The Start of a New Year in Kanazawa

Certainly, Kanazawa is a beautiful city all year round, but there’s something about winter that feels truly iconic. Maybe it’s just the decorations that go up in December or so. (Please ignore the fact that it’s currently February — it’s been busy!)
At the train station, they put up a Christmas tree in the lobby with Kanazawa-themed decorations, depicting Tsuzumimon Gate (located out front of the station), Kotoji Toro (the iconic two-legged stone lantern from Kenrokuen Garden), yukizuri rope supports used to help trees handle the heavy snowfalls the region generally gets in winter, and — because it is a train station, after all — a Shinkansen train.
This display in Korinbo combines the Christmas tree motif with a slightly abstract depiction of a yukizuri support, for a uniquely Kanazawa approach. More distinctly Japanese, though, are the decorations you’ll see at entrances of both homes and businesses to greet the new year. Here’s a set from a shopping mall:
These decorations are called kadomatsu, and in fact, they’re a ubiquitous enough symbol of the new year in Japan that they’re among the original set of emoji (🎍). These sorts of decorations can be found pretty much everywhere at the end of December and the beginning of January.
A closer look at one placed out in front of a hotel. Delightfully, these decorations can be found even in what might seem like fairly unorthodox locations:
In this case, construction workers decided to spruce up the entrance to their construction site. Naturally, for the new year, the popular custom is to visit a temple or shrine, so I made my way to Oyama Shrine, which was beautifully lit up for the evening.
I’ve always been a fan of its iconic gate. Its blend of architectural styles — you don’t often see stained glass at Japanese religious buildings! — almost feels nowadays like a symbol of the internationalization of Kanazawa, or perhaps even Japan as a whole. If nothing else, it sure is pretty. We walked around a bit more in the area, and came across this unique-looking structure:
It took us a moment to figure out that this was a shrine building with an exterior built on to help it weather the winter. As you approach the front of the building, though, it becomes obvious. Even so, it was kind of an odd experience to look inside a building only to see what is, effectively, the outside of a building. We also saw this phone booth. Nothing especially wintery about it, or anything. It was just kind of fun seeing traditional local architectural styles applied to a phone booth.
If you visit Japan, it’s a common piece of advice to try to avoid the new year, because the whole country kind of closes for the first three or four days of January, but if you’re interested in a perhaps quieter, more contemplative experience (especially if you’re visiting someone), the new year in Japan can be beautiful in its own way.

Trip to Kyushu!

For the recent long weekend, my wife and I visited Kyushu, because we’d never really spent much time there before. In this case, we mostly stuck to the northern part, around Fukuoka. One thing I’d heard about Fukuoka City is that yatai food stalls were a major part of the local culture. I’d always imagined that, say, there might be three or four out by major train stations, or something like that.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Along this river, at least on weekend evenings, there were dozens of these yatai. Probably as many as thirty or forty, with plenty of others scattered throughout the city: there were many more near the major train stations, and even just in various open spaces. We even saw one that was simply out on the sidewalk in front of a convenience store. This river is also kind of a famous part of Fukuoka City, apparently, and has the sort of large neon signs that Japanese cities’ nightlife districts tend to be known for.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the sorts of older, “animated” neon signs you’ll see in Japan that generally date back several decades. The pre-LED kind.
Our trip also took us to Dazaifu, home of Dazaifu Tenman-gu, a major shrine.
The train station architecture alone provided a solid sense of what to expect in terms of why this town is on the proverbial map.
Apparently, it’s common to come to the shrine to pray for success on, say, tests and other examinations, so there’s a ramen shop next to the station selling gokaku ramen, served in a pentagonal bowl. In Japan, wordplay is often a major part of things that are considered lucky or auspicious, and in this case, it’s based on the similarity between the words gokaku (pentagon) and gōkaku (successfully passing a test). The walk to the shrine was nice, with a number of charming old storefronts, and a definite theme of ume plums in their names and products. This makes sense: the shrine is a Tenman-gu shrine, dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, or Tenjin, and ume plums are generally associated with him. (Come to think of it, Fukuoka’s nightlife district is also named Tenjin. I wonder if there’s any connection.)
A sweets shop named “Baien,” or “Plum Orchard”
Along the way, though, we also encountered one shop that didn’t quite feel like it fully belonged there, though it was very impressive nevertheless.
I have no idea why there was such a fancy Starbucks here, but… there was! The wood design continued inside, all the way through to the back of the shop. (Pardon the animated image; it was very difficult to capture the 3D feel of the design otherwise.) Not much later, we made our way to the shrine! It was nice.
We also made our way out to Karatsu, Saga for another event while we were in Kyushu: the Karatsu Kunchi festival. Float-based festivals are always fun, and this one was very impressive.
Each part of town has its own elaborate float, made mainly of lacquered wood, and people pull the floats around town with drummers and flute players aboard, sometimes even breaking into a sprint. At some points along the route, the groups come up very close to the edge of the street, where people were gathered to watch, and turn at the last moment.
A few of them, like this goldfish one, even have articulated parts! In this case, the fins move back and forth, and the whole top part is up on a pivot to tilt it forward and back. The floats tended to draw from mythology and history, with a few giant replicas of famous samurai warriors’ masks and helmets, as well as other designs like this treasure ship…
…and this shachihoko, a sort of mythical fish that you’ll often see on Japanese castle rooftops, as a way to ward off disaster.
On the way home, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while we were at Fukuoka Station before getting on the Shinkansen to go home. We got castella cake from Fukusaya, a famous old shop that dates back hundreds of years. They’re based in Nagasaki, but they have a shop in Fukuoka, as well. Kyushu has a long history of sweets in particular, because for a long time, all of the sugar Japan imported came in through Nagasaki’s Dejima port, and as a result it’s common to add sugar to all sorts of cooking in Kyushu, even today. On the other hand, if I am going to be honest with myself, I took this photo mostly because Fukusaya’s logo made me think of Batman.
And with that, it was time to head home. Just one thing left to do before leaving:
Time to pick up some Kyushu souvenirs. Kyushuvenirs.

