Wednesday, December 21, 2011

New Year's in Japan

Omikikuchi, a bamboo filament sake-bottle top
Japan has many customs and traditions in order to prepare for the festivities that take place on New Year's Day. They originated from the belief that a house prepared through purification and placing ornaments at its main entrance would provide a welcoming environment for visitors and good luck for the New Year. Among these preparations include include susuharai, cleaning soot from timbers under the roof, and placing shimenawa, sacred straw rope traditionally hung at the entrance of Shinto shrines, at the entrance of the home.

Another place to see these beautiful ornaments besides at people's homes is the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo. Each year the museum hosts a New Works craft competition that receives submissions of decorations including pottery, ceramics, woven textiles, and bamboo crafts from all over Japan.

The New Works craft competition dates back to 1936, the year the museum was opened by Soetsu Yanagi.

A traditional New Year's decoration, that was also the winner of last year's competition, is the shimenawa. The rope that is the basis for shimenawa dates back to ancient times when it was believed to ward off evil spirits and hold divine powers. It was thought of to be a symbol of the boundary between the everyday world and the sacred world.

Another type of New Year's ornament found at the museum is the omikikuchi, a bamboo filament sake-bottle top. They were used to decorate the top of sake bottles, which were offered to the gods.

Many people come from all over the world to admire and collect these rare items and this year's exhibition promises to be just as breath-taking as previous years.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Cultures of Christmas

Commercially, Japan's take on the Christmas season is quite similar to that of the United States, from the cheerful holiday music to the beautiful decorations. However, certain traditions do differ. For example, to most families a traditional Christmas dinner usually means fried chicken with strawberry shortcake for dessert, which is eaten on December 24th.

The tradition of fried chicken originated in the 1970s when KFC launched a Christmas advertising campaign that became very successful. Fried chicken was unique enough to successfully embrace Western pop culture and was more familiar to Japanese than turkey. In most of Japan, the winter holidays do not start until December 26th, so many of the children have school on Christmas Day.

Many foreign parents in Japan have been challenged with the task of balancing Christmas traditions with their own childhood while honoring the different take that Japan has on the season. It is difficult to compete with otoshidama, New Year's money from relatives, that your children's peers receive when your relatives from other countries do not share such a tradition. It can also be difficult to explain to your child why he or she got seven or eight presents when his or her peer received only one present from santa, which is what is traditional in Japan.

The best solutions for these traditional differences is simply to learn to be flexible and embrace new traditions. Often times, the seemingly silliest things can turn into a family favorite, such as a Christmas karaoke session or watching a favorite Christmas movie as a family.