Lucky Maruda or Daruma

A lucky Maruda on a Kintetsu train

Daruma or Maruda are a classic symbol of luck and they are simply Japanese. But have you ever wondered how they came to be or even what they are?

These delightful charms are initially designed on Bodhidhama or the founder of Zen Buddhism, the Japanese sect of Buddhism. With regards to what the Maruda looks like, each artist can do as much or as little as they like.

The benefits of this are simple: if you can think of a character there is a Maruda for it. The example above is distinctly cat shaped, a purrfect example.

How do they work?

Maruda are usually bought without pupils and you need to paint them on yourself. You first paint one pupil while wishing for something and once it comes true, you paint the other.

This does mean that there are many accross Japan with only one eye as the wishes never came true.

Nevertheless the less, a lucky charm can certainly never hurt!

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

初詣: First shrine visit of the new year

How2: Hatsumode in Nabari

While living in Japan, it is inevitable that you will pick up some good and some bad habits- it’s just how it goes. One habit that I adore, and will miss, is Hatsumoude or visiting a shrine at the beginning of January.

A Shrine worker stoking the fire

Hatsumoude is held at most if not all shrines across Japan and each shrine offers a different benefit such as business success, transportation safety, academia etc.

The main shrine in Nabari city is Urufu Shrine, located in the Hirao district of Nabari. The main benefit of performing Hatsumode at this shrine is transportation safety (交通安全) and charms (お守り) can be bought (and were bought) for 500 JPY to help ensure your safety.

Upon arrival, I was greeted with a massive bonfire, which had the delightful job of keeping me warm while I waited for midnight to welcome in the new year. A tent was set up which offered sake, sweet sake and dried fish (all of which were delicious!).

Everyone was enjoying the fine heat and looking at our phones to see when the clock struck midnight. Suddenly many people seemed to quietly erupt with the phrase “あけおめ” or an informal happy new year. There was quite a queue to pray and thank the kami for the previous year and for help with the coming. Naturally, I took lots of photos, but they were terrible- so I had to visit another shrine.

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積田神社 or Sekita Shrine

Sekita Shrine is an ancient shrine with a 1250 year-old history and it is dedicated to the Shinto Kami Kashimaookami (鹿島大神). It is said that in ancient times before the opening of the heavens and the earth, Kashimaookami was appointed by Tenso Tenjin and descended from the heavens to earth (or from Takamagahara).

Kashimaookami is particularly known for their protection of the Tohoku region (northern man-land Japan) and has been worshipped as a god of military arts and equal to the god of thunder (war). More modern depictions include the phrase “鹿島立ち” meaning to set off on a journey and as a god who will protect you on your journey- or a perfect kami to ask for protection when travelling back to the UK.

A bonfire is still burning 2 days later

When entering a shrine, you are expected to purify yourself with hand washing (post to come) and when coming up to the shrine, make an offering of saisen (賽銭) or donations into the donation box or offertory box (賽銭箱- the kanji is a bit literal). Luck donation amounts are usually considered to be 5, 50 , or 500 JPY(the ‘best’ donation is 9 5 JPY coins- a good fate from beginning to end). But why 5 yen coins?

5 yen in Japanese is pronounced go-en (五円) and guess what this is the same as? If you guessed Pulmonary aspiration- 誤嚥 (swallowing the wrong way) go try to brilliant medical Japanese skills but I meant ご縁 or luck/ fortune.

After praying or asking a kami for a wish, it is traditional to get an Omikuji or fortune for the year ahead. Fortunes cost 100 JPY and it is either a ‘lucky dip’ or shaking a wooden contained until a wooden rod emerges with a number which corresponds to a fortune.

If your fortune is bad, you have the option of keeping it- it is an option- or tying it to a rope at a shrine to keep the bad fortune enshrined there instead.

Omikuji will give you a complete fortune and advise on matters from academic success, financial success, matters of the heart, travel, health etc- in much more detail than a horoscope (AN I did write “horror scope” but that would be a bit morbid now wouldn’t it).

Finally, I would like to wish you all a very happy new year from Nabari and Japan or in Japanese: 新年あけましておめでとうございます.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring in 2020!

Nabari City
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Organ donation in Japan

Organ donation is a complicated topic in Japan. Here’s a quick guide.

A needed practice but the Japanese usually don’t follow it

One thing I have found during my research on all things Japanese is the need for tradition. Traditions almost govern modern Japanese society and can be observed at every level. However, tradition costs lives.

