Shichi-go-san (The 7-5-3 Festival)


5 Year Old Boy in Hakama

3 Year Old with her Candy

I happened to be at a flea market last weekend which took place near Hakozaki Shrine.  Besides all the wonderful trinkets, antiques and crafts to look at, all these adorable children were dressed up in beautiful traditional outfits.  I then remembered that this was the time of year when most families take their young children to the shrine for blessings.  I started taking pictures as the families made their way to the shrine.

The festival is called Shichi-go-san (7-5-3).  It is celebrated by parents when their children turn 3, 5 and 7 years old.  Odd numbers in Japan are considered lucky, and these early years are considered critical for a child.  It’s basically a day to pray for the healthy growth of your child and to wish them a long and happy life.  The original date of the festival was November 15th, but now it happens anytime during the month of November (I’ve even seen it occur during other times of the year).  It all started some 1300 years ago, but back then only the families of nobles and samurai participated.  Commoners didn’t start taking their children until the Edo Period (1600-1860).

7 Year Old Girl in Her First Obi

Girls aged 3 and 7 get to dress in kimono.  At age 7, the girl is allowed to wear an obi for the first time.  Boys get to go at the age of 5 and get to wear haori jackets and hakama (pleated, but divided) trousers for the first time in public.  I asked the parents of one of the boys if I could take his picture, and he was so excited and proud.  He immediately started showing off his outfit front and back.

The family takes the child to a shrine where they pay a priest to say some prayers.  After the ceremony is over it is customary for the parents to buy long sticks of hard candy (chitose-ame) for the child which is placed in a bag decorated with cranes and turtles (cranes and turtles symbolize longevity).  My last stop before heading home that day was the shrine and I was able to get a few more pictures of some children – including a 3 year old girl whose parents were teaching her to make a peace sign.  She eventually got it and she was so happy!

Shichi-go-san Festival

Their outfits are incredibly beautiful, and I’ve seen the astronomical prices of some in the kimono shops.  It use to be a very expensive occasion for families, but now most families just rent the outfits for a much more reasonable cost.


Our Japanese Baseball Experience

The Dome

Yahoo! Dome Stadium

I am not the most qualified person to write this post, but since my husband is always busy doing his two jobs, I will take a stab at it.

We didn’t have a chance to go to a baseball game last fall, so we really wanted to go this year.  Robert’s birthday was coming up (and he loves baseball) and my niece was coming out for a visit, so I thought this would be the perfect time to go.  The Yahoo! Dome stadium is only a couple of miles away from where we live and Fukuoka’s baseball team is actually pretty darn good.  It just so happened that they became the Pacific League Champions after their previous game.  The boys live and breathe baseball here…way more than in the USA.  They practice ALL the time and for many hours, so we thought the PROS would be amazing to watch.

It was an afternoon game, and we had just come from visiting the fish market.  It was a lovely afternoon, and we had a couple hours to spare so we picked up our tickets and had some lunch before the game.  The “official” English website said we weren’t allowed to bring in food or drinks, but we had extra munchies and brought them in with us anyway.  Within a few minutes of finding our seats, it was obvious that the official “Japanese” website said to ‘Bring in all the food and drinks you can carry’, because they were feasting.

Beer Backpack

The father and son to our right had brought in 50 posters to hold up at various parts of the game.  Young ladies and gents were carrying around kegs of beer to sell beer to the fans.  Everyone came dressed in Hawks shirts (even though very few were actually in the Hawks color yellow.  Most were wearing baby blue or pink…we couldn’t figure that one out.)  They all also carried in  a set of small plastic bats, which they pounded together constantly every time the Hawks were up at bat.

The visiting team was never introduced or recognized.  They had a small cheering section in the back (probably the band that travels with them everywhere they go.)  When the visiting team was at bat, everyone was busy talking and pretty much ignoring what was going on for the most part.  However, when the Hawks were at bat, everyone stood up and followed the cheers of the main cheerleader who was equipped with a megaphone.  They would chant the name of the player up at bat until he either got a hit or an out.   This could have been a completely boring game had there not been the home run and extra runs batted in by the home team.  The English speaking announcer was also annoyingly weird and way too perky.

The balloons

The balloons

Then really strange things started happening.  At the bottom of the sixth, despite a no-hitter, the pitcher was replaced.  Then right before the seventh inning stretch, blue and yellow balloons were being blown up by fans all around us.  The man behind us gave us some balloons to blow up too.  All of these balloons were released at the same time. My niece was very concerned about the spit that was going to be released, but these are special balloons with a protective white mouth piece that prevents such an unsanitary event.  With the Hawks up by 5 and the visiting team looking weak, we expected some people to start leaving… but NO ONE did.  Even at the end of the game, with a guaranteed win….still NO ONE was leaving.  We had to stay, curious as to why.  Well, we got to experience another balloon blow-up and release (mostly white balloons this time), followed by fireworks, and then a ceremonial opening of the dome’s ceiling.  They still weren’t leaving, but we had had enough at this point, so we did.

