Fireworks festivals

Summer in Japan simply isn’t fun right now because of the pandemic. Of course I understand why festivals of any kind are out of the question right now, but I’d like to take a moment and lament their temporary loss.

Japan in the summer is hot, humid and altogether unpleasant unless you’re up north like in Aomori or Hokkaido. For me, the most unpleasant place to be during the summer is Kyoto. Thanks to it being surrounded by mountains, Kyoto is like a bowl that just soaks up the heat and humidity and keeps it there for a while. Going outside your door in the morning during the summer can be entirely painful. I think Florida in America during the summer is a good comparison.

Still, I love summers in Japan mostly because they offer festivals. There are classic festivals where people wear summer kimono called yukata and walk among street vendors offering games, snacks and random prizes like goldfish. Then you have bon-odori festivals where a stage is set up in the center of the festival, and people dance in a circle around it.

Last, and my favorite of all the festivals, are fireworks festivals. They have the street vendors and sometimes even bon-odori, but all against a backdrop of fireworks that go off in succession for sometimes an hour.

The most stunning fireworks festival I’ve been to was in Kamakura, where they set the fireworks off in the water while people watch from the beach (see the photo above). I loved seeing the fireworks reflected in the water while sitting on the beach, enjoying the waves at night.

I miss walking down the road at night heading toward the fireworks in a crowd of people, eyeing the food stalls along the way and wondering which I should pick. I miss feeling excited to see the fireworks and wondering what kind they would be doing that year. I even miss the mass exodus following the fireworks display. There were times I would have to walk to the station before the closest one to avoid the crowds. I never thought I’d miss that.

I’m looking forward to a summer in the near future that is not simply to be endured.

The Periodical, Forlorn – Mythos Reborn

I’m thrilled to announce I got a short story published in the latest edition of The Periodical, Forlorn. Called Mythos Reborn, it’s a collection of scary myths of some kind.

I picked writing about the Japanese demon, an oni, because I was curious about them.

Japan has a tradition of oni appearing on a day called Setsubun in February. The demon appears inside your home, and your job is to drive them away by throwing beans at them while saying, “Luck stays inside, the demon goes outside.” This usually translates to parents buying a demon mask and having their kids throw beans at them for a few minutes.

They show up in a lot of myths in Japan, and are a common staple on shows having to do with monsters and ghosts in Japan.

One thing I don’t really know about oni is where they come from. A quick Google search suggested they come from spirits of the dead, but why? Why are some spirits said to turn into demons?

So I came up with my own idea of how this happens and wrote a short story about it.

I hope you enjoy it! This is the first time I’ve ever been paid for a story, so I think this story will always mean a lot to me, even if I read it each time thinking of how I could’ve done better.

Wanderlust Literary Travel Journal

I’m really happy to write that the Wanderlust Literary Travel Journal has published my photo, “Mikan” on their site.

As someone who’s struggling to keep two mikan (they’re like clementines or mandarin oranges) fruit alive on my little mikan tree, I’m growing more and more jealous of people who seem to put a massive mikan tree in front of their house here in Japan like it’s an afterthought.

I have three mikan trees I’m growing from seed at the moment, so I’m hoping maybe in ten years I can finally enjoy from fruit from them, but being impatient, I also bought a little stick of a tree from my local nursery. It had been growing about six mikan, but then three fell off in random acts of nature being cruel, and now I have two left I’m watching like a hawk.

Considering we have a tropical storm set to slam us tomorrow, I’m trying to find a place where I can protect my little tree from the elements.

The Olympics

I love the Olympics and Paralympics. I love the opening ceremonies, the closing ceremonies, and almost every sport available to watch. My favorite summer sports to watch are diving, archery, soccer, rugby and anything with a skateboard or bike.

When I learned the Olympics were coming here, I was beyond excited. It’s been my dream for a long time to see even one event in person. Finally, it was happening.

However, the pandemic put a massive cloud over any excitement I could’ve had. The Olympics are all about coming together from around the world, and the pandemic has made it imperative we do the opposite.

While I’ve heard vaccination rates are going fairly well in America, Japan is still far behind. Where I live, I finally got a little ticket in the mail that says I’m eligible to get a free vaccine, but when I logged on to the government website to book an appointment, I got a message saying, “Supplies to your area have depleted to the point where we can no longer accept appointments for a while.”

