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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

The Duel Between Sasaki Kojirō and Miyamoto Musashi

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  • January 26, 2015

Sasaki Kojirō (佐々木 小次郎, 1585–1612), of Fukui Prefecture, Japan, was also known as Ganryū, orLarge Rock style. Kojirō was a master swordsman during the Sengoku and early Edo periods. He studied  Chujō-ryū (old style martial arts founded in the 14th century by Chujō Nagahide) sword fighting from either sword masters Kanemaki Jisai or Toda Seigen.  Kojirō later went on his own and founded the Japanese traditional school for swordsmanship, Ganryū, the name he is also known for. He is also known for his skills in wielding the nodachi (a long traditional Japanese sword) known as the Drying Pole and the Tsubame Gaeshi technique (Turning Swallow Cut) believed to mimic the motion of a swallow’s tail during flight.

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Sculpure of the duel. | Roger Ferland

256px-Musashi_ts_picMiyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, 1584–1645) is also known by his other names, Shinmen Takezō or Miyamoto Bennosuke, or his Buddhist name Niten Dōraku. He was an expert swordsman and rōnin who is known for his many duels even when he was very young. Miyamoto Musashi was the author of The Book of Five Rings, about tactics, strategy, and swordfighting philosophies that are still used today. He also founded the  Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū or Niten-ryū style popular for its two-sword techniques.

Miyamoto Musashi illustration.

Sasaki Kojirō  and Miyamoto Musashi were involved in one of Japan’s historic duels in 1612. The two swordsmen were bitter rivals at the time. There are several accounts on the story that led to the actual duel; the one considered the most accurate goes like this.

Sasaki_kojiroMiyamoto Musashi, wishing to put an end to the notion of who is really the best swordsman, requested Lord Hosokawa Tadaoki (a respected samurai), through his trusted vassal Nagaoka Sado Okinaga, to arrange a duel between the two swordsmen. The duel took place on 13th April 1612, in the remote island of Ganryujima of Funashima, off the coast of the Bizen Province. As part of a strategy to throw off Kojirō ‘s inner state of being, Musashi arrived three hours late. When he finally arrived, the officials of the duel as well as Sasaki Kojiro were extremely irritated; Kojiro was full of rage. On drawing his katana, he threw his scabbard aside, prompting Musashi to further enrage him by commenting, “If you have no more use for your sheath, you are already dead.”

Sasaki Kojirō illustration.

The duel began with both men on guard as a show of respect for the other’s skill with their own style and technique. In the end, though, there could be only one winner. Musashi had provoked Kojirō to make the first attack. Miyamoto quickly countered and succeeded in breaking Kojirō’s left ribs and puncturing his lungs, eventually killing him. Because of this event, Musashi attained spiritual awakening and renounced ever doing lethal duels in the future.

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Kanda Shrine’s Colorful History

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  • January 22, 2015

Kanda Shrine kanda1(神田明神 ) is conveniently located in Japan’s capital, Tokyo.  The shrine was initially built in 730 CE during the Tenpyō Era, in the fishing village of Shibasaki close to the modern Ōtemachi district. When Edo Castle needed expansion in 1603, Kanda Shrine was moved to the former Kanda ward, then again in 1616 to its present site on a small hill near Akihabara. The shrine’s origins can be traced back about 1,270 years, but it has been rebuilt and restored several times including after the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. In 1934, the shrine was rebuilt with concrete, which enabled it to withstand the bombs of World War II. During the Edo period, Kanda Shrine was an important place for many members of the warrior class and local citizens of Japan. Even shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu paid his respects to the gods at Kanda Shrine. Restoration continues today to preserve its long history.

Kanda Shrine gate.

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Historical structure

The grand main gate of Kanda Shrine is a two-story structure named Zuishin-mon that marks the entrance into the historical shrine. It was reconstructed in 1995 using cypress wood and has an irimoya styled roof (Eastern Asian architectural style, where a hip roof  slopes down on all four sides and integrates a gable on two opposing sides) and is painted vermilion with gold and lacquered interiors.