Living Near the Mongol Wall

Iki-no-Matsubara Stone Fortifications

The Mongol Wall

I’ve known about this wall since we got here and there are several areas in and around the city you can see parts of it.  We finally had an opportunity to ride out to the most popular place to view it as part of a coastal bike ride we took last weekend.

This particular stretch of beach is only about 2-3 miles from where we live.  It contains part of the 12.4 mile long rock wall that was built along the coast almost 750 years ago to keep the Mongols out of Japan.  What is left of the wall is not really that interesting, but the story behind it certainly is.  Right now it reads more like a folk tale than actual history.  In fact, most of what is known about these attempted invasions comes from a scroll written by a samurai who fought in both battles (the scroll was heavily damaged and had to be put back together).  There have since been several archeological investigations to help decipher the myths from the facts.

The Scroll

The Scroll

The gist of the story is that twice the Mongols tried to take over Japan and twice they failed.  With the exception of the occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, these failed invasions are the closest Japan has come to being conquered by a foreign power in the last 1500 years.  The first attempt was in 1274, when an army of some 400+ ships and 40,000 soldiers descended upon 10,000 squabbling, unprepared samurai.  The Japanese were not only vastly outnumbered but their fighting techniques were primitive compared to the Mongols.  Had it not been for some very rough seas one night in November, the Mongols should have been victorious.  Instead they retreated to sea (fearing their ships would be forced onto shore), and headed into a violent storm which supposedly destroyed 1/3 of their ships and drowned 13,000 soldiers, causing the rest of the fleet to abandon the mission.

Up to 15 feet high and 12.4 miles long

The Mongols continued their conquests elsewhere and increased their armies only to return to Japan seven years later.  The first fleet to arrive in Japan had 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers.  The Japanese were more prepared this time with 40,000 samurai, better fighting tactics and their newly built wall.  The evenly matched forces were in a stalemate for 50 days, until the rest of the Mongol forces arrived (3,500 more ships and 100,000 more men).  Now the Japanese were faced with a force three times their size and were in serious danger of being taken over.   Then a massive typhoon rolled into Hakata Bay destroying nearly every enemy ship and drowning all but a few thousand Mongols.  These coincidental storms that protected the Japanese both times gave rise to their belief that they were protected by ‘divine winds’ (kamikaze) and that no foreign power could take them over.  Interesting enough, this was also the first time the samurai fought for the sake of Japan and not amongst themselves.

It really doesn’t matter what the details of these battles end up being, the point is that the mongols never conquered Japan.  It’s odd to think how different Japan would be had these battles gone the other way.  And it’s just plain cool to be living where these events took place.


Winter Wrapup

Where has the time gone?  In less than four months we will be done with our first year in Japan.  January and February flew by.  We’ve had lots of little events over the last 8 weeks, so we thought we’d wrap them into a summary post.  I have to admit, after New Zealand, most events almost don’t seem worthy of a post; however, we have had some interesting experiences that we don’t want to forget, and want to share with you.

Chuck Wagon Bar

1) The Country Western Bar Downtown:  It was a night out for the whole school….an “All You Can Eat & Drink” – choice of various types of bar food, whiskey, beer and box wine (ha!) courtesy of the Chairman of the Board of Directors.  He apparently is a big Country Western fan and frequents this place a lot (but he’s obviously not a wine drinker).  This place even had a live band singing various honky tonk songs!  I was actually really surprised such a place existed here…but it does and they do a pretty good job creating the right atmosphere.  It’s not a very big place, but somehow we all managed to fit in….and a few people even “danced”.  I was actually hoping there would be a nice big thick steak and baked potato there, but no such luck.  They had pizza, pasta, salad, sausage, some rice dishes, and various other finger foods instead.  And as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t get use to the Japanese band dressed in cowboy hats and tight blue jeans.  It was almost as entertaining as seeing the Japanese waiters dressed in Mexican attire at El Barracho.  They just shouldn’t do it.  I wish I would have remembered to bring my camera to this event, however, the images in my mind still won’t go away.