This all means that, to me, the Olympics are a disaster waiting to happen. I hope, dearly, that I am wrong. I hope the Olympics happen and don’t cause a massive wave in infections in Japan. But talking to my other friends here, no one seems hopeful we can avoid this. I’m left clutching my temporarily useless vaccination ticket and bracing myself. That is definitely not the sentiment the Olympics should instill.

The pandemic has ruined so many things. Above all, it has killed far too many and severely wounded too many. I hope these Olympics don’t add to either of those groups. Unfortunately, I think that is what will mark whether these Olympics and Paralympics were successful.

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go

One place I’d really love to visit again is Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site that has farmhouses dating back 250 years.

What I love most about it is that it’s an actual working village. People live there year-round, so you get to see little kids’ bikes left out beside a historic building. I love it.

The thatched roofs are also just spectacular.

I’m getting the sense from many of my Japanese friends that old, traditionally Japanese architecture are seen as ridiculously rundown and outdated. I think maybe that’s why cities like Tokyo and its surroundings are just knocking down old, traditional buildings and putting in the vogue architecture at the time of building.

To me, that’s a shame. Traditional Japanese architecture is spectacular, and Shirakawa-go really puts that on display.

I loved wandering around the village, following the little streams running throughout it and enjoying the massive sunflowers growing alongside the thatched-roof farmhouses. It was a place to go and quietly enjoy where you were, which made it peaceful.

My dream is to visit there in the fall or winter and take about a million photos.

Anime vs. reality

I think many fans of Japanese anime and manga will be disappointed that Japan isn’t much like what they see in their favorite stories.

Japan, in general, is a strikingly conservative and reserved society. I read a book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox, and in the book she likens Japan to England.

Both are island nations with people who generally seem to enjoy their privacy and not making loud scenes in public unless alcohol is heavily involved. Even the act of people kissing in public here is frowned upon.

Exceptions abound, of course. I can point to Tokyo’s Harajuku as one such example of creativity overflowing. Osaka is also apparently famous for people being loud and speaking their minds.

However, in general, I’ve found that Japan is extremely conservative. For example, apart from women dying their hair brown or the older generations dying gray hairs, hair-dying is heavily frowned upon here. Along with the school uniforms and then business attire dress codes, I feel like Japan is quite in love with the idea of uniformity in their society.

Above all, no one seems to want to make waves within their community. Whether that means dressing more conservatively or being quieter than you would like in any given situation, I haven’t met many people who are willing to contradict this idea.

I think that’s why a lot of Japanese anime and manga can get so crazy. I think it’s how many Japanese can vent their creative frustrations because this stifling society doesn’t allow too much creative expression.

I think that’s why a lot of Japanese TV variety shows are also absurdly over-the-top. I think it’s a way for people to come home from a day of conforming and relieve stress by laughing at people clearly not conforming.

Tanabata

Tokyo Disneyland in 2013, around Tanabata

The gist of the story goes: A long time ago a woman was weaving by a river, the Milky Way, though she desperately wanted love. Her father had her meet a cow herder who lived on the other side of the river, and the two fell in love so much they forgot to weave clothes or tend to their cows. The father was angered by this and separated them using the river, but the woman pleaded until the father took pity. Once a year, he decided, he would make a bridge that would let them cross the river and see one another.

Japan celebrates that day when they can finally see each other again and calls it Tanabata.

The story, the holiday and the tradition all originally come from China, which celebrates the holiday on August 7th, I have been told. There are a couple of places in Japan that keep to that, too, and celebrate on August 7th.

Mostly, though, Japan decided July 7th would be Tanabata.

To celebrate, people put up some bamboo branches (real or fake) in their house. You can buy or make a long slip of colorful paper and write your wish on it. Then you punch a hole through the top, put some string through it and tie it to your bamboo tree. The idea is that whatever you write will come true.

A lot of shopping centers here and condominium complexes have gotten into the spirit of it by having fairly large bamboo trees plopped into the middle of their lobbies, and trays of paper slips on which you can write your wishes for free. It has all the feel of decorating a tree for Christmas, I think.

Some people also like making food that has star shapes in it to celebrate, but that’s as much as people really do for the occasion here, I think.

As I’m a huge fan of stars, I’m a huge fan of this holiday. I love any excuse to decorate with stars.

Cultural nuances of Japanese

I started learning Japanese way back in college, and one of my Japanese professors tried something that failed spectacularly.

Near the end of her class, the professor handed us out packets of information about how to use Japanese within Japanese society.