What I specifically mean by that is traditional practices takes precedence over life in some circumstances. For example, it is culturally expected that a body is to be cremated whole without anything missing. The problem with this is simple, that body is to be disposed via cremation- it is to be burnt and all organic material with it. Why should I be concerned with this- you may wonder. Simple- statistically there are only 0.7 transplants per million or 64 took place in 2016 (for all organs) and in 2019 there have been 102 donors and 372 recipients ( https://www.jotnw.or.jp/ ).

The bright side, the numbers have increased by 38 over a two year period. Alas, the number of people waiting for an organ is 13,948 as of Halloween 2019. This looks especially terrible when you consider that over 1,000,000 Japanese people due annually and many bodies are ‘put on ice’ until there is room at crematoria. I do realize that not all bodies are suitable for transplants- but which ones are?

Under Japanese law, anatomical gifts (organ donations) can be given under 2 conditions: brain death and cardiac death. But the rules governing organ transplantation are possible the strictest in the world. Organ transplantation may only be considered under the following circumstances:

  • Organ donation or 臓器提供 is based upon explicit permission where people have to opt in. The individual has stated (in writing) that they wish for their organs to be donated.
  • The family is in agreement
  • The only causes of death accepted are brain or cardiac death (cases involve suicide to try and help another will NOT be accepted)

In fact, donations from brain-dead donors (脳死)still makes headline news especially donors under 18. In February, the parents of a boy under 6 (his exact age was not given) made the difficult decision to donate the organs of their son- who was always looking to help others. Recipients were almost immediately chosen- highlighting the need further.

There are still problems with this system and again it is cultural. Many doctors still do NOT recgonise brain death as a cause for human death in Japan and if the cause of death is declared as anything else, organ donation is not possible.

Brain death under Japanese law is cited as the following:

Brain death will only be declared if organic injury is observed in the brain with attributable cause and if the following criteria are met:

Deep coma

Dilated and fixed pupils

Loss of brain stem reflex

Flat brain waves

Loss of spontaneous respiration

Two or more doctors with requisite expertise and experience confirm no changes after a second test conducted six or more hours later.

Japanese organ transplantation network

There are ongoing campaigns to either change the law in Japan to allow donations from a wider pool of donors and campaigns to raise awareness. The green ribbon campaign works with one core principle:

Yes is okay. No is okay. It is your intention [choice].

Green ribbon campaign

This campaign shows the difference organ donation has on many lives and has a section on the website to share the stories of recipients so you can see what a difference it has made.

Families that have not been able to receive a new organ have only a few options.

Firstly, do nothing. For patients who need a major organ (heart, liver, lungs etc) they can choose to do nothing. This would result in their death.

Secondly, secondary care options e.g. dialysis for kidney issues. The problem with this option is the expense. Dialysis costs 6 Million yen a year- for the rest of their lives- whereas transplantation costs 6 Million yen and only requires blood tests and doctors appointments instead. This is a cheaper option which takes us to option 3.

Travelling abroad in hopes of paying for a transplant. This method is expensive as in remortgage your house expensive. The problem is that no country has a stockpile of spare organs- but these organs need to be sources from somewhere. This may be the black market or taking organs from others in that country that also need them.

This is an extremely complicated issue in Japan where tradition and human life fight against each other. Japanese law was changed in 2010 and even though may younger Japanese are filling out organ donation forms and, as an outsider, I feel more still needs to be done in order to help more people survive.

What do you think about organ donation in Japan?

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Opinion: Christmas infects lawson

Are you sure im no longer in the UK?

What a lovely hand

It’s official Christmas is absolutely everywhere every day. Today I saw a Facebook post about wamageddon and thought about the ease of getting through to Christmas day. I’m no longer sure about this.

Just before catching the train, I decided to get a nice fresh black coffee and it was given with a smile. I then looked at the cup- a Christmas cup.

After work I went to Aeon supermarket to buy a drink and while ignoring the Christmas seasonal displays with a practised ease, I started humming. I had unintentional started humming the music the store was playing which turned out to be a synthesised version of last Christmas.

It was then that I saw the signs above the sushi section, above the bento section above every section. The signs stated in perfect English, so I had no excuse about not seeing them, the words “Merry Christmas”.

I have moves to a country where many consider Christmas to be a strange foreign thing but its everywhere. I even asked my collegues if their children prefer Christmas or New Year’s day and all stated Christmas, due to the gifts they receive instead of money at new years (called お年玉 or otoshidama).

I believe November should be called pre-Christmas month as I cannot escape it. Please ignore the fact I bought a wrief and I immediately placed it on my door….. my annoyance still remains firm.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring

Happy 100th post

Nabari Dam

This blog has now 100 posts- many pictures and many details about my life in Japan. So let’s celebrate a little! This post is going to look at Nabari Dam in a bit more detail, a HOW2: for Place names and a product review as well. I hope you enjoy this 100th post and happy reading.

