PICA Things We Love

Happy Women's Day!

ThoughtsAlyonaComment

To all my fellow girls out there: I raise a glass in celebration of all that makes us unique, special, and simply amazing. To making the world strong, beautiful and exceptional since the dawn of humanity! Cheers!

New Year’s Visit to Yokohama’s Chinatown

Photo JourneyAlyona1 Comment

The first day of this year’s Spring Festival fell on a Saturday, flooding Yokohama’s Chinatown—Japan’s and Asia’s largest—with a sea of people. On this warm, sunny weekend many came out here in hopes of observing the lion dance, an auspicious traditional custom that brings luck and prosperity to its benefactors.

We have seen plenty of lion dances in Toronto’s Pacific Mall, where the crowd always seemed manageable. We weren’t prepared for this though. People flooded the streets. And despite the audible rhythmic beats hinting that a lion dance was going on right around the corner, there was no way to see or come close to it. Patiently waiting, we stayed put, enduring the pushing and pulling of the crowd in order to be able to snap a couple of shots of the lion’s head. I was beginning to feel like a real paparazzi here.

This is the first time I really envied the fellow avid photographers, who came prepared with an extendable tripod allowing them to observe and record everything from above. After what seemed like forever, my hands were starting to give in, and I finally began to feel the full weight of my SLR. At this point I noticed that whenever the lion’s head became slightly visible, smartphones bloomed above heads. This is when I knew it was my cue to prop my camera up as high as I could above everyone. However, my height being somewhat average here mostly got me some artsy photos of cellphone screens.

I did get that lion at last! A testament to endurance and will!

Behind us we suddenly heard an extraordinarily loud popping as the air began to fill with smoke. It took me a minute to realize what just happened. Firecrackers! It might sound childish, but it was so cool! Come to think of it, it was the first time I saw firecrackers live. At that moment I truly felt like a kid.

Hungry from excitement, endurance, and perhaps a very light breakfast, we beelined to a shop right nearby specializing in fried xiaolongbao or shouronpou (小籠包) as Japanese like to call it. Fried xiaolongbao is somewhat a popular delicacy here, with many shops competing for customer patronage. The closest one claiming to be number one and well loved by TV programs looking for best eats around the town was our first victim. Famished and nostalgic for the meaty dumpling soup goodness, we got ourselves the nikuman (肉まん, meat buns or bao) and sesame covered fried xiaolongbao. The result was heavenly.

Heading back outside we heard the music again. The crowd thickened. This is when we knew that we got a second chance at catching the lion. And this time we were right in the middle of the happening.

Success! The lion in all its full-bodied beauty!

Feeling full and happy with our accomplishments, we continued along the streets of Chinatown, along the steady crowd, firecracker smoke, and colourful architectural sights.

Got another lion along the way!

There were many kids, but this is the only one that caught my eye dressed in all her festive attire.

We took a turn into one of the narrow back streets, feeling transported into a whole new, yet visibly aged, side of Chinatown not seen directly through the gates.

At dusk the streets began to dance with light. The brightly and colourfully lit up shop signs and the overhanging lanterns illuminated the dark crowded streets. It really reminded me of the Hayao Miyazaki’s scene in Spirited Away, when Chihiro just lost the sight of her parents in an odd seemingly abandoned town that as the sun set lighted up in colours of lit up lanterns, filling with spirit and lively chatter. Here people began to crowd around food stalls and side shops, munching on the savoury goodness Chinatown was eager to offer.

Lined up ducks at this fancy place specializing in Peking duck dish. Will definitely pay it a visit one day.

Lined up ducks at this fancy place specializing in Peking duck dish. Will definitely pay it a visit one day.

One of the stores had this cute display.

More firecrackers!

More firecrackers!

One more firecracker display caught on camera. I think both firecrackers and fireworks are something magical. No matter how many times you see it in your life, it always brings you back to childhood, making you feel like a kid all over again.

The day was coming to a close, so we decided to have a parting meal featuring another set of those delicious fried xiaolongbao. This time we tried another vendor priding itself on being featured on Japanese TV. Its staple set of three kinds of fried xiaolongbao was beyond amazing—a great parting meal!

The chicken has hatched! Gong Hei Fat Choy!!!

ThoughtsAlyonaComment

Happy Chinese New Year! A year of accomplishing all our ambitions!

