Setsubun

Setsubun was a few weeks ago. I’ve never been able to attend any of the events for it during the years I’ve been here, just due to bad timing with work. This year, however, I managed to find some time where I could sneak over to the preschool for an hour to watch two of my coworkers from the Board of Education and terrify all of the children- on purpose!

beans edited

Setsubun is on February 3rd and marks the start of spring in Japan, though if you look out the windows right now you wouldn’t know it (the snow is piled high, my friends). On Setsubun, families gather and throw roasted beans at someone dressed like an oni (devil) while saying “鬼は外、福は内!” which means “devils out, luck in!” This custom, called mamemaki (literally, bean-scattering)  symbolizes cleansing away all the bad stuff of the previous year and bringing in luck for the new year.

 

Which brings me  back to preschool, where every year the kids gather in their playroom and are visited by two oni- two representatives from the board of education, who wear devil costumes and carry big, floppy, plush iron clubs. The kids are given peanuts, and when the devils arrive, they have to throw their beans and “drive the devils out.”

Oni edited

What really happened was a lot of fright and crying! The kids were terrified by the goofy-looking oni. They cried, I cried (I’m a sympathetic crier) but eventually they drove the oni from the room with their effort. Once the kids had calmed down, the oni sheepishly came back into the room to tell the kids that they’d learned their lessons, and how they would try to be good this year- and that the kids should be too, or they’d be back again! I am under the impression that some parents use threats of the oni prematurely returning to get their kids to behave.. from what I saw, it’s probably a very effective threat!

oni chase 2

Besides getting to watch the preschool event, I also made and ate eho-maki with some friends. Eho-maki is a special type of very large and uncut sushi roll, which you eat facing that year’s lucky direction that changes based on that year’s zodiac- eho maki actually translates to “lucky direction roll.” You can buy eho-maki at grocery stores, but we figured it would be more fun to make. There are rules- you have to face the correct direction, you can’t cut it into smaller pieces, and you can’t speak until you eat the whole thing. This year was SSW, which required around five minutes of googling and math to figure out where we should be facing. Turns out, SSW is right towards my heater!

Eho-maki typically has 7 different ingredients, to symbolize the 7 gods of good fortune. And like I said before, you can’t cut eho-maki to make it smaller- that would be like cutting your luck! Or so I was told. For our first, formal rolls we made some smaller versions- so I wouldn’t be stuck eating in silence for ten minutes while I struggled through eating an entire roll. After our good-luck rolls, we ended up just having a nice sushi-party with the rest of our ingredients.

ehomaki

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Hotel Keikoku’s Hina Matsuri

So I got a call a few days ago from the town office.

“Hey, Jordy, will you go to Hotel Keikoku and write something about the Hina dolls there?”

I said yeah, sure, of course, and that I’d go there as soon as I had some time, which I did the next day. When I’d heard “hina dolls” on the phone, I figured they had found a special set, or set up something interesting.

My view when I approached the front doors:

 

Keikoku Entrance (1)

Yes, I was a bit startled.

keikoku entrance 2

Hotel Keikoku is having their first-ever hina-doll festival. Hina Dolls are displayed in celebration of Hina-Matsuri, or Girl’s Day, which is always on March 3rd. The hina-ningyou (dolls) are set up before then in February, and symbolize the Emperor, Empress, and all of their court. The dolls are almost always very ornate and lavish, and are set up on stepped shelves called a hinadan. The Emperor and Empress are at the top, and their attendants are on the steps below them. The dolls are thought to bring good luck and ward off bad spirits.

full hina set

Traditionally, people would decorate their displays with hishi-mochi (diamond-shaped sticky rice cakes), shiro-zake (white Japanese sake) and peach blossoms, because of their beauty and symbolism of spring. Today,  people often also eat sushi and elaborately decorated cakes for Girl’s Day.

Hotel Keikoku brought together 35 full sets of hina dolls for their display, with the help of the vice-mayor and people in Takinoue. It took them almost four full days to get everything set up, but they said it was worth it to see the reactions from their customers.