Additionally, on the homepage, there are 2 new sections:

  • A pictures in Japan section
  • A western calendar to Japanese era conversion page

Let’s start the post!

Full Review: 青蓮寺ダム Shorenji dam aka Nabari Dam

A nice, pretty picture of the dam

I have previously talked about Nabari lake and I have mentioned Nabari Dam in passing but now well look at it in a bit more detail.

Nabari Dam was constructed in response to the Ise typhoon disaster in 昭和34年 or 1959. Nabari experiences wide spread damage and thus the dams construction was finished in 昭和45年7月 or July 1970.

The Dam is 275 m long, 82 m tall which allowed the formation of lake with an area of 1.04 km 2 containing over 27 million m 3 of water- which is quite a bit.

Around the dam, there are signs which highlight the 5 main advantages of this dam:

  • safety: the dam allows Nabari and other cities down stream (Osaka, Nara) to remain safe in extreme weather
  • ecosystem: the dam provides a constant stream of water supporting life downstream
  • household use: allows a water supply to Nabari and other areas (from drinking water to bath water)
  • agricultural use: allows water to be used for rice farming within the Iga area comprising of 1,150 ha at 1.72m3/s
  • electricity generation: green electricity is generated

The slight problem with the dam is the road that was constructed along its’ top.

There is a single carriage way which requires cars to move the the side to allow them to pass. There is a lovely video of on my social media pages.

Along the lake side there are many parks, tennis courts and picnic spots and just above the dam is the viewing spot which is also known as the famous sakura viewing point- somewhere to go in April.

The views are spectacular and are well worth a visit for those in the area. With the amount of thing available (from sports, to eateries, to hikes, photo opportunities etc) I would definitely recommend a visit. Think of this place as a trip to a national park or just a larger park: plenty to do (including an Italian restaurant that is always booked nearby), plenty to enjoy and plenty of places to relax.

Just remember: take only photos and leave only footprints.

HOW2: Japanese place name ~ヶ丘

One thing that you need to be aware of with place names is the ending ~ヶ丘 or ~gaoka meaning “one hill”. Examples of this around Nabari are 梅ヶ丘、つつじヶ丘、桔梗が丘 etc. There are many examples across Japan but with the ending, you should expect extremely steep hills, that even cars struggle to climb.

The kanji is quite strange. ” ヶ ” is an ichi-dan counter used as a suffix to count objects and ” 丘 ” means hill- in such combinations as 丘上-きゅうじょう meaning hill top or 丘疹-きゅうしん meaning pimple (there are other combinations out there).

Near the Top of Tsutsuji-gaoka or つつじヶ丘

This was a fantastic view of Tsutsuji-gaoka just before my arrival at the dam. What you cannot see in this picture is the extremely tall hill that it is built on. Additionally, each settlement that can be seen in the distance is an entire other area- either Nabari city or small settlements surrounding it. The name should definitively be it’s warning when cycling or walking. You could argue that it should be つつじ山 instead.

The reason that you must be aware of its name is simple put: google maps. Google maps do not show you how steep the hill you climb are when using the app (they do during the planning stages on desktop).

Product review:

A vege bowl- with meat

The last product made me smile when I found it and that was a simple salad. In Japan vege salads refer to salads being made up of more vegetables than normal- which is a weird phrase now that I think about it. But to the rest of the world, a veg salad is (or at least should be) a vegetarian salad. My favourite was a salad bowl with massive shrimp on it stating vege salad.

The salad was extremely good- all crispy fresh veg, a nice mix of oats and rice and a sort-of miso dressing (extremely Japanese) but went well never the less.

Strangely enough, there was no problem with this product- even with the Japenglish. Check them out in Aeon supermarkets.

Thank you for reading and here’s to many more blog posts to come.

Opinion: Christmas, the prolific

As I have previously discussed, Japan’s interest in Christmas seems to have exploded since my time as a foreign exchange student just 5 years ago. It could be due to increased experience or perhaps a more enlightened world view, but Christmas is everywhere.

In know in the UK, Christmas has exploded onto the Zeitgeist with people already putting up decorations, listening to music etc. But there is one thing that most agree on: the Christmas dinner: the turkey (or other option), the veg, the stuffing, the company, the merriment and everything that I won’t be experiencing this year (perhaps also why I’m noticing Christmas things a lot more).