Today we are ringing in the year of the Red Rooster. The diligent and earnest Rooster under the fire element urges a rewarding and venturesome year ahead for us. This is the year to realize those goals and ambitions you have been setting for yourself all this time. The Red Rooster will sure be there for you to see all of this achieved with fervour and zeal.

It is also the year to shine! Embrace the Rooster’s love for perfection, vanity, and self-assurance to exhibit and boast about your best work, achievements, and accomplishments.

So set your goals, and be fearless! Make the best of the Red Rooster year by taking your objectives seriously with fire, energy, and full on determination!

Shimokitazawa→Sangenjaya Photo Stroll

Japanese Culture, Photo JourneyAlyonaComment

The weather in Tokyo this winter has been more than agreeable—sunny and warm—perfect for an odd stroll around the city. It has been over a year since I got to catch up with one of my good Japanese friends, so we decided to meet up and do a little walking around Shibuya / Setagaya areas. We chose to stay away from all the hustle and bustle, and take on a route along the quiet streets of Shimokitazawa and Sangenjaya instead.

Shimokitazawa (下北沢), or “Shimokita” as the locals like to call it, is a short ride from the boisterous touristy Shibuya station via the Keio Inokashira line. Full of narrow streets packed with the indie second hand shops and fashion outlets, quirky cafés, bars, art scene, and music venues, Shimokita has that Harajuku feel, albeit less crowded and noisy. Its architectural essence feels organic, tangled by the chaotic interweaving of the narrowing streets, boasting its eclectic storefronts and its notorious laid-back vibe.

Sangenjaya (三軒茶屋), on the other hand, located in Setagaya, is a 30 min walk from Shimokitazawa on the south end of Tokyo. In history Sangenjaya is known as the quiet rest stop frequented by the travelling countryside folk before entering the old Tokyo city, thus earning its name, lit. translated as “three tea houses”. Locals also began to call it “Sancha” for short, meaning “three teas”. It is a tightly knit old Tokyo neighbourhood community, filled with old-style traditional wooden houses, small cafés, restaurants, and peculiar old shops nestled along the narrow quiet tree lined streets.

Pancakes at a recently opened pancake café, Flipper’s, in Shimokitazawa.

Pancakes at a recently opened pancake café, Flipper’s, in Shimokitazawa.

We began our day around noon over a delicious spread of Japanese pancakes at a small café minutes away from the Shimokitazawa station. Shortly after strolling among the small shops in the area, we decided to start our pilgrimage towards Sangenjaya. It was an exceptionally sunny and warm day for January, so we were eager to start our walk.

This is when my travelling companion suggested we start in the direction of the nearby Shinto shrine, the Kitazawa Hachiman Jinja (北澤八幡神社). It is a quaint hillside Shinto shrine, about a ten minute walk from the station, nestled among the towering trees and narrow winding roads. Beautifully adorned in brightly coloured carvings, the temple emanated warmth and tranquility.

Built more than 500 years ago in the Bunmei era (文明, 1469~86) putting the area under divine protection, the shrine consists of the main hall building, and a number of adorned miniature side shrines along its grounds.

Daruma-san overseeing the Kitazawa Hachiman Jinja.

Daruma-san overseeing the Kitazawa Hachiman Jinja.

The Chinese zodiac animals outside the ground keeper's building.

The Chinese zodiac animals outside the ground keeper's building.

As we approached the main building and made our prayers, my companion suddenly took out a small notebook and proceeded in the direction of a small tucked away building, where she rang the bell. As the grounds keeper opened the door, she asked for a “goshuin” and promptly handed over the notebook. At this point my curiosity took over, and I began to ask as to what exactly was going on here. What I didn’t know, is that I just stumbled upon one of the Japan’s best kept secrets.

Goshuin
Goshuin (御朱印: 御 (go or o, honorific syllable added at the beginning of certain words); 朱 (shu, red/orange ink: vermilion colour often seen at Shinto shrines); 印 (in, stamp)), “the honourable red stamp”, is a seal stamp received by worshippers visiting the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples around Japan. The shuin are created by stamping the unique shrine or temple seal and then writing a messages around that seal using an expert calligraphy technique in black ink. These seal stamps are traditionally made by the 神主 (kannushi, Shinto priest) or the Buddhist monks, and usually cost about ¥‎300.

