The Boys Kitted Out for Summer Festival

the boys in yukata
The Boys in their Yukatas

Summer in Japan is festival season. The days are hot and humid and the evenings are pretty much the same (except just a little less hot). It thus figures that the best time to hold an outdoor festival is in the evening when the temperature has dropped a little.

There are fireworks, traditional dancing, taiko drumming, stalls selling festival food and cold beer, and locals dressed in traditional costume. In some ways it reminds me of a Scottish Ceilidh (dinner dance), which provides the rare occasion for everyone to dress in kilts and dance the night away.

Of course wearing a kilt in the traditional manner at close to 60 ° North is quite a different climatic experience to wearing a Yukata on a balmy summer evening in Japan.


Do I Make You Uncomfortable?


Today I visited a local bakery to get a cream bun, a coffee, and a quiet space to do some work. I approached the small seating area to discover that all three tables were occupied. (There are long bench seats at each table and in this particular establishment it is not unusual to have to share them with strangers.)

I choose the table with the least number of other occupants. A middle-aged OL (Japanese-English for Office Lady) is sitting by herself bang in the middle of a 6-seater table. Impressively, she had managed to occupy almost every corner of it by strategically positioning plastic binders of A4 paper, splayed open to display various important-looking charts.

I stand beside the table for a few seconds. My presence is not acknowledged although she feels a little guilt which is evidenced through a slight shifting in her seat. I ask if I can sit down. Without lifting her face from her important work, she nods, and instinctively moves her handbag just a little closer to her side.

I sit at the opposite side of the table, perching myself right on the corner. I take out my laptop and start to work. She shifts uncomfortably for a couple of minutes in a routine that would be funny if it was so intended. She forgets how to read. She remembers again. She rearranges her binders. The wall suddenly becomes inexplicably fascinating. She then finds something very interesting in the binder at the furthest side of the table.

Suddenly she has to go. She abruptly and ungracefully packs up her binders, feigns a look at her watch (too late). For a few awkward and impressive seconds she is simultaneously moving away from the table while dumping its contents into her bag. She escapes from the foreigner’s ambit unharmed.

Meanwhile an elderly couple sit at a separate but close table on my right. They look like they are farmers having their morning break. They stop talking after I sit down, and then resume very quietly. They then skull their scalding hot coffees and promptly leave. It looked like a drinking game… The husband won at the cost of first-degree burns to the inside of his mouth.

Japan is a homogenous nation. There is no distinction between Japanese ethnicity and Japanese nationality. 98.5% of the population are Japanese. Of the remaining 1.5%, most are from Japan’s Asian neighbours like China and Korea. This means that if you are in Japan, and you are anything other than Asian, you are part of a very small visible minority.

Sometimes it is nice to be able to clear an entire area of all signs of human life simply by showing up. I’m sure that in an emergency situation it could save my life! But sometimes it wears a bit.

Occurrences similar to those I describe above happen pretty much every week. I get stared at every day. Three years of experience living in Japan hasn’t prevented this from unnerving me.  Even when everyone is ignoring me I start to become paranoid. I find myself suddenly rubbernecking to check if the man who just glowered at me as I passed has stopped and turned to take a second look.

He usually has.

The Customer is God

not mcdonalds

In a previous life I worked in retail in the Highlands of Scotland. We were told by our foul-mouthed, hypocritical manager that we should provide good customer service because, “the Customer is King”. Of course in practice it was pretty rare to see this policy turn to action, particularly if the customer happened to be an unwelcome English “white settler” with a posh accent.

Japanese businesses espouse a similar policy to that of my former employer, but the implementation is worlds apart. In Japan, they say “O-kyakusama wa kamisama” – the customer is god.

I am sitting at a clean, comfortable and modern Japanese restaurant. I watch as a petite, professional Japanese waitress in her mid-30s runs to a seated customer to deliver their meal to their table. It’s not a full-on sprint, more like a dainty trot, probably no faster than walking. But it communicates something: The customer is god. She apologises profusely for making them wait. (They had been waiting less than 2 minutes.)  Another member of the restaurant staff wipes down tables, literally running from one to the next and apologising for the “interruption” to each nearby customer. Since she does this every 10 minutes the table she is currently wiping is already impossibly clean. A family of five enter the restaurant and her attention shifts. She runs to welcome them and to take their order.