A Surprising New Traditional Old Art Form

Japan has enough forms of traditional culture that, as an outsider, you eventually begin to simply get used to being exposed to entirely new fields you had never heard of. It’s another thing entirely to come across something that, apparently, even most Japanese people have never seen nor heard of.

Bonseki is a traditional art that I only found out about entirely by coincidence — an exhibition was being held in downtown Kyoto and I happened to walk by a rather striking display of white-on-black monochrome art.

The window display

The name bonseki literally means “tray stones,” and the name is apt — it uses lacquered trays as a base, upon which landscapes and other images are created using stones of every size, from fine sand sprinkled on and brushed around with feathers to large rocks placed by hand.

A demonstration of bonseki

According to the explanations given by the ladies present, who were showing off the art form and many examples of it, bonseki began as a way of producing drafts for Japanese rock gardens, using sand to represent raked gravel and larger rocks to represent the types of larger boulders often found in these rock gardens.

A dramatic use of larger stones for a sense of depth and realism

The techniques live on in relative obscurity — after all, how often do most of us design and plan rock gardens? — but the group continues to hold meetings with lessons like any other traditional art form, and the styles used and the works created with it have continued to evolve somewhat, though they are still ordinarily used for landscapes of various types.

Water made of sand, crashing up on rocks made of… rocks

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these works of art came when I found myself asking, out of curiosity, whether any of them were for sale. I was told that, beyond merely being hard to maintain properly, it is, in fact, considered conventional to make no attempt whatsoever to preserve bonseki art for very long; rather, the norm is to simply brush away the sand and collect the rocks, much like their apparent cousin, the sand mandala.

A more contemporary sort of image

For that moment while they’re around, though, they certainly are spectacular.

Off the Beaten Path: Yokai Street and Halloween in Japan

In the past three or four years, it has been almost impossible to not notice Halloween making a rapid transition in Japan from “not really a thing at all” to “very much a thing,” though in practice it’s hard to say how much of the modern traditions of, say, American Halloween have been adopted.1

That old traditional favorite, blood glasses

What is most interesting about Halloween in Japan, arguably, is not the fact that Japan has more than its own share of ghost stories and other eeriness, but the fact that so little of it seems to wind up overlapping with Halloween — summer is the season of ghost stories in Japan, or at least that seems to be the stereotype.

In their defense, these ghost breads are positively adorable.

In Kyoto, however, there is a little shopping street, only about 400 meters long, that has benefited perhaps more than most from Japan’s newfound interest in autumnal spookiness. Drawing on local folklore from a thousand years ago,2 this little street rebranded itself as “Yokai Street,” named after the yokai monsters from Japanese folklore, in the hopes of drawing visitors to stir up business and revitalize the local shops. One of the main signs you’ll see of this is little figures of traditional creatures from folklore out front of the shops, often made from whatever the shop sells, or sometimes just folklore-based variants on common things like the “watch for children” sign.

Watch for cyclops children at play

CURRENT MOOD:

The local temple also holds semi-regular Mononoke-ichi art and craft markets, where visitors can buy coasters, sculptures, socks, art books, and more, all of it with a monsters-from-Japanese-folklore theme, or at least, say, eyeballs or white foxes. Depending on the season, you might also be able to get yourself a special bowl of shaved ice.

Current tally: 2 sad, 1 happy

One of the biggest events for this street, though, is a revival every several months of an old tradition based on the same legend: the Hyakki-yakō, or, essentially, “night of a hundred monsters.”3 As night falls, people crowd this street for a parade of monsters and ghouls, organized as a revival of the sorts of costumed parades once held in this part of Kyoto, many centuries ago.

Lanterns and fursuits!

Tengu guy wearing legitimate tall and narrow geta sandals! (not pictured

More foxes, or maybe cats? I am not good at animals.

Fox mask done in makeup, with cool weird contact lenses!