These stamps are collected in a small specialty book called goshuin-cho (御朱印帳), which can also be purchased from the shrines and temples themselves. The paper in the book is folded in accordion style, allowing you to open all the pages at once to reveal the gorgeous calligraphy design compositions.

Honestly speaking, I think it is a genius idea for a very personal keepsake from Japan. It is something that can only be acquired through one's travels to these shrines, which also makes it an amazing souvenir to bring home for that someone special.

Excited about the prospect of getting more goshuin stamps, we decided to plan our walk so that we hit the next temples or shrines on our way to Sangenjaya. Avoiding the main streets and the traffic, we continued to walk deeper and deeper into the neighbourhood, taking in the sites of the old and the new Tokyo residential architecture.

In mere minutes we hit the next temple: Ensen-ji (円泉寺), located right in between the two stations. It is a beautiful quiet temple featuring the many iconic Buddhist temple treasures.

Spring is in the air!

Spring is in the air!

Dating back to the late Nambokucho period (南北朝時代, Nanbokucho jidai, also known as the Northern and Southern Courts period, from 1336 through 1392), this temple was designated as No.51 of the Eighty-eight Holy Places of Tamagawa (the 88 temples along the Tama river).

Statue of Kobo Daishi (弘法大師修行像, koubou daishi shugyou zou, high monk of ascetic practices statue), (posthumous title of Kuukai) as a Wandering Ascetic.

Statue of Kobo Daishi (弘法大師修行像, koubou daishi shugyou zou, high monk of ascetic practices statue), (posthumous title of Kuukai) as a Wandering Ascetic.

Tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog, a popular icon in Japanese folklore and proverbs.

Tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog, a popular icon in Japanese folklore and proverbs.

Kosodate Enmei Jizou-son (子育延命地蔵尊), the Child-rearing Jizou of Longevity), made in 1791, noting the popular Jizou worship in the area. Jizou is a bodhisattva, who looks over children, travellers, and the underworld.

Kosodate Enmei Jizou-son (子育延命地蔵尊), the Child-rearing Jizou of Longevity), made in 1791, noting the popular Jizou worship in the area. Jizou is a bodhisattva, who looks over children, travellers, and the underworld.

A small Tanuki hiding on the side of the Kosodate Enmei Jizou-son shrine.

A small Tanuki hiding on the side of the Kosodate Enmei Jizou-son shrine.

Leaving the temple we began to close in on the Sangenjaya area. The streets got narrower. The houses got older and denser. The small iconic food shops began to appear around every corner. The streets began to fill with clamour.

Walking through the main central shopping area jammed with small eclectic shops, we finally came across our last and final Buddhist temple spot for the day: Saisho-ji (最勝寺).

Built in the beginning of the 19th century, the Saisho-ji consists of very spacious grounds featuring the main building, a narrow street of closely built adjacent buildings as well as a small cemetery, located just minutes away from the Sangenjaya station.

The Saisho-ji (最勝寺) goshuin.

The Saisho-ji (最勝寺) goshuin.

On the way back to the Sangenjaya station, we came across this miniature train line that reminded me of the streetcars back home. Tucked away from the main street, it is only 5 km long, and boasts some of the most colourful two-cart trains I have ever seen: mint green, sky blue, bright yellow, and magenta to name a few.

Shimokitazawa and Sangenjaya are some of the oldest neighbourhoods around Tokyo. They are not too far away from each other, so choosing to commute by foot between them on a pleasant sunny day can open up a whole new side of Tokyo not available on the tourist map destinations!

Our Meiji Shrine Hatsumode Photo Journey

Japanese Culture, Photo JourneyAlyona1 Comment

The second day of the year was an unusually warm day. The sun was shining bright beckoning us to put on our jackets and get outside, away from our couch, TV, and Netflix. After sleeping in into late afternoon and lounging around for the rest of the New Year’s Day, the next day we felt it was time to finally get ourselves dressed and head over to Meiji Jingu to pay our respects for the year before and pray for health and prosperity for the year to come. It was time to do our hatsumode.