Taira no Masakado print.

Kanda’s thhree main kami

Ebisu – the god of fishermen, workingmen, and luck, and the guardian of the health of small children. He is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune and the only one to originate purely from Japan without any Chinese or Hindu influence.

Taira no MasakadoDaikokuten – a Heian Period samurai who led one of the biggest rebel forces against the government of Kyoto. He is considered a hero and even a demigod to the locals who are reminded of his bravery against the Japanese central government as well his need to appease his malevolent spirit.

Daikokuten – the god of wealth, commerce, and trade. He is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. His name is equivalent to Mahākāla, the Buddhist name for Shiva.

Kanda matsuri is one of the three main Shinto festivals celebrated in Tokyo. It’s an old tradition started in 1600 by Tokugawa Ieyasu after the victory of the battle of Sekigahara. It is held in honor of the enshrined kami, and celebrated mid-May each year.

Daikokuten illustration.

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Nihon Ōdai Ichiran: A Chronicle of Japanese Rule

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  • January 19, 2015

During the Sakoku years of Japan, the country was deeply isolated from the rest of the world except for a few foreigners, mostly  Koreans and Chinese. The only Western trade with Japan was from the Dutch East India Company. Japan’s self-imposed isolation made their wares much coveted by foreigners.

Isaac Titsingh  (1745–1812) was a Dutch merchant-trader, surgeon, scholar, and ambassador. He was a senior official of the Dutch East India Company with a long career in East Asia. Titsingh represented the European trading company exclusively as an official contact in Tokugawa, Japan. He had the opportunity to travel to Edo and meet with high ranking bakufu officials. When he returned to Europe in 1797, Titsingh brought the very first Japanese-authored historical account published and circulated for scholarly study in the West, known as Nihon Ōdai Ichiran.

Nihon_odai_ichiran_wasedaNihon Ōdai Ichiran   (日本王代一覧 ), “The Table of the Rulers of Japan,” is a narrative from the perspective of the Japanese author and his samurai patron, the daimyo of the Obama domain of Wakasa Province, tairō  (great elder) Sakai Tadakatsu. Nihon Ōdai Ichiran  is a chronicle of 17th-century Japanese emperors and their reigns, with entries on some noteworthy events in Japanese history.  The compilation of written works was almost complete in 1783 when Isaac Titsingh sent a manuscript to the daimyo of Tamba, Kutsuki Masatsuna. When Masatsuna finished editing the manuscript, he sent it back to Titsingh, who had become head of the Dutch East Indies Company trade operations in Hoogly, West Bengal.  But in 1785, Masatsuna’s comments were lost in a shipwreck en route from Japan to India. In 1812, Isaac Titsingh’s drafted a final version of the book, which he dedicated to his friend Kutsuki Masatsuna.

Nihon Ōdai Ichiran page. | Waseda University Library

Nihon_Odai_Ichiran_1834Nihon Ōdai Ichiran, an extensive seven volumes, was later translated into French as Nipon o daï itsi ran. The seven volumes were presumed lost during the Napoleonic Wars. After Isaac Titsingh’s death in 1812, the manuscript sat in near neglect. Later, the project was revived, and the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland published the work; publication and printing took place in Paris, with London handling the distribution. At last the Western world could begin to clear away the mystery of Japan.

Title page of French translation of Nihon Ōdai Ichiran.

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Niō: The Valiant Guardians of Buddha

  • Posted by:
  • January 15, 2015

Religion is an important cultural aspect and way of life for many Japanese. Numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are scattered all around Japan and most times, they are right beside each other. In many Buddhist temples, you may notice a pair of stern looking muscular statues. The intimidating dynamic duo that stand devotedly at the entrance of the temples are known as Niō or Kongōrikishi. They are the protectors of Buddha.