To the Japanese (most), Christmas doesn’t evoke the same feelings and even though it is regarded as a family day or an alternative Valentines day, companies are still looking to profit from this. Case and point Mos burger. Mos Burger is not alone in its’ advertising- KFC, convenience stores, every single supermarket etc are advertising their selections for Christmas day.

Amazingly, there are separate catalogs for the New Year’s meal and Christmas meal which considering these days are only a week apart is pretty amazing.

There is a slight downside to the special Christmas meals: the price. A 8 piece chicken meal with commemorative plate is a mere 4100 JPY (4000 JPY if ordered before December. The Mos Burger meal is cheaper but it only includes chicken and no extras but it is still 1375 JPY for the small (i.e. 1 person meal).

Will I be ordering anything at all this festive season? No. I will stick with my diet and save money (sending gifts back to the UK is expensive enough).

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Opinion: Japanese opening hours- the warning

A lovely pic from my pre gym workout….

This is going to be a strange post, but how would you cope if seemingly the entire country operates on a 9-5 or similar time. What if your an early bird, or a tourist?

Firstly, this is something I have noticed across Japan, both in cities and in the country side- whether small green grocers or a national monument; Japan operates on Japan time. When looking at places to visit, you need to look at the closing time extremely carefully as there, as a rule, is a last admittance time and a closing time.

While this makes sense in a practical way- to allow workers to have a life outside of work (let’s leave salary men out of this one), having an entire city operate on this kind of time seems counter-intuitive. Osaka, for example, closes for lack of a better word at either 1700 for attractions or 2200 for most day operating restaurants. While there are certainly things to do an see after this, options are extremely limited.

Another example would be Axtos, the gym. Doors only open (regardless of when it closes) at 1000 and as an early bird this annoys me. Ideally, I would go much earlier at 0715 and complete my workout and be ready to start my day around 0930. What you must do, therefore, is to either take extremely long bike riders in the mornings (which I do), run (I need new shoes first), or start later. The problem with option 3, and taking into account the closing times of other shops in Nabari (smaller shops 1700), you’re suddenly left with less time and a lot of things to do.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Japanese parents are always rushing about and stressing about every little thing?

What does this mean for visitors to an area or tourists? Simply put PPPPPPP or proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance (please insert an expletive beginning with p). If you are planning a holiday, a long break or just a trip to the next city, check your locations either on google maps, or that companies websites- even I have fallen into the trap of “it’ll be open” and occasionally it isn’t.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring

How2: prefectures in Japan

HOW2: 都道府県 or Prefectures in Japan

When speaking English, prefectures are vastly simplified. Nara is simply Nara Prefecture, Kyoto is Kyoto prefecture, Hokkaido is Hokkaido prefecture etc. However life for the Japanese is not so simple.

In regards to prefectures, there is a lovely phrase 都道府県 (と・どう・ふ・けん or to/dou/fu/ken) which are the administrative divisions of Japan. To break it down further:

  • only 1 都 : 東京都 Tokyo
  • only 1 道 : 北海道 Hokkaido
  • only 2 府 :大阪府と京都府 Osaka and Kyoto
  • 43 県 i.e. every other prefecture in Japan.

For non-Japanese speakers the difference is almost unimportant. The difference in suffix represents the power each area had prior to WW2. Each kanji actually has quite an interesting history as to why they were chosen.

Modern use can simple be summarized:

  • 道 was initially used to represent a territory which Japan had conquered. The use of 道 is technically redundant as it simply means prefecture in modern use. One difference is that 北海道 is also a Chiho (地方) one of 8 regions of Japan and the Hokkaido prefecture government refer to themselves as the “Hokkaido Government”.
  • 都 which is used to represent the capital city- or the place where the imperial palace is. This use is quite modern. It was changed from 府 to 都 in 1943 to represent the power changes in the region.
  • 府 are metropolitan areas that previously held more power than they do today. Today’s meaning simply means prefecture, but the history of the kanji is important to residents in Osaka and Kyoto
  • 県 meaning prefecture technically comes from the classification of land areas which was started by the Portuguese when they arrived in Japan. Japan adapted this practice and the prefecture system was born.

I hope you found this interesting. Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Matsusaka: the beginning

Matsusaka City- 松阪市

It occurred to me that I have spent a lot of time looking into the Iga and Nabari areas and I have seemingly ignored the rest of the Mie. So I decided to explore somewhere I have passed while changing trains but never looked around and I got to say I’ll be back. But on with the review.

I arrived at Matsusaka train station on the Kintetsu line and I headed out of the JR exit and headed out into the wide world. My first point of call was 継松寺 or Keisho-ji temple.