Hatsumode (初詣で) is a cultural event of one’s first visit of a shrine or temple to greet the gods in the New Year, commonly within the first three days of the year (January 1st to 3rd). Meiji Jingu (明治神宮, Meiji Shrine) is relatively new, established in 1920—less than a century ago, and located in Harajuku district of Tokyo. It is, however, the most famous shrine to visit during hatsumode. Over the length of the first three days of the year Meiji Jingu welcomes over three million visitors. In its entire course of the year ten million visit the shrine, making the hatsumode period its busiest time of the year. This shrine’s spirit power is believed to be in romance and marriage as well as keeping the evil spirits away. So it is not hard to see why Meiji Jingu has such strong standing in popularity amongst other places of worship within Tokyo Metropolis.

It is important for us and PICA to start the new year on a positive note, and within only a 30 minute train ride and its longstanding favourable reputation Meiji Jingu was a definite hatsumode choice for us.

We finally arrived at Harajuku station as the sun was beginning to descend, approaching twilight. The station was unusually busy as we exited the train on the opposite side of the usual platform across the tracks. Aware of the hatsumode crowd the station opened a special entrance/exit point located closer to the shrine grounds. Normally this entrance is closed and the platform is empty, leaving me always to assume that it is an old and long forgotten part of the 110 year old station. That day it became as clear as the summer’s sky that it has a purpose essential to the New Year’s shrine pilgrimage.

As we exited the station the crowd urged us in the direction of the shrine. In mere minutes we found ourselves underneath the main torii (鳥居, Shinto shrine archway or gate) leading to the Meiji Jingu shrine complex. Here in the green wooded area the crowd spread out and we began to stroll along towards the shrine. The shrine itself is nestled deep in the park with a long forest pathway leading the visitors in. This is perhaps my most favourite spot in Tokyo. Away from all the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s urban roar, the towering trees completely block out the outside noise. All around you are the trees, the sky, and the rocky road. It is very serene and calming. Perfect.

As we approached and passed by the second torii, the crowd began to thicken, until we all finally came to a complete stop. We were only halfway through, and what opened up ahead of us was a sea of people.

We patiently waited along with the crowd for what seemed to be an hour. Slowly progressing for some distance and then once again coming to a halt. We soon realized that the grounds were well guarded by police officers, some with signs guiding the crowd when to stop and to proceed. All in all it was a very long and orderly procession. People around us were quietly talking, taking picture of their surrounds from above. Some were even reading a book—smart and clearly prepared.

Officer holding a sign indicating to wait. Up ahead officer with a sign facing the green 'to proceed' side.

Officer holding a sign indicating to wait. Up ahead officer with a sign facing the green 'to proceed' side.

It was beginning to get dark when we finally approached the main building. The final part seemed to take forever as we slowly waited to take our turn to come close to the offering ground. Some seemed to have lost the patience and began to toss the coins over the crowd’s heads. As we had no clue where or how far the offering ground was, we patiently waited to come as close to it as possible. When we did, we threw in our coins, thanked the gods for their blessings and prayed for new ones in the new year. (See at the end: How to Pray at Shinto Shrine)

Feeling great and in high spirits, we left the praying crowd as we walked by the omamori (お守り, protection charm or amulet) vending stalls on our way out. Many, to protect themselves in the new year, were actively stocking up on small pouches of brocaded silk housing a small piece of paper with a prayer written on it. Each omamori charm has a unique purpose: to ward off evil or to aid in romance, safety, study, etc. It is thought to be a great way to take a piece of shrine’s spirit and power along on the road. For more on the variety of omamori check out Tofugu’s “Omamori: Protecting Yourself in Little Ways” post.

At the end of the road leading outside the Meiji Jingu grounds we found ourselves overwhelmed by the best part of the Japanese festival tradition, the yatai (屋台, food cart or stall). Here yatai were filled with all kinds of scrumptious Japanese festival foods. There were crab, yaki-soba, jagabata (potato in butter), grilled squid, karaage (fried chicken), chocolate bananas, and many more. The delicious smell was everywhere, absorbing itself into the air surrounding us. And the heated smoke coming from the stalls kept us toasty on this cold winter night.

Japanese New Year decorations.

Japanese New Year decorations.

After our long and stomach-stuffing walk through the yatai, we took a turn towards the Takeshita street and treated ourselves to a sweet heavenly Japanese crêpe. A perfect way to end the evening on a high note.

Custard and chocolate banana crêpe.