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Niō (仁王) are believed to be the manifestation of Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, one of the earliest known bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism (a branch of Buddhism) that symbolize Buddha’s power. According to Japanese belief, Niō guardians travelled with Buddha to protect him.  Stories also justify the use of physical force to keep values and beliefs against evil. The Niō statue standing at the right side of the gate is called Misshaku Kongō and has his mouth open to represent speaking the first grapheme (smallest semantically distinguishing unit in a written language) of Sanskrit Devanagari (writing system of India and Nepal) pronounced as “a.” The left statue is known as Naraen Kongō and has his mouth closed to represent the last Devanagari grapheme pronounced “ɦūṃ.” When man is born he is believed to be speaking the “a” sound with his mouth open and when he dies his last word is “hum” with his mouth closed. The pair together symbolize the birth and death of all things, and as with the Alpha and Omega in Christianity, Niō embodies “all creation.” The contraction of “a” and “hum” is Aum, which in Sanskrit means “The Absolute.”

Niō  statues at Kannonshō-ji in Azuchi, Omihachiman. | 663highland

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Niō statuse at Zentsu-ji. | 663highland

The manifestations of the Niō statues can come in three forms:

ShukongoshinMisshaku Kongō or Agyō – “a”- form, a term for open-mouthed statues in aum pair. They symbolize overt violence. The statues are usually depicted wielding a mallet, diamond club, thunderbolt, sun, or stick, and are baring their teeth.

Naraen Kongō or Ungyō – “um”- form, a general term for closed-mouthed statues in the aum pair. They symbolize latent strength. The statues are usually depicted with their mouths tightly closed and wielding a sword or are bare-handed.

Shukongōshin –  a combination of the Naraen and Misshaku Kongōs into one statue. It literally means “vajra (a ritual weap0n) -wielding spirit.”

Shukongōshin in Hokke-dō, Todaiji Temple, Nara. | Association of Cultural Properties

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The Shizutani School

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  • January 12, 2015

Japan has always valued education. In fact, Japan’s literacy rate is almost 100%, and it has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners over the years. Japan’s education system has played an integral part in its recovery and economic growth in the years after World War II.

2889437134_6681a7f51e_zFormal education in Japan began in the 6th century with the adoption of Chinese culture. The usual teaching in Japanese courts such as Heian, Nara, and Asuka were sciences, divination, calligraphy, literature, and Buddhist and Confucian teachings. Scholars were initially chosen through an Imperial examination system, but later on, titles and posts remained hereditary and within the family. The rise of the military class (bushi) during the Kamakura period ended scholarly influence, and Buddhist monasteries became the primary centers for learning.

Shizutani School. | scarletgreen

During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate and the Daimyō competed for power on the basis of economics. The samurai class, who were also practicing bureaucrats, learned not only the ways of military strategy but agriculture and accounting as well. The prosperous merchant class prepared for their continued growth in business, which enabled them to be patrons of the arts and sciences. Temple schools were largely responsible for educating the peasant class. It was estimated that by the end of the Edo period, 50% of the male population and 20% of the female population possessed some degree of education.

2889437468_4642c6d361_zThe Shizutani School (閑谷学校 )  or the shizutani gakkō, is the oldest surviving school for the common people. It was built and opened by the Okayama Domain during the early Edo period, in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture.  The idea for the school began in 1666 when the feudal lord of the Bizen Area, Ikeda Mitsumasa, came across Kidani Village in Wake. He thought the area had an ideal atmosphere for educating people. In 1670, Ikeda Mitsumasa gave his chief vassal Tsuda Nagatada the task of completing Shizutani School.  Ikeda Mitsumasa is remembered today for his resounding belief: “Better public morality is all up to the education of the common people.”

Shizutani School grounds. | scarletgreen

The school’s building stands today the way it was completed about 300 years ago. The stone wall is in Tang style, a Chinese style in an era when China was called Tang. The roof tiles of the building are made of bizen ware. The Shizutani School is ideally located in a beautiful place surrounded by maple and gingko trees, where time seems to stand still.

The Shizutani School  Auditorium has been designated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of the government of Japan as a National Treasure in the building/structure category.