When entering the grounds of Keisho-ji, it as if you have entered another world. The temple is well maintained, with a candle burning in the middle to allow people to buy incense and offer prayers for the dead, but there was no-one there. I was alone while visiting this large, historic center with the world passing all around me.

I ascended the wooden staircase to make an offering and pray and the temple is fantastic.

The rope hangs down attached to a gong to allow the gods to know you are there. But for visitors, there is so much old art, shrines, artifacts to look at that will grab you and make you appreciate them.

The best thing about this temple was its’ construction. So many temples in Japan feature concert staircases or use more modern building techniques but the main temple rejoices in old-world construction techniques. The other building are what you usually see- a mix on traditional and modern architecture.

The next stop on my journey was Matsusaka visitors center- which surprisingly a good stopping point. The staff do have some limited English but if you can (like always) please speak to them in Japanese. The center functions as the Matsusaka museum and information center which has an entire floor dedicated to the history and importance of Matsusaka- which is extremely interesting and worth the price of entry (it’s free). There is also a film about key events and people from it’s history and, more importantly, it has subtitles in English and Japanese and is worth a watch.

The gift shop offers 名物 or famous products from Matsusaka which ranges from flavored green teas (I may have bought a few), traditional お土産 or souvenirs which are usually a sweat treat for people to enjoy, and of course they have 松阪牛肉 or Matsusaka beef- of of the 3 greats of Japanese beef.

Surprisingly, the beef theme continued at the museum of history and folklore. The museum, which I was going to visit on my next trip was only 80 (that’s eighty- 8 0) JPY- it was a price I could not resist and indeed I did not. The current special exhibition is on Matsusaka beef and the museum features this quite heavily.

First note, the price- it’s exceptionally cheap which is brilliant. But there was a downside, the special exbition took center stage. The museum can be split into two parts: general history and the exhibition. Put it this way: I learnt more about the history of Matsusaka from the brochure with the ticket than I did at the museum. General history and information on the city is almost overlooked. The musum is keen to highlight the famous products that are prodiced here- rather than the history and culture surrounding it.

I did learn that the city had a thriving cotton trade and is one of the green tea centers of Japan along with its’ beef. I do recommend checking it out, but please wait until the next exhibition. It’ll make it a more enjoyable visit.

Now the main reason for my trip the castle. Matsusaka castle (ruins) is one of the 100 famous castles and the second one located in Mie-prefecture. To see the first check out: Iga castle.

I will not go into the history of Matsusaka castle (your safe for now) instead please enjoy the following photos:

After seeing the ruins of the castle [built in Tensho (天正)16年 or 1588 and originally consisted of the 本丸 (castle walls), 天守 (inner keep), 二の丸 (outer citadel ) and 石垣 (stone walls)] I continued onward to the former Ozu residence which for non-Japanese speakers is just a portal back to Japanese life during the Edo period (江戸時代). Interestingly enough, the Japanese just states “built after 1700”, which is extremely descriptive.

THe building is over 1000 meters squared, and has many different rooms of many functions along with small gardens dotted around- which is typical of Edo construction (for the wealthy of that time at least). It was an interesting side-note to my first official tour of Matsusaka and for 160 JPY it is worth the price. But if you are not interested in Japanese history, please don’t waste your time.

There was also a leaflet in “American” as they called it. I was not amused. The last thing of note I saw (which was closed but did make me chuckle) was a cafe called “Merry England”- which offer conversation in English as a selling point.

That was my first quick trip to Matsusaka, the next will be a 集印の観光旅行 or a shrine stamp tour of Matsusaka.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.


The overview:

  • Keishou-ji temple

    Price: free

  • Matsusaka Visitors Centre

    Price: free entry. Be aware of the gift shop (I spent a lot)

  • Matsusaka Museum of History and folklore

    Price: 80 JPY

  • Matsusaka Castle ruins

    Price: free

  • Former Ozu Residence

    price: 160 JPY

Opinion: Christmas is coming

Japan has taken to the profit making market of Christmas

Within many supermarkets throughout Japan, the Christmas section is starting to bloom into a eye-sore of a seasonal isle. Aeon is no different in that respect.

Aeon offer many different types of products, some of which just look like the 七五三 products but re-branded for Christmas, most of which seem to be targeted to children and the stocking is no different.

Stockings, traditionally be hung by the fire place, are a place to put small treats to enjoy on Christmas day have in this case been pre-filled with 5 treats and have a slightly different design.

In regards to Christmas products, 1080 JPY is not a bad price but it is still expensive for what you get. It’s a good product for children or as a decoration piece but that’s about it.

There will be more Christmas related products to come, but for now, thank you for reading and happy exploring.