Custard and chocolate banana crêpe.

How to Pray at Shinto Shrine
Visiting a Shinto shrine and would like to pray the right way? Here are a couple of steps to remember:

First, throw in a ¥5 coin into the offering box. ¥5 (五円), pronounced as go-en, is a homophone to 御縁 (go-en), “good relations”. Using a ¥5 coin as an offering is thus considered to be auspicious when making a wish.

Then bow twice, clap twice and continue to make a prayer.

When finished, bow once.

Happy New Year! It’s 2017!!!

ThoughtsAlyonaComment

The day has finally come! It is a brand new year. Clean slate. A chance to start all over or build upon the awesome stuff you have achieved the year before. It is a year for new opportunities, grand plans, and wild possibilities to shine in new light. It is a hatching egg for new ambitions, aspirations, and reaching your goals. We’ll only have 2017 once, so we urge you to make the best of it!

At PICA we absolutely loved our 2016. We made big plans. We worked hard to reach our goals. We moved across the world (again). It has been a great and kind year to us. We wish that this year we’ll be just as great, and with some extra love and dedication, perhaps even greater. And that is what is truly amazing about the start of a brand new year—the prospect of attaining and even surpassing one’s ambitions. Just think about it: next year on New Year’s Eve you could be toasting to something incredible that you had no idea was coming! After all, the world has a way of surprising us now and then.

We wish that this year the world will be kind, bright, and giving to all of us. That there won’t be limits we won’t surpass. That we’ll have the courage to make bold plans. And we’ll have the means to make these plans a reality. The chicken is hatching. And with it are the new prospects for achieving that formidable greatness. Happy New Year, friends! Happy new everything!

Cheers!!

Oshogatsu, the New Year in Japan

Japanese Culture, ThoughtsAlyonaComment

The New Year is just around the corner, and I honestly couldn’t wait for the day to come. Personally, I have always felt that New Year is the biggest, most important day of the year. Growing up in Russia it was definitely the most exciting day of the year. A somewhat of a Christmas and Thanksgiving fusion of lively winter holiday music, “New Year” tree adorned in ornate glass ornaments and string lights shimmering in the corner, Father Frost bearing gifts, a generous feast, endless supply of sparkling wine, and fireworks—New Year celebration is a party for the old and the young from sundown till daybreak. It is the grandest day of the year that is all about the family, and is celebrated traditionally as such. We have a saying: “The way you spend New Year’s Eve is the way you will spend the rest of the year”. And wouldn’t you agree that food, fun, laughter, and love are the most important ingredients for a wishful happy New Year.

In Canada I feel that New Year celebration is always second place to Christmas. The atmosphere following the 25th would suddenly change. The cheer would fade. The decorations removed. The festive store shelves emptied. It just isn’t the same. New Year in Japan, however, is a whole different story. Similarly to the Russian spirit of New Year celebration, following Christmas the festivities to do not end there. They are just beginning. For New Year here is the biggest as well as the longest holiday of the year. It is once again all about the food, the family, and New Year fortune. And in truly Japanese way, it is also curiously unique.

The Oshogatsu Tradition
Oshogatsu (お正月) is the first month of the year, January, but most commonly associated with its first three days known as 三が日 (san-ga-nichi). These three days are spent visiting shrines, extended family members, and friends. The entire country takes a break from its busy life to enjoy and celebrate what really matters.

The preparation for Oshogatsu (正月事始め, shogatsu-koto-hajime) begins early in December. There is a lot of work to be done, making it for most families the busiest month of the year. It starts off with cleaning. Not just any cleaning, the susuharai (煤払い) cleaning—similar to spring cleaning in the West, but in December. Literally meaning to brush off the soot, the practice dates back to the 17th century, when the common folk began to follow the custom first established at the Edo Castle in 1640 of cleaning ones household to purify and welcome the god of the New Year (年神, toshigami). Today many families will take the time to show their home some love in hopes of beckoning luck and prosperity on the New Year’s Day.

Any celebration is not the same without the decorative tokens of the festivities. The same goes for Oshogatsu. As Christmas comes to a close, families will begin to take down the Western decor and replace it with 正月飾り (shogatsu-kazari, New Year’s decorations). The Oshogatsu custom comes from the early harvest thanksgiving and ancient religious practices; reflecting this are the festive decorations prevailing today. The main three are kadomatsu, shimenawa, and kagami mochi.