The “HAPPY HALLOWEEN” banners decorating the shops on the next street over last weekend may have been more conventionally Halloween-themed, but Yokai Street certainly felt much more in the spirit of the holiday. Perhaps that’s why they scheduled the parade for October.

For more information on Kyoto’s Hyakki-yakō and Mononoke-ichi events, check out their web site (in Japanese only). Their next event, as of this writing, is schedule for the second half of December: they’ll actually be visiting Tokyo to hold a Mononoke-ichi market there!


  1. Trick-or-Treating still seems decidedly exotic, but on the other hand, Halloween decorations can be seen popping up everywhere. The decorations have been generically “Christmas” or “Valentine’s Day” enough that it has led my wife and me to occasionally jokingly refer to them as “Merry Halloween” decorations. Lots of orange and black around, though, in any case. 
  2. During the Heian era (794–1185), at least in this part of Kyoto, it was said that old household tools and items thrown out while cleaning your home would hold grudges for being disposed of so coldly, so the tools decided to become monsters of various sorts to take their revenge on those who threw them out. As a result of this belief (or legend), there were nighttime parades held in this area centuries ago where people would dress up like these monsters. 
  3. Interestingly, this phrase is also used in a non-literal sense to refer to a state of utter chaos. 

I Really Like Osaka.

Osaka is easily one of my favorite places in Japan — up until early in the 20th century, it was actually the largest city in Japan (and the bombings it experienced during World War II certainly didn’t help it). What’s perhaps more interesting than its size, though, was its traditional clout: back during the feudal era, the merchant town of Naniwa (its name at the time) was enough of an economic powerhouse that, to no small extent, the city just ignored the shogunate government in Edo (now Tokyo).

Because of its history as a city built on and around business, rather than, say, politics and governance (Edo/Tokyo or Kyoto) or culture (Kanazawa), Osaka developed a reputation for… well, for everything that a city with lots of money and nobody to really answer to would develop a reputation for. In particular, Osaka became a center for both food and entertainment, in addition to commerce.

Even today, Osaka’s place in modern Japanese culture leans heavily toward the entertainment industry. The National Bunraku Theatre, dedicated to bunraku puppetry, is located in Osaka, rather than Tokyo as one might expect of a “national” anything.

Of course, more than highbrow entertainment, Osaka is closely associated with lowbrow popular entertainment. It’s widely regarded as that place you go if you’re an aspiring comedian, and rumor has it that people will even cultivate an Osaka accent as a way to make their way into the comedy world.1 This focus on comedy and showmanship has become a fundamental part of Osaka’s character — I’ve said on numerous occasions, half-jokingly, that while your stereotypical Tokyo resident might want nothing more than to drift, ghostlike and unnoticed, from public transit to their office and back every day for forty years, then retire to the country, the stereotypical Osaka resident doesn’t so much believe as simply knows that they will one day be on TV, so it’s crucial to keep in practice every single day.

This can be seen in parts of casual Osaka culture like nori-tsukkomi, which is essentially an extension of straight man/funny man comedy duo dynamics, where, for example, someone might ask for a bottle opener to open a bottle of beer, in response to which someone might hand them, say, a wrench, and say “here you go.” The proper response to something like this in Osaka is to play along for a moment, pretending to use the wrench (or whatever) as a “bottle opener,” after which point the norm is to react in an exaggeratedly exasperated way to the fact that no, of course it’s not a bottle opener.2

One fun thing about this deep cultural emphasis on comedy is its effect on local marketing:

The tooth is basically shouting

A billboard for a dental clinic. The headline at the top reads, in a thick Osaka accent, “Do you want to get your teeth drilled, or don’t you?” The message below the picture says, “If you don’t want to get your teeth drilled, then take precautions [to prevent cavities]!”

The Osaka police also have some really great marketing as well:

“Even if you can’t transform, you can still be an ally of justice.”

“Ideal job candidate.” (The copy underneath the picture reads, “For people who want to preserve their sense of justice.”)


  1. Interestingly, so far as I’m aware, this particular phenomenon isn’t necessarily limited to Japan: I seem to recall having heard a long time ago of a comedian being given advice by a mentor, who told them to, among other things, work to develop at least a hint of a southern US accent. 
  2. This comes directly from a fantastic episode of the TV show Himitsu no Kenmin Show, a show about unique local differences in various regions of Japan that the locals are often unaware aren’t universal. The example given happened with a hidden camera at a restaurant (and actually kept going), where the waiter would bring out a bottle of beer without an opener, and bring out silly things when customers asked for an opener. Osaka has such a uniquely straightforward and showmanship-oriented culture that Kenmin Show has a segment on it practically every week, with the occasional comparison to how people in Tokyo would react to something like responding to a waitress’s “Have you decided what you’d like?” with “Your phone number” (the answer: with a terrified stony silence descending around the entire table, instead of a laugh and/or a clearly fake response like 110, Japan’s emergency number), or how casually people in Osaka ask about one another’s salary or rent (“It’s like asking someone, ‘Did you watch Kenmin Show last night? What’s your rent?’ Same feeling.”).