 

keikoku hallway

While we are in the depths of winter, there can be days without a lot of color, and the employees at Hotel Keikoku wanted to share some joy with the people that visit them. They even are preparing special meals during this time for children that visit.

keikoku exit

Some people told me they thought that the dolls are creepy or scary, and some said that they liked how luxurious the display was. Once I got over the surprise, I personally loved it. Each set is different, and I spent a lot of time looking at them. Undoubtedly, it’s a sight to see if you are interested in Japanese culture.

The Story of the Shibazakura Park

 

Takinoue’s shibazakura park is one of the most famous in Japan, and people come from all over to see it. The creation of the park began back in the Taisho era, with Takinoue’s aspirations to be known as the most flowered city of Japan.

 

The origins of the park started with a horse shoe maker named Kataoka Heiji. He was originally from Kochi-ken, but with the development happening in Hokkaido he decided to move to Takinoue with his wife. He was initially worried about the move to Hokkaido, but his wife had a fondness for the flowers of Hokkaido. She thought it was a beautiful area, and was looking forward to moving there. So, he agreed to come for her sake, and they moved to Takinoue in the 1920s. With their move, their shared dream of making Takinoue the most famous location for flowers in Japan also was created.

When they arrived, Kataoka intially continued his work with horse shoeing. He and his wife noticed the bad smell of the horse shoeing area, and they decided to plant flowers to mask the smell of it. His wife began to tend to the flowers there, and they often talked about them.

It was in 1919 that the development of what is now the shibazakura park started. In 1922, the townspeople of Takinoue purchased 1,000 sakura trees and planted them on the hillside. Takinoue started to become famous as a sakura-viewing place in Hokkaido. During this time, Kataoka became the caretaker of the sakura trees and the park, a job he took very seriously.

However, in 1938 Kataoka’s wife died. He felt like he hadn’t kept his promise to her about making Takinoue famous Japan-wide for the beautify of its flowers. He was very depressed, and struggled with it until the start of World War 2, during which time he was unable to care for the trees in the park. When the war was finished, Kataoka resumed his care of Takinoue’s flower park. In 1950 Takinoue began to hold an annual sakura festival, and people were coming from far and wide to view the blooming flowers.

There were soon two setbacks that occurred in that time. The first was an abnormally large gypsy moth infestation. They ate many of the plants and trees in Takinoue at that time, and the problem was so serious that soon the town resorted to burning trees in order to kill the moths. With the fires and burning insects, Takinoue began to lose some of its appeal as a fragrant-flower town. During this time is when Asakura Yoshie, another man from Kochi-prefecture, began to work with Kataoka. Together, with Asakura working with the local and Hokkaido goverment, they decided to renew Takinoue’s dream of becoming a flower-town.

 

In 1954, though, there came the second problem. A terrible typhoon, called the Toyamaru typhoon, hit Hokkaido. This typhoon caused island-wide destruction, and in Takinoue it knocked over about half of the sakura trees in the park. With this, Kataoka and Asakura decided to cease trying to raise sakura trees. They were both discouraged by their setbacks, but when Kataoka thought about his wife he decided to give it another go, and convinced Asakura to keep trying.

During 1956 Kataoka was out and noticed small pink flowers in a nearby garden. He was struck by how vibrant their color was and their beautiful fragrance, and decided that this was how Takinoue would take its place as flower-capital of Japan. Kataoka gathered up wooden orange-box of the flowers, and took them to Asakura to show him what he had found. The flowers couldn’t be killed by the insects or typhoons, so they decided to try it out.

Around this time, Asakura decided to run for mayor of Takinoue and announced his candidacy. Kataoka told Asakura that he would support Asakura in his election if, in return, Asakura would pledge to help him with his creation of Takinoue as a flower-city. Asakura agreed, and went on to win the election and become mayor of Takinoue. He immediately started development on the shibazakura park.

 

From 1959-1966 Takinoue expanded the area of its park by 5 hectares every year. By this point, Kataoka was getting older, and he died in 1968. Asakura and the townspeople of Takinoue carried on the spirit of Kataoka Heiji by continuing to expand the Takinoue Shibazakura Park, and it eventually reached 7-times the original size. Now, Takinoue has the most vibrantly pink flower garden in all of Japan.