Kadomatsu. Photo by katorisi.

Kadomatsu. Photo by katorisi.

Kadomatsu (門松), literally ‘gate pine’, is a pine and bamboo decoration placed at the entrance, usually in pairs, of one's home or shop. It can begin to be seen around by mid-December until January 7th, commonly featuring three bamboo shoots cut diagonally in different lengths, pine, and a base made of straw. The bamboo and pine are linked to the Shinto belief of god spirits residing in trees, and are symbolical as they represent longevity, strength, and prosperity. The different lengths of the bamboo denote the heaven, humanity, and earth from tallest to shortest respectively.

Shimenawa. Photo by kazue1984.

Shimenawa. Photo by kazue1984.

Shimenawa (しめ縄) is a braided straw rope that can often be found in Shinto shrines to mark or enclose sacred areas as a talisman against evil. The Oshogatsu shimenawa or shimekazari (しめ飾り) is often braided resembling a wreath commonly adorned by daidai (橙, bitter orange), and placed at the entry, similarly to kadomatsu, to signify that one’s home has been purified and is ready to welcome the toshigami. In addition, the bitter orange in itself is a symbol of longevity as the fruit if not picked will remain on the tree for several years, which also can be linked to its homophone 代々 (daidai) meaning several generations.

Kagami mochi. Photo by nolabwork.

Kagami mochi. Photo by nolabwork.

Kagami mochi (鏡餅), literally ‘mirror mochi (rice cake)’, is a two round mochi pyramid, believed to have originated in the shape resembling an old-fashioned round copper mirror, topped with daidai (bitter orange), and placed in various locations around the house. Each location in the house is believed to have a corresponding Shinto god, and thus one would place each kagami mochi at such locations: for kamado-gami (かまど神, god of stove) in the kitchen, nando-gami (納戸神, god of back room) in the bedroom, kawaya-gami (厠神, god of toilet) in the toilet room, and suijin (水神, water god) in the sink and bath facilities.

The kagami mochi are easily found in supermarkets and are encased in plastic molding to prolong the rice cake lifespan. The kagami mochi are put out near the end of the year until January 11th, the Kagami Biraki (鏡開き, New Year’s rice cake cutting) Day. The cut mochi is then added into ozenzai (おぜんざい), a traditional red bean and mochi soup.

Nengajo
In addition to the cleaning and decoration preparations, families are busy sending out written nengajo (年賀状, New Year’s post cards) adorned with the Chinese zodiac animal of the coming year. Similar to the Christmas cards in the West, the post office makes extra effort to deliver the nengajou by New Year’s Day.

Oseibo
Some also partake in the old tradition of year-end gift giving, called oseibo (お歳暮). In December time supermarkets and departments stores around the country set up a special section near the entrance displaying exceptional sets of delicacies, such as confectionary, high grade marble beef, alcohol, and fruits. These are then sent out as oseibo gifts by the family. Traditionally these gifts are meant to say thank you to people who showed kindness to you this year. Today these gifts are more commonly sent to parents, relatives, and superiors at work.

Hatsumode. Photo by Japanexperterna.se.

Hatsumode. Photo by Japanexperterna.se.

December 31st
December 31st, New Year’s Eve, is the most important day. As the year comes to a close the sound of the temple bells will begin the fill the crisp winter air. The bells are rung 108 times (除夜の鐘, joyanokane)—107 on the 31st and one last one past the midnight of the New Year. The 108 chimes symbolize the human worldly desires, and is believed to expel the sins of the previous year. The celebration will thus begin and continue all through the night until the first sunrise of the year (初日の出, hatsuhinode). Hatsuhinode is believed to have spiritual powers, with many coming out at the break of dawn to wish upon the rising sun.

It is also the day of shrine visits, hatsumode (初詣で, first shrine visit of New Year). Families first visit the shrine at midnight and then again on New Year’s day to pray for health, prosperity, and happiness in the new year, and pick up omamori (お守り, protection charms) on the way out. Because of this it is the busiest day for the shrines. Some young women will dress up in brightly coloured beautiful furisode, a traditional long sleeve kimono used for special occasions, making the shrine visit a treat for the eyes.