Van Gogh Exhibit

Van Gogh Exhibit

2) The Van Gogh Exhibit at the National Museum in Dazaifu:  This was truly a delight to see.  It was so good, we almost went back to see it again.  I’ve been to other exhibits and been disappointed by the number of actual paintings on loan of the featured artist(s) you get to see – and how far away you have to be from them, so I didn’t have high expectations going to this one.  Well….to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, there must have been a hundred of Van Gogh works there AND you could literally get within inches of them.  It was amazing to see all the detail, the depth, and the brush strokes!  The way the paintings were arranged, the progression of his work from his first sketches to his most famous paintings was very apparent.  Occasionally, there would be works from other famous painters that were either from the same era or which influenced his style.  I would have loved to have taken pictures in there, but (even if I was allowed) pictures just can’t capture stuff like that yet.  I also need to mention the number of people that were there…we were nearly packed in there like sardines!  At times it was almost frustrating, but fortunately, they were able to keep the lines moving so that you could eventually see everything.  You were also allowed to go back if you wanted to see something again.  It was like walking through a maze, but it took you by every piece of work.  I suppose the narrow halls would have bothered those individuals who like to study paintings from a distance, but I find his work more enjoyable close up.  The only painting that wasn’t there that we would have really liked to see was Starry Night.  Everyone seemed to have a different favorite.  I’m not sure I could choose just one.  Oddly enough, Van Gogh happens to resemble the person that works in the library with me…the students had a good chuckle with that.  Lucky for him, he knows who to ‘dress up’ as for Halloween next year.

3) The Prom Lunch Fundraisers:  As some of you might know, Robert is in charge of the Junior class who is in charge of funding and planning the Prom.  After some initial frustration (and a temper tantrum) he decided to take it on by doing something he enjoys doing:  cooking!  So he planned 4 lunches at the school in order to raise money.  One time we made Chicken Soup (which went over well with the healthy eaters) and the other three times we made Chili (which was enjoyed by all, including the junk food addicts).  We had to go a little low on the spiciness meter for the children, but that was easily remedied for us adults with some Tabasco sauce.  Anyway, all these lunches meant we’ve been going to Costco every other weekend and loading up on beef, beans, onions, tomatoes, corn, and various spices (I also loaded up on wine & cheese 🙂 ).  We chopped and prepped on Sunday afternoons.  Robert got up early on Mondays to get the stuff cooking…the whole school smelled wonderful!  The last batch was perfection.  There was absolutely nothing left over….no bowls, no spoons, no cheese, no sour cream.  It was awesome.  Makes me want to do it again….alas, they have made enough ¥ now, so chili will not be on any future lunch menus. 🙁

Fukuoka’s Central Fish Market

Fresh Fish

LOTS of Fresh Fish

Rose and I decided to check out the Central Fish Market this morning.  It is only open to the general public one Saturday a month and today was the day.  We wanted to get there early so we could see the “best fish”.  But, I must admit, we really had not put much thought into the idea of actually buying fish.  Seriously, how would we get it home and where would we put it?  We got off the subway at Akasaka station and headed north.  As we made our way along the 3-4 blocks to the market we quickly realized that we did not have all of the required equipment.  People were heading to/from the market pulling along their wheeled luggage.  The bags being pulled by people coming from the market all had the tails of fish sticking out of them…and who knows what else was on the inside.  I suspect that these once used pieces of luggage have become special-purpose fish toting equipment.  Could you really imagine packing one of these bags full of your “finest” clothes after it had been stuffed full with fresh fish?  I don’t think so.

Restaurant on Walk Home

Cool Seafood Restaurant near Fish Market

We made it to the market and just sort of followed the crowd to get to the right building.  It reminded me of the farmer’s market in Georgia that we would go to about once a month as a child. Except, instead of fresh vegetables and fruit (okra and peaches) the market here is focused on fresh seafood (tuna, flounder, crab, shrimp…).  A couple of the vendors at the stalls tried to get us to buy things – although I think they were more focused on entertaining themselves (and us) by making fun of the gaijin who could not speak Japanese – in a fun-loving way.  However, we did get to watch a live lesson on filleting a fish – picture the guy at Costco with the juice machine – it didn’t look too hard, I need to give it a try.

We left the market and continued a LONG walk to Tenjin and then all the way back through Ohori-koen to catch the subway back home.  Also, on our walk to Tenjin from the market, we saw a cool looking seafood restaurant that we definitely have to go back and try when it is open (it was 10am and Rose refused to eat seafood for breakfast).  If you are interested in going, let us know…of course, this is directed at those in Fukuoka.

I would definitely recommend taking a trip to the Central Fish Market if you find yourself in Fukuoka on that one day a month when it is open to us common folk. And don’t forget to bring your suitcase!