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Hanging Out on Bōnenkai and Shinnenkai

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  • January 3, 2015

New Year, shogatsu in Japanese, is the most significant holiday of the year. Preparations begin days beforehand. Most business establishments close shop from the 1st to the 3rd of January to commemorate New Year in Japan, and many Japanese spend time together with their families. In Japan, each year is viewed as separate and discrete, with the New Year as a chance for a fresh start. Bōnenkai and shinnenkai parties are prime examples that show us the true meaning of ending the old year with a blast and starting the New Year with a bang!

Bōnenkai81819682_18f6e861f4_z (忘年会 literally ” ‘forget the year’ gathering”) is a Japanese drinking party that is held at the end of the year among close friends or groups of co-workers. Its main purpose is to forget the troubles and woes of the past year and to look forward to starting fresh for the new year by consuming quite a lot of alcohol and getting drunk. There is no specific day to celebrate bōnenkai, but it usually happens every December. Bōnenkai celebrations are often sponsored by a business office or a company for their employees.

Bōnenkai.  | Hajime NAKANO

Bōnenkai is not considered as part of the shogatsu celebration that commemorates the start of the year. Bōnenkai tradition can be traced back to the Muromachi period in the 15th century when it was more of a gathering to give thanks for the year’s blessings. The parties were previously known as noukai (great achievement gathering). The celebrations only came to be known as bōnenkai during the 18th century. It is a time to let one’s hair down, or bureiko, and not worry about the boss for a change.

Shinnenkai1

Shinnenkai (新年会, literally “new year gathering”) is the Japanese tradition of welcoming the New Year by yet again drinking alcohol. It is also usually celebrated amongst the company of co-workers and friends in January. Shinnenkai is also not a traditional part of the shogatsu celebrations. Shinnenkai is very similar to Bōnenkai in that it began during the same time period and is also sponsored by the employer. Shinnenkai celebrations are marked with wishing each other good fortune and luck for the New Year.

Shinnenkai. | Steve Nagata

The main difference between the two celebrations is that in shinnenkai, some of the shogatsu traditions are carried over, such as breaking open a barrel of sake with a wooden hammer, drinking together and making mochi. Japanese are known to be more reserved in expressing feelings to other people. Celebrating shinnenkai is considered a way of showing public displays of gratitude.

Have a fun year end bōnenkai and happy shinnenkai New Year!

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Start the Year Right with Engimono

  • Posted by:
  • January 1, 2015

Many Japanese believe in good and bad fortune. Superstitious beliefs are a big part of Japan’s culture. Most Japanese folklore have roots that can be traced to local customs and are meant to offer practical advice from past lessons learned throughout Japan’s long history.

Engimono288449523_fea1d5bd08_z are lucky charms often given out at New Year events at temples and shrines all around Japan. These lucky charms bring wishes for good luck in harvest, business, health, love, and other endeavors. Many engimono have been passed down over the years and these are also popular souvenirs or gift items from a particular area of Japan.

Engimono shops. |  ivva イワヲ

Some popular Japanese lucky charms:

Omamori – a popular amulet or talisman in Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Sold at most religious sites and dedicated to many different Shinto deities, an omamori is believed to provide protection and good luck to anyone who carries it.

Daruma doll –  spherical in shape with red bodies, white faces, and no pupils. They typically represent Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen. It is customary to paint in one of the doll’s pupils at the beginning of New Year, make a wish, and  if it comes true, to paint in the second pupil. Daruma dolls are supposed to bring good fortune, prosperity, and fortitude to reach goals.

Maneki-neko – “beckoning cat”, typically believed to bring blessings. The figurine is often of a cat with its paw in an upright position as if waving. According to Japanese legend, a landlord witnessed a cat waving a paw at him. Intrigued by this gesture, he came close to the cat when suddenly a lightning bolt struck the exact place he was previously standing in. The landlord believed that his good fortune was because of the cat’s actions. Hence, the beckoning hand became a symbol of good luck. Maneki-neko are mostly found at the entrance of shops, restaurants, and other business establishments. They can serve as other more useful and portable things such as keychains and piggy banks.