Ikura. Photo by Adam Chamness.

Ikura. Photo by Adam Chamness.

Dining Oshogatsu
On New Year’s Eve to ring out the Old Year, soba is the dish of choice. The toshi-koshi soba (年越し蕎麦), literally year-crossing soba, symbolizes a wish for a long life, as long as the noodle. Soba is also an easy dish to make, allowing the housewives to rest after a long day of New Year preparations.


On the morning of the New Year’s Day families will gather to eat the first meal of the year, a homemade osechi-ryori (お節料理). It is a specially prepared feast that was originally designed to wish for a rich harvest in the New Year. Osechi is served in special stacked boxes that resemble bento, called jubako (重箱). The boxed meals contain foods that are considered to be auspicious, with the ingredients prepared to last for days into the New Year. The osechi tradition first took roots in the Heian period (平安時代, Heian jidai, from 794 through 1185), when using a stove to cook a meal in the first three days was considered taboo. The osechi meals were thus made close to the end of the Old Year allowing the women to rest from cooking meals during the sanga nichi period (the first three days of the New Year). This tradition is still observed today, as many housewives prepare the osechi meals to be enjoyed in the days to come. The osechi contents may have changed over the years, but the practice strives to this day. In addition to the homemade osechi, many supermarkets and stores will have ample amount of ready-mades readily available for order.

Osechi-ryori. Photo by Dave Nakayama.

Osechi-ryori. Photo by Dave Nakayama.

Just as the decoration pieces have their own symbolical meanings, each osechi ingredient is envisioned to bring luck as well. For instance, due to its curved back and long whiskers shrimp is thought to resemble an old person, and is thus believed to bring long life. The holes in the lotus root suggest ease of looking through to the year ahead. And cooked herring roe, kazunoko (数の子)—’kazu’ meaning number and ‘ko’ children—have the power to bless one with children. For more on the osechi dishes and their meanings, check out this article by Fae’s Twist & Tango.

Otoshidama envelopes. Photo by Jnn.

Otoshidama envelopes. Photo by Jnn.

Otoshidama
There might not be any presents under the tree for the kids, but there is otoshidama. Otoshidama (お年玉), literally New Year’s present, is a small gift given on the New Year’s Day to children. Similar to the Chinese New Year practice, children receive small envelopes (ポチ袋, pochibukuro) filled with money. The amount differs with age and family traditions, but commonly it is around ‎¥‎5,000 ($40~50).

Wishing “Happy New Year!” in Japanese
Leading up to the New Year, when parting at last it is common to say「よいおとしを」(yoi otoshi wo). Literally “Happy New Year”, it is a wish for the year-to-come to be a prosperous one.

Once the New Year is here, it is 「明けましておめでとうございます」(akemashite omedetou gozaimasu), literally “Congratulations with the beginning (of the New Year).”


On this note we’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year! May 2017 be prosperous and kind! よいおとしを。

P.S. If you are reading this in 2017, 明けましておめでとうございます!!

Our very own Christmas in Japan.

Thoughts, Japanese CultureAlyonaComment

It seems as if it has been forever since our last post with the “big” news. And despite being completely overwhelmed with boxes and unpacking these past few weeks, I felt Christmas is a good time to take that break and catch up on all that has been going on in our new world.

Our place still looks likes a massive game of fort that has taken over our lives with the daily mission of finding the holy grail—that item you really need right now. But even in all this commotion and cardboard confusion, we did not forget the holiday cheer. Sure we were a little late in the setup, but against all odds we managed to carve out a spot in our home that is orderly and dressed in all its festive attire. Our tree and our entire collection of tree ornaments arrived without a scratch, which is a gift in itself, and have now became our little winter holiday oasis reminding us that even though the location is different, our family is together and the same as always.

Decorations might have been delayed, but our Christmas came early this year as all our wishes came true. And with that we hope that this winter holiday season whatever it is that you wish for, and whether it fits under the tree or not, will come true for you as well! From our family to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!!
 