“So what?”, I hear you say. That’s no different to a nice restaurant in Australia. But there’s something I’m witholding from you. I’m not sitting at what you would consider fine dining establishment. I’m at McDonalds, having just dropped $2.40 on a chicken burger and milkshake. I finish my meal and approach the rubbish station to sort the rubbish on my tray into 10 different recycling categories. An eager staff member approaches to takes the tray off my hands, laboriously sorting my rubbish on my behalf. “Thank you very much. Please come again!”, she effuses.

It got me thinking about where this motivation to provide excellent service comes from. It’s clearly not the $12 an hour she’s receiving for her considerable trouble. Nor is it flexible working hours or world-class workplace gender equality. Why did she run, instead of walk, to deliver a tray of fatty burgers to a bunch of fatty teenagers?

Most Australian employees are constantly, and unknowingly, calculating the risks and rewards of taking an action that costs effort. We do this hundreds of times a day without realising it. An Australian Maccas employee subconsciously determines that they personally risk nothing if the fatty teenagers have to wait a few minutes longer for their fatty burgers. Stuff table service – these pimple-faced angst-filled pre-adults can just wait here at the counter, right next to the perpetually overflowing rubbish bins.

Back at McDonalds Japan I watch one of the over-helpful staff members more closely. When she talks her mouth smiles but her eyes are glazed. Her voice is upbeat and chirpy, but there is no detectable melodic cheer in her words. She provides polite but impersonal service. She is an ultra-efficient Japanese robot, the product of 12 years of education designed to a produce loyal, unquestioning, hard-working employee. The individual is sacrificed to the group, and as a result my burger arrives quickly and my table is clean.

Who would’ve thought one could attain divine status just by spending $2.40 on a burger and shake?

Sakura Matsuri

Every year the appearance of the cherry blossom is a celebrated event in Japan. For the last several weeks we have been informed on TV and in the newspaper of the progress of the “cherry blossom front” as it sweeps across the country from Okinawa in the far south to Hokkaido in the north. Daily forecasts include the proportion of blossom expected in each location, from just beginning to bud to full bloom. Where the trees are planted in clusters the effect is certainly impressive, but sakura in Japan is really about the changing of the seasons. The bloom of the cherry blossoms heralds the coming of spring.


It is customary to partake in “hanami” at this time of year. This involves setting up picnic or BBQ at a nice spot below a blooming cherry blossom tree, and then proceeding to eat and drink the afternoon away. Blooming brilliant. To help facilitate this important cultural exercise our town holds an annual Sakura Festival. This year it was absolutely freezing, but we all attempted to ignore that fact to the extent that our bodies would allow, and enjoyed the food, dance and festivities. We felt particular sympathy for the Hawaiian Hula dancers.

sakura matsuri
People enjoying the semi-bloomed sakura.

The sakura were not in full bloom on the day. A few days later and all these trees were covered in brilliant white petals. A few days after that and after a heavy fall of rain the petals had fallen to the ground, blanketing the path in petal snow and flowing down the river like confetti. There is something about the transience of the cherry blossom that is a thing of beauty in itself.


Stripped-Down Shinto

Yesterday morning as the sun rose over Inazawa (the town neighbouring ours) in central Japan it was a crisp minus 3 degrees and there was unmelted snow lying in shady areas. Thousands of local men clearly thought, “What a beautiful day to dress in nothing but a loincloth and walk around for hours exposed to the elements as a participant in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri (Inazawa Naked Festival)”. I make this ridiculous claim only because yesterday I saw with my own eyes thousands of men dressed in nothing but loincloths walk around for hours in the chilly north wind, as willing participants in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri.

Small Group
It starts like this, with small groups of local men congregating outside of houses and community centres near their homes.

This is just one of a number of “naked ” festivals across Japan, which are said to have originated in the Nara Period (710 to 794 AD).

Early in the afternoon, groups of local men in loincloths started to appear outside houses and community centres, drinking saké, chanting together, jogging on the spot, and generally looking cold and embarrassed. After spending some time cutting circuitous routes through the backstreets they then slowly converged at the entrance to Konomiya Shrine. By this time their bodies had warmed up due to an unusual combination of alcohol and exercise, and cold water was sprayed on them in order to prevent skin rash as the crowd of semi-naked men became increasingly thick and uncomfortably close.