Daisaitogomaku “Fire” Festival

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Atago Fire Festival

Robert had some work to catch up on today, so I went with a couple of other teachers to our local shrine (Atago) to see it’s biggest festival.  There is not a lot of information about it in English other than “it is a fire festival during which participants overcome adversities and purify their souls by walking barefoot on burning coals”.   How could you not want to go see that?  We got there early so we could watch the whole ceremony from beginning to end.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  There was a young shrine “helper” who spoke some English that explained a few things to us.  We bought some long wooden sticks and wrote our ‘dreams and wishes’ on them.  He informed us that they would eventually be thrown into the bonfire where the ‘prayer’ could make it’s way to heaven.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Burning of the Prayers

The festival started with chanting and singing, and then a procession of the Shinto priests into the shrine hall for prayer.  They eventually made their way out of the hall, where one priest cut the rope surrounding the ceremonial grounds with his sword so all the priests could enter.  This was followed by a series of priests (in pairs) performing different rituals to prepare for the bonfire.  Arrows were shot in four different directions, axes were swung around the burn pile, and a series of other blessings (both verbal and physical) were performed until the torches were blessed and lit.  The head priest sang from his scroll and the pile was set on fire.  Then the drumming and chanting began.  This went on for about an hour while the fire burned.  The crowd (including me) was allowed to throw the wooden prayers into the fire.   The priests attended to the flames…allowing it to burn, yet keeping it under control with holy water.  The constant rhythm of the drums and chanting was almost hypnotizing.  The priests had large wooden prayers which were thrown in last.  The fire was finally allowed to die down.  The priests then began raking the coals and spreading them out.  Finally, a pathway was created through the center of the hot coals using a large bamboo tree trunk.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Walking on the Coals

The observers started taking off their socks and shoes. Our shrine ‘helper’ informed us it was OK for us to walk across if we wanted.  The priests and priestesses went across first, then the observers – of all ages.  Maureen decided she was going to walk on the coals.  I thought about crossing it, but I figured my soul doesn’t need any purifying :).  Actually, I would definitely do it next year if Robert is interested in seeing it.  After the last participant finished the walk, we watched the priests put out the rest of the flames.  The day was still young, so I even had time to head out and do some Christmas shopping.

Sumo Mania

Nihon Kyokai Grand Sumo

Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka

We went to the Nihon Kyokai Grand Sumo Tournament downtown Friday afternoon.  After a few matches of trying to figure out what was going on, we really started to enjoy the event.  We would go again in the future without hesitation.  The auditorium isn’t that big, so even though we didn’t have the best seats we could easily see everything going on.  Next time we’d like to be closer to the action though.  Now, Sumo wrestling is nothing like western-style wrestling.  Sumo matches are more interesting, and the actual bout only lasts about a minute (and sometimes only a few seconds).  We only watched the last couple hours of the day. Next time we’d like to go for a full day.  When we got home, we read the booklet they gave us which covered the history of the sport as well as the rules, the rankings, and the ceremonial rituals involved. There so much going on it’s hard to go into all the detail, but here are some of the basics:

Nihon Kyokai Grand Sumo

The Match

Sumo wrestling has been around for over 1500 years.  It’s origins are religious and that is why there is a roof resembling a Shinto shrine hanging over the ring (dohyo).  The four tassels hanging from each corner of the roof represent the four seasons.  The ring is constructed out of rice straw bales covered with a special clay and a thin layer of sand.  There are no weight limits in sumo, so it’s very possible a wrestler (rikishi) could have a much larger opponent.   The wrestlers are promoted/demoted according to their win/loss record (except for the rare few that reach the highest rank, only 69 in the last 300 years).  At the start of each match the names of the opponents are introduced in a monotone pitch that is similar to a slow chant.  Over the next 4 minutes, they go through a series of spiritual rituals including rinsing their mouth with water, wiping their body with a towel (both for purification),  and throwing salt into the ring (for protection against injuries).  They also face each other several times with the goal of intimidation (including staring, clapping, stomping, and raising their legs).   This also gets the crowd excited about the match swaying them to chose a side.  The loser of a match is the first one to (a) have any portion of his body go outside the ring or (b) to touch the ground inside the ring with something other than the soles of his feet.  The loser leaves the ring.  The winner is presented with an envelope on a fan, that he ‘blesses’ and then takes with him.  That envelope contains his prize money.

There are so many other interesting things related to this sport including the opening and closing ceremonies, the clothing the participants wear, the role of the judges, and the life and training of the Sumo wrestler.  It’s also kind of fun to see their big buns and bellies :).