Christmas Japanese Style

Last year I wrote a post about the quirks of Christmas in Japan. When we’ve arrived here in Japan almost two months ago, the Christmas decoration and merchandising was already in full swing. The shops were playing the all-time Christmas classics. The shelves were stocked full of funny Santas, Christmas tree decor, … and wreaths! The last one was most surprising. Every department store, grocery shop, and outdoor flower stalls were filled with reasonably priced wreaths! Emphasis on the reasonably priced as I find most wreaths in Canada cost double of the asking price here. Last time we were shopping for Christmas decor in 2012 we found a decent holiday decor selection but nothing too creative. And I can’t seem to remember seeing any wreaths at all. This year was definitely a step up as I feel the wreaths and the toys can finally compete on the same level with the Christmas stock of mega malls back home.

So why such a change? Perhaps it was finally brought on by the demand. People are decorating their places. Many doors in my neighbourhood alone are adorned with wreaths. Leaving me to imagine that the inside may be just as festive as the outside. We saw families stocking up on the decorations. Stores are even promoting their vast selections of full size Christmas trees to bring home. IKEA was actually in full swing on selling the real trees to their customers. Not sure what happens after though, as disposing of anything larger than a microwave box can be more than troublesome. But clearly against all odds in the short four year time, Christmas is finally beginning to become more of a family celebration here as well.
 

Christmas is all around us… in Japan.

Illumination is in full swing. It is the best part of treading the winter cold in Tokyo during the holidays.

Anpanman is taking on the role of cosplaying as the Santa Claus and the public loves it! He is on Christmas cards, children’s Christmas books, and advent calendars. He is the real east meets west.

Christmas in the unlikeliest places. Someone clearly felt that this construction site was missing out on the holiday cheer. :)

Starbucks never ceases to amaze.

And last but not least … almost white Christmas.

Last month in November we have experienced the one and only snowfall for a day. What makes it even more special is that it hasn’t snowed here in November for over 50 years! Dare I say, I felt like a Gilmore Girl.

We hope you enjoyed our little Christmas update. Merry Christmas! Happy unwrappings! Happy Holidays!

We’ve moved to Japan! Back to where it all began!

PICA News, ThoughtsAlyonaComment

Last month we said goodbye to our hometown Toronto, Canada and got on a 14-hour flight to continue our PICA adventure in the land that inspired it all. That’s right, the three of us are now officially back in Japan!!! More specifically in Yokohama—the large city on the bay with a great Chinatown, and a stone’s throw away from Tokyo on the north and the beautiful serene mountains on the south-west.

This is our second move to Japan, and PICA’s first. It’s been awhile, almost four years ago, since we left Japan after settling here for two years in 2011. And it’s breathtaking to see how many things have changed and evolved since then. Tokyo, as one would expect, is truly an ever-changing city. That makes it equally nostalgic and exciting. Living so close to it gives us that unique opportunity to live through its transformations and happenings, and perhaps even take part in them. We can’t stop to hope that perhaps one day PICA too will find itself in a small shop somewhere on one of Tokyo’s quintessential streets, not just paying a tribute to the culture, but physically becoming a part of it.

yokohama-daruma

So what now?
Right now we are taking some time to settle in. We have our new place, but it is bare and waiting for our furniture and some decorating love. Once we fully do settle in, we hope you’ll be seeing more blog posts about our new fabulous adventures under the rising sun as well as fun insights on the what’s new and happening here and now.

We truly believe that being back is essential to our happiness (cause we love it here so!) and gives us that unique chance to draw our inspiration from this rich colourful culture first-hand for new and exciting ideas for our future prints and Japanese insights for our blog.

So stay tuned for more updates on our grand move! There are sure to be a great deal of new thrilling milestones in store for us in the year to come—an incredibly exciting time for PICA and us!

hime-in-yokohama

P.S. Hime Himstar the Great is a trooper and a true travel cat! We are so ecstatic to have her with us. And she herself quite loves the new place as well! (=^ェ^=)

We are turning 2!!!

Thoughts, PICA NewsAlyonaComment

Time flies! We can’t believe that it has been 2 years since we first published our initial set of prints on Etsy. 2 years... wow! The second year saw some new prints added to the collection, expansion into new social media channels, as well as some major changes that were in the process and you will hear about very very soon! ;)

We are extremely grateful for all the support and advice we received from our friends and family, and the positive reviews we received from our customers and fans! The third year will be a very busy year for us. We are looking to expand the PICA library, the blog posts, social, with lots more to come! The greatness is coming!!!

*blowing out candles*  ゝ(▽`*ゝ)