This festival centres around one man – the Shin-okoto (literally “god man”), who is incidentally the only participant who is actually naked (apart from those unfortunate middle-aged men who could occasionally be seen having “wardrobe malfunctions” midway through the festivities). Shinto traditionalists believe that touching the Shin-okoko cleanses one of sin, evil and other general misfortune. I don’t know how much traction this gains amongst the majority of younger Japanese – who are basically superstitious secularists – but in Japan once something becomes a tradition the fact that it has become so is reason enough to continue to do it. Towards the end of the festival the Shin-otoko basically crowd-surfs his way up to a small door in the shrine building, in which, with the loss of any small amount of remaining dignity, he is involuntarily inserted.

Larger Crowd
Groups all converge on the route to Konomiya Shrine.

This isn’t moderately absurd. This is completely nuts.

Kounomiya Jinja
This is Konomiya Shrine - the final destination of the Shin-otoko. Notice the VERY SENSIBLE amount of winter clothes being worn by the spectators. A few hours later and one will have to fight for the air to breath is this arena.

Japanese New Year

Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Year is one of the three most important Japanese holiday periods in the year. The way it is celebrated in family life is in some ways similar to how Christmas is spent in the West. The house is decked out with New Year decorations such as the kadomatsu. New Year postcards (called Nengajyo) are sent. Saké is drunk. Specially prepared boxed food (called Osechi) is eaten. Prayers are said at the local shrine for good fortune for the year ahead. Children are given presents in the form of cash from parents and relatives.

As is typical for most Japanese families, we spent the period from 1st to 4th of January visiting relatives on both Nicewife’s mum’s and dad’s side of the family. This mostly involved talking a lot and eating heaps of delicious food! One new year speciality is a pounded rice-cake called  Mochi which we made at home from rice we harvested in November. Mochi is responsible for a number of deaths each year as old people in particular can easily choke on the glutenous rice ball. We’ll find out this year’s mochi death toll in a few weeks’ time. Nicewife’s dad reckons they must be taking surveys and making calculations right now!

There are many traditions associated with New Year in Japan, but the actual date of New Year apparently isn’t one of them. Up until 1873 Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Given the cultural and religious significance of New Year in Japan, switching to the Gregorian calendar must have been quite an upheaval.

Grandma Cooking Mochi Rice in an Outside Steamer (Well, she's not really doing the cooking - just keeping warm!)




Autumn Colours

On Tuesday we took a trip to a small city north of here called Inuyama. What I like the most about Inuyama is that its name translates literally as “Dog Mountain City”.

Absurd juxtapositions aside, the most interesting thing about Inuyama is that it is home to the oldest original wooden castle in Japan. This trip we completely ignored that fact and instead spent the day visiting the grounds of Jakko-in (寂光院) temple, which sits atop a hill covered in beautiful deciduous trees.

There were a few minor disasters during the day. The half-hourly free shuttle bus from the train station only runs on weekends – we discovered so after arriving at the station and attempting to board the non-existant bus. The result was a long and precarious walk along a road sandwiched between the river and mountains. At some points the road narrows to just one lane and the footpath disappears completely, bringing goods trucks and infants in pushers uncomfortably close.

Precarious Mountain Road: Be careful if you're driving a truck, or are very very tall.

Half way along the 2.5km walk a wheel fell off our 3-wheeled pusher. To the amusement of passing motorists I spent 5 minutes imitating a primate, using a rock as a hammer in an attempt to fix it. (Appropriately, this area is also famous for its monkeys.) This affair was generally embarrassing, but not disastrous. However, these minor issues were soon forgotten when we arrived at the grounds and were able to enjoy Japanese Maples aflame in brilliant reds. We joined the throngs of very old people in tour groups and made our way up the hill.

Climbing the 300 steps to the top.
Climbing the 300 steps to the top. Incredibly both our 2 and 3 year old boys managed all the steps by themselves.

Great colours - no Photoshop required.

Viewing the changing of the leaves is something of a seasonal tradition in Japan, and with the beauty of the vibrant display of colours on offer, who can blame them?