Buddha and Jesus side by side

Many Western hotels have a Bible in every room. I never quite understood why that was the case, so today I looked it up. Apparently the Bibles in hotel rooms are the work of an American society called ‘Gideons International’. Their main objective is to provide Bibles free of charge. They are best known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms, but they also distribute Bibles to hospitals and jails.

When I was in Japan, I noticed something interesting in our hotel room: it held not one but two religious books. Our Western style room contained a Bible (The New Testament to be exact) and a copy of The Teaching of Buddha.

bible and buddhist teachings in a hotel room in japan

The New Testament and The Teaching of Buddha side by side in our Japanese hotel room. Also notice the emergency flash light next to the books, in case of an earthquake.

I have no idea if The Gideons are responsible for the Bible in the room. Do they operate outside of the US as well? Or is The New Testament just an attempt of the hotel to emulate an American style and make foreign guests feel welcome? It seems odd that a country where less than 1% of the population is Christian would offer a Bible in hotel rooms. But then again, our hotel was clearly oriented towards foreigners.

I also wonder who placed The Teaching of Buddha in the room. Surely that can’t be the work of The Gideons. Is there a similar society for spreading the word of Buddha? Or is it just an initiative of the hotel business in Japan to make Japanese guests feel equally welcome?

bible and buddhist teachings in a japanese hotel room

The Teaching of Buddha, in English and Japanese

In any case it felt really typical of Japan that they would offer multiple options, thus attempting to please all guests and to avoid any possible offence. It also felt a bit exotic to see The Teaching of Buddha in our Western style room. It’s little differences like these that make life in Japan so fascinating to me!

I later found out that The Teaching of Buddha is provided by The Society for the Promotion of Buddhism (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai). The Society is Japanese in origin and was founded by Mr. Numata in 1965. Meanwhile it has offices all over the world. They compiled the book The Teaching of Buddha and have distributed over 8 million copies to hotels in over 50 countries. You can order a free copy of The Teaching of Buddha from your nearest local branch.

The art of cat-napping in Japan

The Japanese are masters of cat-napping. They are able to sleep anywhere, anytime. Their ability to squeeze in a quick nap is truly amazing. In Belgium I hardly ever see people sleeping in public, except for the occasional cat-nap on the train. But in Japan, I have seen people taking a nap in restaurants, while standing up on the train and even on the ground in the street!

cat-nap in japanese restaurant

This lady decided to have a quick nap after her lunch in a Toyota City restaurant.

cat-nap in japanese restaurant

Five minutes later, she reached an even more advanced state of relaxation.

If you want to see what the highest possible state of relaxation looks like, have a look at the post I wrote about school kids sleeping on the train.

But the most impressive example I saw of Japanese people being to sleep anywhere, anytime, is someone just taking a nap on the ground. And no, they were clearly not homeless people. Amazing!

 

Signs of spring: Field Horsetail or Tsukushi

Japanese people are a lot more aware of the seasons than Belgian people are. While the first signs of spring are met with joy everywhere, Japanese culture takes it to another level by singling out a great number of tell-tale sings of spring that people can look for and rejoice about. Famous examples are the first cry of the uguisu (a little bird, called the Japanese bush warbler in English) and the first blossoms, which are usually ume (plum blossom). But even the less glamorous signs of spring are noticed and welcomed with open arms. Like the inconspicuous little plant called tsukushi (土筆) or field horsetail.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

The field horsetail by the side of a road. The plant is called tsukushi in Japanese and its scientific name is Equisetum arvense – picture from http://blog.livedoor.jp/ak0503hr0406/archives/51385999.html

This little plant pops up by the side of the road all over Japan in early March. It was first brought to my attention by my lovely English students. They are a group of senior citizens and they still recall the days when people used to eat this plant. It was an inexpensive food source in times when Japan was not yet the land of plenty that it is now.

