Cultural Calendar 5



The word Setsubun originally referred to the day preceding the days thought to be the beginnig of each season on the old calendar we used unitl 1871,but it came to be applied more specifically to the day before the first day of spring called (risshun), which falls on Feburary 3rd or 4th on the solar calendar. In the evening of setsubun beans (usually soybeans) are scattered inside and outside the house or building to the chant of "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (Out with the devil! In with good luck!) to drive out evil demons and to summon good luck. After the bean-throwing peope eat the same number of beans as their age because of the tradition that it will bring good health aduring the year.

The red mask represents a common image of oni (an
imaginary creature). At some homes, someone in the family
might put the mask on and play oni so that eveyone else
can throw beans at him

These pictures were taken at a setsubun ceremony held at Kitain
temple in my city. People on stage are throwing beans saying
"Oni wa soto! " "Fuku wa uchi!"

Valentine's Day

As Feb 14th approaches, lots of men become anxious to find out how many (if any) chocolates they will get from women. Here in Japan Valentine's Day is the day when women express their love to their partners (or to men they would like to be their partners) by giving chocolates. It is said that this custom was started by a chocolate company in the late 50s to boost their sales. This promotion was a hit, and now the chocolate companies in Japan sell a large portion of their annual sales during the week before February 14th. This custom is especially popular among young people, although it is also common for older married women to give chocolate to their husbands. In the course of the development of this custom, a thing called "giri-choco" has been created. Giri choco (obligatory chocolate) is the chocolate given to men (bosses, colleagues, male friends, fathers, uncles etc) that women have no romantic interest in just as a token of friendship or gratitude.

On White Day(Mar. 14) men are given an opportunity to return their love to their partners or their obligation to those who gave them giri choco by giving candies or cookies..

These are one of the typical boxed chocolates given on Valentine's Day. Usually a note or a card is accompanied with them.


Every year as March 3 (Hinamatsuri; the Dolls Festival) approaches many households throughout Japan set up a stand of several tiers and display dolls representing the Emperor and Empress and all their courtiers (people serving in court) dressed in Heian period costumes to wish the girls good health and long life. Even though the origin of Hinamatsuri dates back to the medieval times, it wasn't until the mid-Edo period that Hinamatsuri took on its present form. In Heian period courtiers called in "diviners" on the third day of the third month to transfer their own impurities and trouble to paper images (called katashiro), and floated them down a river. (This custom is believed to have come from China.) The hina dolls of the modern festival are thought to be a combination of the katashiro and dolls called hina with which Heian-period girls played. There is no set rules as to how big the hina stand (how many tiers, or how many dolls) are supposed to be, however the more popular ones seem to have the Emperor and Empress on the top shelf, three ladies in waiting on the second, five court musician on the third, government ministers on the fourth and three court officials on the fifth. There may even be some representations of furniture and foods below them.

This set is quite big (seven tiers)
but smaller sets (one,two, three,
five tiers) are popular as well among
people who have limited space in
their houses.
The Emperor.
The Empress. Three of five court musicians.
Two of three court officials.

Some furniture, mainly chests and
Two of three ladies in waiting. Tableware and Rhombus-shaped rice


Blooming from February to March, ume (plum)----also known as Japanese apricot----has been a favorite of the Japanese people as a harbinger of spring. It gives off a nice, distinctive fragrance and bears fruits that are less sweet than those of European plums or European apricots. Although the fruit is not commonly eaten raw by itself at all, numerous ume related food products such as wine, vinegar, and pickles are abundant. In the Nara period, when ume is believed to have come from China, ume was so popular that reference to "flowers" could be assumed to mean those of plums, and lots of poems concerned with plums are found in a famous anthology of poems, Manyooshuu.There are many ume gardens throughout Japan, so please go check them out! It might be a great opportunity for you to feel the arrival of spring in Japan.