Nearly every student protested, sometimes openly, that this was a tremendous waste of time. “Why are we learning this?” I remember one particularly frustrated student say aloud.

For me, however, this was like being handed the keys to a kingdom. I still have those packets.

It’s one thing to learn how to speak a language, but it’s quite another to learn how to speak it well within the society that uses that language.

For example, in America (where I’m originally from) if someone says, “Your English is so good,” the natural response would be, “Thank you.”

In Japan, however, this is generally viewed as a rude response to the praise. Saying thank you to someone complimenting your Japanese is akin to saying, “Yes, I know it’s amazing. Thank you for noticing.” To many Japanese, this is bragging, which is highly frowned upon here.

Therefore, the correct response to “Your Japanese is so good” is to say, “Oh no, no, it’s not good at all yet.” It doesn’t matter if you just gave your college dissertation in Japanese despite only being a native English speaker, this should be your go-to response.

Another nuance I’ve learned is that you do not boast about anything to anyone who is not in your immediate social circle (like your spouse or your own parents and kids).

If your kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize and your neighbors come running up to you praising their name to the heavens, your job is to promptly dismiss all praise. Deflect. If need-be, find some flaw about your child to bring up if the neighbors keep praising your kid anyway.

None of this is to say, “I hate my child.” On the contrary, it is to give the appearance of being humble and having humility. If you go around saying, “My kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize!” then many neighbors and friends will give you tight smiles and declare you to be full of yourself behind your back.

That doesn’t mean many Japanese don’t enjoy being praised. I don’t know anyone on earth who doesn’t enjoy that, even if only inwardly. But your immediate reaction in Japan to received praise should always be deflection and humility. Even if inwardly you want to shout from the rooftops how amazing your kid is, outwardly you have to act like your kid didn’t do anything special.

My professor tried to teach us all that, to help us be even just a tiny bit more accepted into this incredibly exclusive society, and to this day I think it’s a shame more students didn’t understand just how incredibly nice that was of her to try and teach us.

Cucumber dressing recipe

Cucumbers are in season in Japan and are one of the things people think about here when it comes to this hot season. Nothing like an ice-cold cucumber after a hot and humid day.

As such, cucumbers are pretty cheap at grocery stores now, and I’m left wondering how to make them worth eating every day.

My father-in-law shared a great recipe that I thought I’d share here for a nice sauce for cucumbers.

You take about a half cup of mayonnaise (we used a “healthy” version of it) and about a tablespoon of miso paste and mix them together. Then toss the sliced cucumbers in that sauce.

That’s it. And it tastes fantastic. If you can get your hands on some nice miso paste (we used red miso with the dashi already in it) and some mayonnaise, then you will be on your way to glory.

The umami and salty flavors of the sauce really help bring a nice contrast to the otherwise fairly unspectacular flavors of the cucumber, in my humble opinion.

Growing hydrangeas

The reason I can tolerate the rainy season in Japan

I have wavy hair and, as such, the rainy season of Japan is the bane of my existence. It seems no matter how much moisture I pour into my hair, it is always frizzy during this season of clouds, rain and humidity.

As such, the only part of the rainy season I remotely look forward to is hydrangeas. Japan is covered in hydrangeas around this time of the year, with bushes of them cropping up everywhere you look. They grow here the way dandelions used to grow back in America.

Because I love them so much, especially the blue ones, I decided to try my hand at having a couple in a container. I bought one last rainy season and then watched in growing horror as it dropped all of its flowers and proceeded to die.

At least, I thought it was dead. Mostly because I refused to simply throw the container away, I continued watering the remaining sticks that remained as winter settled in. Hydrangea are not exactly cheap, so I had a vague hope that maybe the hydrangea had left some seeds behind in the soil, and maybe those would give me back my beloved flowers.

Perhaps in testament to how highly unobservant I am, it wasn’t until late winter that, while visiting a vast park attended to by professional gardeners, I noticed their hydrangea bushes looked exactly like mine – dead. When I finally looked around at where I had remembered hydrangea bushes to be in my neighborhood, I realized every hydrangea bush looked dead. It looked like someone had burned the poor bushes to the ground.

This gave me overwhelming hope that maybe, just maybe, my little blue hydrangea bush was still somehow alive. A quick Internet research confirmed that it was merely dormant.

Sure enough, while the rain continues to drizzle down and my hair continues to betray me, I get the pleasure of looking out my little window and seeing a beautiful blue hydrangea bush every day. It’s not a bad view at all.