I also noticed the Field Horsetail on the wonderful Facebook page ‘Seasonal food in Japan’. Apparently the page is owned by a Japanese company that produces the ‘Taste Calendar’ (味のカレンダー). Their website appears to be in Japanese only but their Facebook page sometimes contains information in English. I wonder if the inclusion of the Field Horsetail in such a trendy calendar means that it is gaining in popularity again. In Belgium, there is a trend of bringing ‘forgotten vegetables’, such as parsnip or celeriac, back the daily menu. It would be interesting to see a similar trend in Japan.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

Last year the horsetail was assigned to the 8th of March on the Japanese Taste Calendar.

People watching – Kimono on the train

After living in Japan for a while, you start to experience something that I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’. I have talked about it in previous posts. It means that you have gradually gotten used to all the wonderful Japanese things that excited you so much at first. Life in Japan has started to seem so normal. But even then, from time to time, you will experience something that really makes you feel like you are in Japan. Like that time I ran into a monk in a fabric store. The excitement I feel at such a time, is the reason I call it ‘a face-slap-moment’.

Another good example of a face-slap-moment is seeing ladies in kimono on the train. Even towards the end of my year in Japan, I still felt really excited whenever I saw someone in kimono. Apart from the summer festivals, you really don’t see that many people in kimono anymore (with the possible exception of Kyoto). It is very hard to wear kimono and many young people don’t know how to do it. If you see someone in kimono, it is usually an elderly person.

I managed to snap a photograph of these two ladies on the subway in Nagoya:

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Ladies in kimono on the train in Japan. If you look closely, you will see the slightest hint of a green kimono, to the left of the lady in the yellow kimono.

Lucky for me, these ladies took the same transfer that I did. This gave me the perfect opportunity to follow them throughout Fushimi station in Nagoya and keep taking sneak photographs.

kimono on the train in Japan

Here we have a better view of their complete outfits

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

On the escalator I managed to get a close-up of the obi and the kimono fabric. People probably thought I was crazy taking all these photographs. Or maybe they just thought “*sigh* foreigners…”. Fortunately, Japanese people are too polite to comment on it.

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Escalator close-up of the lady in the green kimono. She was standing a bit farther away from me.

Japanese ladies in kimono waiting for the train

My best photo opportunity came at the end, when they finally stood still, waiting for the next train. Aren’t they lovely? The posture of the lady in yellow is so elegant and the kimono are gorgeous!

The lightest man in sumo

When we think of sumo wrestlers, we usually imagine very big, even fat, men. Like Kotoshogiku for example:

sumo wrestler kotoshogiku

Sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku

Weighing in at 176 kilograms, Kotoshogiku is a formidable man. There is, however, one exception to the rule of big sumo wrestlers. With only 93 kilograms, Czech born Takanoyama doesn’t have a gram of fat on him.

czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama

I am not sure why Takanoyama is so lean. Is he unable to put on the weight? Or is it a deliberate choice? If so, is it because of vanity? Or is it perhaps a way to stand out among all the other wrestlers? One thing is for sure though: it is not helping him in the ring. When I was following sumo, in 2011-2012, he was struggling to stay in the maegashira division (which is the lowest part of the top division). Usually he attempted some judo-like techniques and while they gained him the occasional win, overall he simply couldn’t compete with the heavier wrestlers. Meanwhile he has dropped out of the top division completely and is placed in the middle of jūryō, the second highest division.

Despite his poor ring performance, Takanoyama was (and perhaps still is?) very popular with the fans. I wonder if this is due to his unusual physique. It certainly isn’t due to his sunny personality, as I had the chance to discover one July afternoon in 2012.

Prior to the 2012 Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, we had the chance to attend a sumo practice session and eat some chanko nabe handed out by the wrestlers. As the wrestlers left to retire to their quarters, they were followed by a group of fans, asking them for pictures. Among the group was a very pushy Japanese lady, who seemed intent on touching the wrestlers as much as possible. When she took a picture with kind natured Takayasu, she even held his hand! Unfortunately I don’t have pictures of the pushy lady, but I do have our own pictures with the wrestlers.

japanese sumo wrestler takayasu

This is me and a friend posing with Takayasu. Such a sweet and shy guy!