Although ume viewing parties usually don't get as lively as those held during sakura viewing season due in part to the cold weather, I still saw many groups enjoying themselves. A picture of people riding a miniature train through the garden.
As you can see many food stands were set up at the garden to enhance the festive mood. Ume doesn't quite have the gorgeous aura that sakura (cherry blossom) does, but I really like the "spiky" appearance of ume.



It's been said that Japanese people are very conscious of seasonal changes.Throughout history numerous activities have been held to appreciate the passing and coming of seasons. However, hanami (cherry blossom viewing) would have to be one of the most popular appreciation-of-seasonal-change customs that we have now. In early April (depending on where you live) you see a lot of people spreading out their picnic mats and enjoying themselves while eating, drinking and singing to feel the arrival of spring. These days competition for good viewing spots has become fierce and at some places people rope off their place to "reserve" it. The origin of hanami dates back to Heian period (794-1191), when the aristocrats at court held parties to enjoy the beauty of sakura (cherry blossoms). Over the course of centuries the custom spread to the warrior class and took on a more opulent aspect ,and hanami held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a warlord) in Daigo temple in 1598 is remembered as the most extravagant one ever. Surprisingly, it wasn't until Edo period that hanami became popular among the common people. As hanami season approaches, the progress of the cherry-blossom trees in full bloom are covered on TV and in the newspapers. These maps project the geographical areas of Japan that are best for viewing cherry blossom tress.

There is said to be about 300 different varieties of sakura, but the three most common ones are someiyoshino (the most common one, usuaslly planted in parks and along riverbanks), yamazakura (grows wild in mountainous areas south from central Honshu), and shidarezakura (often seen in temples; its branches hang down like that of a willow).

Happy picnickers having a good time. In my opinion, this is the best time to see salary men and fellow office workers at play. Many groups send a few co-workers ahead to get the best spots and "reserve" them for their sakura viewing pleasure.
Close up shot of sakura. Unlike ume (plum) cherry blossoms have almost no fragrance.


This was taken while I was in a moving car. It's hard to make a distinction between the sky and sakura. Not a good picture, I am sorry.
One thing I recommend is to go sakura
viewing in the evening. There are lots of places where dimmed lights are hung so that people can appreciate a more
enchanting version of sakura.
A common scene for this beautiful spring day.

A picture of sakura lined along
Route 407. About 5 km from where
I live there is a section on Route 407 (which runs from Saitama to Tochigi)
that has hundreds of sakura. When
they are in full bloom you feel like you are going through a tunnel made
of sakura!
Another picture of sakura along Route 407.


Kodomono Hi

If you see fish-shaped streamers flying outside of people's houses, it means it is getting close to the May 5th festival. May 5th has been made a national holiday called "Children's Day". Families with sons all over Japan wish for the boys' (as opposed to the celebration for girls on Mar 3rd) health and prosperity by setting out gogatsu ningyo (samurai warrior dolls and their armaments) inside the houses and hoisting koinobori (carp-shaped streamers) outside. In the old days,there was a custom involving "shobu" (iris) that originated in China. Because of the common belief back then that irises kept away evil spirits, people suspended irises from their roofs, drank sake composed of iris as an ingredient and took iris bath (this custom is still observed by some people.) During the 12th or 13th century the word "shobu" came to be associated with its homonym meaning "military spirit", and people started decorating paper samurai helmets with irises in hopes that their boys will become courageous soldiers later in life and this custom evolved into what we call Gogatsu ningyo (or Musha ningyo) in the mid- Edo period.

I am sorry, but there are no pictures of gogatsuningyo available at the monment.
If you would like to see what they look like please visit here.

Many people do not own koinobori because of the limited space on their property and the cost. If you do go to the countryside, though, where there are wider spaces, and you can see huge carp streamers waving in the air. These streamers have their roots in the Chinese legend in which a carp swam up over the falls of the Yellow River and become a dragon. By hoisting carp streamers, people wish young boys to be as courageous and strong as the carp in the legend.

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