Cultural Calendar 3



As mentioned in July, there are two major gift-giving seasons in Japan, one of which is in July(ochugen) and the other in December(oseibo). While Ochugen serves as a greeting to people to ask how they are doing in the hot summer months, Oseibo is like a thank you gift to express gratitude for favors received in the past year. Traditionally Oseibo were personally delivered but today the majority of people have the gifts delivered by stores.

This is a picture of a department in a store especially set up for oseibo. People usually don't take gift boxes home. They have their boxes delivered.
Ham...... Looking at these gift boxes reminds me of Sylvester Stallone because he used to be on a TV commercial for a ham company. You wouldn't believe how many Hollywood movie stars have been in TV commercials here.
A gift box full of sweet potatoes. Kawagoe is fairly well known as a sweet potato producing city, and I can see this department store is trying to make the most of it. Some people send miso*** as a oseibo gift
Soy source, called shoyu in Japanese, probably makes it to the top ten list of popular oseibo gifts.
A gift box for instant coffee.
There are so many different kinds of sake (rice wine).

Towards the end of the year drinking establishments are filled with people holding a party called bonenkai (forget-the-year party). There is really nothing that makes bonenkai different from any other parties except for the fact that it is held towards the end of the year... but then maybe that is special enough to make it so popular. For some people bonenkai could be just another dreaded event , but for others it could be an opportunity to look back on the year's events, forget the unpleasant things and look forward to the coming New Year Holidays. Often the word bonenkai refers to parties held by companies, in which a separate party is organized for each section. However, one might attend more than a few bonenkai. There is a departmental bonenkai in a company (as mentioned), the whole company bonenkai, local hobby club bonenkai, bonenkai with peope who entered a company in the same year, bonenkai with people you do business with,bonenkai with your close friends, family or relatives, bonenkai with a volunteer group you belong to.. In fact, you can have as many different bonenkai as you like.

Some of the dishes we ordered : Grilled fish, fried tofu, teriyaki flavored beef etc.... People in this picture were totally under control but bonenkai can get really wild.
I didn't ask them what kind of group they belong to, but it looked like they were colleagues from an office.
This picture shows two typical izakaya (Japanese-style bar)

Yuzu yu
There are lots of products available in the market in Japan to put in a bath tub, and I am sure the practice of putting things in a bath tub is not confined to this country. However there are two things that have been around for this practice longer than any other things. They are yuzu(citron) and shoobu(iris). Around the winter solstice, lots of households put yuzu in their tub because of the tradition that it is supposed to prevent you from catching a cold or having chapped hands.

It feels so good to soak yourself
in hot water that smells like orange!
If you have never tried yuzu yu......
It's really relaxing!!


When December arrives, streets start looking very pretty for Christmas.Christmas, along with Obon, has taken a special place in my heart as I have lots of wonderful memories of both of them. I still remember how much I looked forward to finding out what my parents got me for Christmas. I even tried one time putting a sock on tatami mat floor by my futon (no, not a bed), wishing that Santa would come over to my place and put a present in the sock.

I have been asked a zillion times "Do you celebrate Christmas in Japan?",and I have always answered "Yes" with some reservations because I didn't fully understand (I still don't actually) the meaning of the word "celebrate." If putting up a Christmas tree and decorating it, exchanging presents, having cakes and champagne, greeting each other with, "Merry Christmas!", means celebrating Christmas, then we DO celebrate it. We do it extensively. You see a lot of houses and stores with Christmas trees set up outside or inside, and when you walk into a supermarket you hear Christmas music in the background. I suppose Christmas is even THE biggest event of the year for many young people as it is considered partly to be the time for couples and lots of couples go out and spend a romantic evening together. But the biggest difference,I think, between Xmas celebrated here and in Christian countries is that Xmas here is wholly secular and has no religious significance.

Christmas here was first celebrated as a religious observance by the converts of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century in what is now Yamaguchi prefecture. However it wasn't until after the World War II that it was made popular by department stores and other businesses that tried to take advantage of year-end wage bonuses distributed in December.

A shot of a bakery. Lots of people have Christmas cakes on Christmas Eve, but fruit cakes, often thought of as Christmas cakes in the west, are not common in Japan at all.
A picture of a Christmas tree in Ginza, a big shopping district in Tokyo. Another Christmas tree in Ginza.
Christmas decoration at the entrance of a department store in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Because of the commercial nature of Christmas in Japan,decoration (illumination) is put up a lot more elaborately at shops than houses.
A night view of a department store.


Mochi must be among the Japanese food items that are viewed by people from other countries who reside here as being eccentric or even weird. (I wonder if other Asian countries have food items similar to mochi) Commonly translated as "rice cake", mochi is a food made of a highly glutinous rice (a different kind of rice from the one eaten in everyday life), steamed, kneaded ( pounded) by machine or, traditionally, by mortar and mallet, and then formed into rounds for Kagamimochi, or into sheets that are then cut into squares for service later. Naturally the freshly pounded and still warm mochi that has not yet been formed into anything and eaten immediately tastes the best!!!

In old times families pounding rice together was a common sight at the end of the year when preparing for the New Year. These days,however, about the only time traditional mochi-making can be seen is when local communities organize mochi-making parties. Mochi used to be regarded as food for festive and ceremonial occasions and was not very common otherwise. However, the availability of mochi all year round at any supermarket as well as the advent of electric mochi machines have brought about the relinquishment of the title "special food" for mochi.

These pictures were taken in a temple compound where local people performed mochi pounding while dancing to old local folk songs, a ritual which has been designated as cultural heritage by the Saitama prefectural government.Ordinary mochi making, however, is not nearly as ceremonial or lively as seen in the pictures.

A mortar and mallet. Mallets are made smaller than ordinary size so
that more than one person can pound rice during the performance.

Steamed rice waiting to be put into the mortar.

Steamed rice being put into the mortar When steamed
rice is put into a mortar grains are distinctly present.

Local boys.

A singer singing the local folk songs.

Usually mochi-making involves two people: One pounds the rice with a
mallet while the other turns the rice during the pounding to insure a
smooth, even texture.

At one point in the performance five people pound.

Freshly pounded mochi.
After 5- 10 minutes of constant pounding, the grains are all
gone and become a big mass of white marshmallow-like fluff.

There are several ways to present mochi. At the performance
Abekawamochi (sprinkled with sugar and soy flour.) was distributed
among the performers and the audience.

To Cultural Calendar 4
Back to Cultural Calendar 2

Copyright -2000 JUN Japanese Gifts & Souvenirs