After having taken her picture with Takayasu, the pushy Japanese lady approached Czech wrestler Takanoyama. As she was posing alongside him for a picture, she tried to cuddle up to him and take his arm. Takanoyama was having none of it though. He barked at her “Chikai!”, which literally translates as ‘(too) close’. In Japanese, just barking out the word is a very rude way to say she was too close. The lady shrieked and jumped at least a meter away.

We were witness to this incident because we were waiting to take our own picture with Takanoyama. In fact, our turn was up right after the pushy lady. Needless to say we were a bit anxious about approaching this ill-tempered wrestler after witnessing such a scene. In the pictures below, you can clearly see that my friend is keeping her distance to Takanoyama, as is my husband. Because I am standing a bit to the front, it looks like I am closer, but I can assure you that I was equally wary.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Posing with scary Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama. Notice how my friend is keeping her distance.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Even my husband is afraid to come too close and I can’t blame him!

 

People watching – Sexy mom

I never get tired of watching people in Japan. The way people dress and express themselves seems so much more varied than in Belgium. Although on the one hand, Japan is a society governed by rules, on the other hand I have the impression that Japanese people in some cases enjoy more personal freedom than Belgian people. Fashion is one of those instances where I feel there is more freedom in Japan than in Belgium.

Take for example the lady in the picture below. I ran into her in the mall and was impressed by the combination of her sexy outfit and the stroller.

sexy Japanese mom

Sexy Japanese mom. I found the combination of the short dress, the thigh length socks and the high heels quite provocative.

I don’t think there are many young moms in Belgium who would dare to go shopping in such an outfit. I’m sure self-confidence has a lot to do with it, but I also believe young moms would get a lot of negative reactions when wearing such an outfit, especially in combination with the stroller.

My interpretation of this situation is that this lady bravely wears whatever she likes and that Japanese society lets her. Hurray for Japan! But of course I realize that this is just my interpretation, influenced by my Western perspective. I would love to hear what other people (both Japanese and foreign) make of this sexy young mom. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section!

sexy Japanese mom

Here she is, waiting for the elevator. My apologies for the blurry picture. Taking sneak photographs without being noticed is hard!

Japanese New Year’s decorations

Around New Year’s time, you will see special decorations outside shops and in temples all over Japan. For foreigners, these public decorations are very interesting. Since we often don’t have access to Japanese family life, the decorations put up by shops and temples are the best (and often only) way for us to learn about Japanese New Year’s decorations.

The picture below was taken exactly two years ago, on January 7th 2012. It is a small restaurant underneath the train overpass next to our apartment building.

japanese New Year's decorations

Japanese New Year’s decorations outside a small restaurant

The two decorations on the ground are kadomatsu (門松, literally ‘pine gate’). Kadomatsu always come in pairs. Designs vary depending on region but they are typically made of bamboo and pine. Pine is considered lucky because it remains green in winter. Sometimes plum (ume) tree sprigs are also included, which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness.

Kadomatsu are placed at the gate or door of a house, temple or business. They are an invitation for the New Year God (toshigami 年神) to come down from the sky. The kadomatsu are meant to provide temporary housing for the god. The New Year God is believed to bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors’ blessing on everyone.

Kadomatsu are left outside until the 7th of January. After that, they are burned to  appease the gods and release them.

japanese new year's decorations kadomatsu

Two kadomatsu outside a wayside service area on December 30th

If you look back at the first picture – the one of the restaurant – you will also see a decoration above the door. That is a shimekazari (しめ飾り). Again, there are many different designs for shimekazari but most of them include a sacred braided straw rope (shimenawa), fern leaves, white ritual paper strips (shide) and a bitter orange (daidai). Like the kadomatsu, the shimekazari invites the New Year’s God to visit the home. Additionally, it is also meant to keep out bad spirits and thus prevent bad luck.

shimekazari at ryoanji temple in kyoto

Shimekazari at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto

Japanese new years decorations kyoto

Japanese New Year’s decorations in Kyoto, with a shimekazari above the door and kadomatsu at the entrance

japanese new years decorations shimekazari restaurant kyoto

A shimekazari at the entrance of a restaurant in Kyoto