7096467125_1fd11bf2a2_zRegional lucky charms:

Shigaraki-yaki No Tanuki (Shiga Prefecture) –  Tanuki means raccoon in Japanese. It is believed to bring blessing for a prosperous business and wealth in the future.

Aka-Fukurou (Tokyo) – Fukurou means owl. Owls are thought to bring good luck. Their red color is supposed to ward evil spirits away.

Shigaraki-yaki No Tanuki. | jpellgen

Shinobi-goma (Iwate Prefecture) – Goma means horse. People of Iwate are known to care for horses. The shinobi-goma engimono is also for wishes for a good harvest.

Akabeko (Fukushima Prefecture) –  Beko means cow. Cows are believed to be powerful and hardworking. The papier-mâché cow with its red coloring is believed to prevent bad luck and keep illnesses away.

Check out this video clip of various engimono by Japan Secret:

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Click image or here.

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Japan’s Cinderella: Lady Saigō

  • Posted by:
  • December 29, 2014

Lady Saigō 450px-Saigo-no-Tsubone2_cropped(西郷の局), Saigō-no-Tsubone, or Oai  (1552-1589) was the first consort and confidante of the samurai lord turned shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who unified Japan in the late sixteenth century.  She was also the mother of the second Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada. Lady Saigō is remembered for greatly influencing Tokugawa Ieyasu’s choice in allies, philosophies, and decisions on policies as he slowly gained power during the latter stages of the Sengoku period, affecting the organization and composition of the Tokugawa shogunate. Lady Saigō came to be regarded as the power behind the throne and was posthumously given the highest honor the Emperor of Japan could bestow upon anyone: the position Senior First Rank of the Imperial Court.

Portrait of Lady Saigō.

Lady Saigō was born in one of the castles belonging to the Saigō clan, Nishikawa Castle. She was initially named Masako and later gained the nickname Oai. Her father, Tadaharu, died in the Battle of Enshu-Omori and her mother re-married to Hattori Masanao. In 1567, Lady Saigō  married her cousin Saigō Yoshikatsu; he later perished at the Battle of Takehiro. They had two children, a son, Saigō Katsutada, and a daughter named Tokuhime. After her husband’s death, Lady Saigō was formally adopted by her uncle Saigō Kiyokazu who was the head of the Saigō clan.

450px-Tokugawa_Ieyasu2Lady Saigō first met Tokugawa Ieyasu when she was around 17, when he visited the Saigō clan. He was served tea by none other than Lady Saigō herself. Nothing came of their first meeting because Lady Saigō was married at the time and Tokugawa Ieyasu was also married to Lady Tsukiyama. Genuine affection only later began to develop in the 1570s and during the Battle of Mikatagahara in 1573 when Tokugawa Ieyasu began confiding in Lady Saigō on different matters and they developed a relationship. Lady Saigō’s advice regarding the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 made a great impact not only in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s career but the history of Japan as well.

Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

In 1578, Lady Saigō moved to Hamamatsu Castle where she quickly gained popularity among the people. Once she had already established a secure and respectable position as the first consort and mother to Takugawa Ieyasu’s heir, she began to focus her wealth and influence on charitable purposes. She was a devout Buddhist who donated money to temples where she resided as consort, and she also established a charitable foundation that assisted visually impaired women.

A true Cinderella story, Lady Saigō rise to power came from humble beginnings.  Though she died relatively young, her legacy is forever remembered in the history of Japan.

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Spectacular Seasonal Illuminations in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • December 25, 2014

In Japan, December is just as busy and festive as in other countries as winter as the holiday season kicks off. Several spectacular events are a must-see while in Japan during the holidays. One of these is the seasonal illuminations.

Seasonal illuminations are a glorious sight in the larger cities all across Japan. The dazzling light displays begin sometime in November and run until New Year or even until Valentine’s Day in February.