Click to see: Our Sumo Video

Korean Day

FIS Korean Day 2010

Opening Ceremonies

FIS Korean Day 2010

Tae Kwon Do

The Korean Junior International Chamber of Commerce hosted a Korean Day at FIS this year (for the 1st time). FIS has a large contingent of Korean students and this was the chamber’s way of saying thanks. Plus it was also an excellent opportunity to advertise Korea. They did a hell of a job! The whole day was fantastic.  The videos and cultural activities were informative and fun.  I have to say the whole experience got me excited about taking an extended trip to South Korea (I will avoid the North for now).

The best part of the day was the Korean barbecue. The Japanese don’t eat that much beef and pork but the Korean’s sure do. They had the grills going outside and the smell just before lunch was driving me crazy. I was hungry!

FIS Korean Day 2010

The Barbecue Pits

FIS Korean Day 2010

Korean Mom’s Cooking

Once the elementary school finished up their lunch the high school quickly moved into the lobby and sat down to a super-sized dose of protein. There was beef, chicken, pork, different sausages along with noodles, sushi-like rolls, and kimchi. Most of the teachers (including me) just kept eating – and they kept bringing the food. I haven’t had much beef in the last 3 months (maybe twice) but I did my best to make up for it today.

I hope that Korean Day at FIS becomes an annual tradition. I sure enjoyed it, and I know all the students did too. What a wonderful way to learn more about the Korean culture – and their cuisine.

Exploring Downtown Hakata

Enoteca Wine Shop

Wine at the Enoteca

A couple of weeks ago we took the subway to the Hakata area of downtown to check out the Kawabata Shopping Arcade, Kushida Shrine, and some temples we missed the last time we were there. Hakata is a suburb of Fukuoka, but it used to be a separate city.  A river runs through the center of downtown, and Hakata is basically on the east side, whereas Fukuoka is on the west side.

My favorite find of the day was the Enoteca in the basement of Eeny Meeny Miny Mo (yes, there is actually a department store with that name).  It has a great selection of French and Italian wines.  Had it not been 10 o’clock in the morning and our first stop, we probably would have depleted our savings there.  We weren’t going to tote around wine all day, so we passed on any purchases, but at least I know where it is.

Finally made it to the shrine...what a relief!

Interesting Fountain at Kushida Shrine

We crossed over the street and walked through the covered shopping arcade glancing in all the shops.  This is the oldest shopping area in the city.  There is a good variety of merchandise in there as well as some yummy food stalls.  I’ll have to come back some rainy day to do some damage shopping.   At the end of this street was an entrance to Kushida Shrine (which was founded in 757 when Hakata was designated as the base of trade between China and Japan).  On the grounds is a gigantic ginkgo tree (which is so large it is has several supports holding it up).  It is believed to be about 1,000 years old.  I like how some of these really old shires have an eery feeling about them, and I enjoy reading about their history and seeing all the artifacts associated with them.  I think that is why I don’t tire of visiting them.  There were lots of interesting things to see here, but Robert was especially amused by the fountain of the little boy peeing.

Shofukuji Temple

Shofukuji Temple Grounds

Next, we were off to find the ‘grove of temples’.  It’s actually called the Teramachi Area on my Fukuoka Now map.  It was about a 10 minute walk through a fairly busy part of the city, but once we got back there, the streets were narrow and it was exceptionally quiet.  The first temple we came to was Shofukuji Temple, which is Japan’s oldest Zen temple and the place where tea was first introduced in Japan.  The old twisty pines were kind of cool, but I was a bit disappointed that the actual temple was not open to the public.  The second temple, Tochoji Temple, houses the largest sitting statue of Buddha made out of wood (40 feet tall).  We couldn’t take a picture of it (as photos are prohibited),  but it was worth the visit.  The third temple, Jotenji,  is the birthplace of udon and soba noodles.  We never made it to Jotenji because (ironically) we were starving and thus headed back into town to get a bite to eat (and buy lots of those macaroons Robert fell in love with the last time we were there).  Those macaroons by the way…are long gone. : (

Yusentei Garden

Yusentei Garden in the Fall

Yusentei Garden in the Fall

After visiting Rakusuien Garden in September, I have been wanting to find it’s sister garden….Yusentei Garden.

Well, my quest has been fulfilled!

Since we had another gloriously beautiful day, we decided to ride our bikes to this garden and view some more fall colors.  After a fairly long bike ride (I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to get there), we arrived at the entrance.  This was obviously ‘the thing’ to do today.  There were plenty of other people there snapping pictures of everything they saw and a couple older women painting.  I could write about how beautiful this place was or better yet….you can just view the pictures.