercial stuff has probably been a good thing for me. After Christmas, I will let you know how it went – so far I know that there are things I really miss from Christmas, but also some that I can perfectly do without. I guess the most important thing about the holidays is the company, no matter where you are. But the spirit can easily be lifted with few familiar things!

Satsumas (mikan) and chocolate: essentials for Christmas
Satsumas (mikan) and chocolate: essentials for Christmas

I will let you know how my Japanese Christmas went, after returning from where ever I spend it!

Merii kurisumasu minasan!