Tokyo alone has several breathtaking light displays.

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Roppongi Hills illumination – each year  the light display usually has a different theme.  This 2014, “Artelligent Christmas” is the chosen theme.

Shinjuku illumination – the colorful light display is spread around the Shinjuku Terrace City and more prominently on the Shinjuku Southern Terrace with dancing light shows every ten minutes.

Lights at Shinjuku Southern Terrace. | Keiichi Inoue

Tokyo Dome City – aside from the glorious light displays, Tokyo Dome City has events visitors can enjoy with the adjacent amusement park offering an equally thrilling experience.

3127271189_92bee79b4f_zGinza illumination – Chuo Street in Ginza is usually lined with lit Christmas trees. The “Mikimoto Jumbo Christmas Tree” is the star of the show. Many of the stores also put up their own light display, adding to the already amazing light illuminations.

Mikimoto Christmas tree. | Toru Watanabe

Odaiba illumination – the “Daiba Memorial Tree” is the main attraction of the Odaiba illumination in Odaiba Kaihin Park. Conveniently located at the front of Decks shopping center, visitors can really feel the Christmas spirit while enjoying the beautiful light spectacle.

Other cities also have seasonal illuminations such as Kobe:

Kobe Luminarie13599020864_f0d51be208_z – a light festival commemorating the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, held every December. The lights were donated by the Italian Government and designed by Valerio Festi and Hirokazu Imaoka. Over 200,000 hand-painted lights generated by environmentally friendly biomass light most of the major thoroughfares of Kobe which are closed to traffic during the duration of the light display. Visitors can enjoy the magnificent illuminations that are only turned on for a few hours a day for about two weeks.

Kobe Luminarie. | alexxis

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Celebrating Christmas in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • December 22, 2014

The holiday season gives us a chance to be thankful for whatever blessings we have and to celebrate with family and friends. No matter what part of the world we are from or how we choose to celebrate, the spirit of the season is always a joyous occasion.

The story of Christmas in Japan  began when Christianity was introduced to the country and the very first Christmas service was held in 1552. Today, Christmas is much anticipated. Here are some things to expect.

5288104560_c585d33b13_zOh glorious Christmas cake!

Christmas in Japan wouldn’t be complete without a Christmas cake. The often elaborately decorated sponge cake is almost too pretty to eat. It’s frosted with delicious butter cream or whipped cream and usually decorated with fresh fruits and chocolate. Christmas cakes were introduced in 1910 and were just simple plum cakes decorated with fondant and silver balls. Christmas cakes are now the centerpiece of a Japanese Christmas feast.

Christmas cake from the Morinaka Kobe Roll Cake Factory. | Bert Kimura

333835380_2ebf3a5f9a_zKentucky Fried Chicken scores in Japan

Whoever thought KFC would ever be a traditional Christmas dish? KFC in Japan is the epitome of a Christmas meal. When a group of foreigners could not find turkey in Japan, they opted to have fried chicken instead. KFC saw this as a great marketing opportunity and launched their first Christmas meal in 1974. The fast food chain now gets Christmas orders months in advance.

KFC store in Japan during Christmas. | Fugu Tabetai

Valentines in December

In Japan, Christmas is more of a time to spread the joy of the season rather than a religious celebration. In fact, Christmas in Japan is considered a romantic occasion, much like Valentine’s Day, where couples spend the evenings together strolling along streets lit with beautiful Christmas lights. Couples have a romantic meal and then exchange gifts.

15624841690_fa05778007_zBeethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a Christmas carol

Japan has adopted many of the Western Christmas carols: Silent Night, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful; and why not add Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the list?  The famous composition is referred to as Daiku or Great Nine in Japan. Many Japanese concert theaters feature this classic as part of their Christmas repertoire.

Tokyo Midtown Christmas lights. | Dick Thomas Johnson

No matter how the holiday season is spent all around the world, it’s important not to forget the true essence of the holiday spirit: love. No wonder it’s like Valentine’s in December.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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