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The Most Entertaining Video on History of Japan You'll Ever See

Japanese CultureAlyonaComment

We talk about the culture of Japan .. a lot .. at PICA here. Sometimes we touch upon its history here and there as well. But we don't go too much into it, simply because its just too much to talk about in any post. So we were excited to come across this amazing video by the awesome Bill Wurtz, who was able to condense history that spans over a couple of thousands of years in just under nine minutes in a fun and, perhaps, the most entertaining history of Japan video ever!

Be sure to check this video out. (Conveniently added below. :) It's a definite must-see!

Merry Christmas! in Japan

Japanese CultureAlyonaComment

Happy Christmas, everyone! We hope this morning all your stockings were full of wishes fulfilled!

We all know and love the spirit of Christmas in the West. But what about Japan? Does Japan celebrate Christmas? And if so, is it all the same as the one back home?

Illumination in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Photo by kanegen.

Illumination in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Photo by kanegen.

Right about now Tokyo is brightly light up in all its holiday cheer. The impressive illumination displays adorn the city’s squares, streets and avenues. Some are complex, and some are beautifully traditional and understated. Stores everywhere, dressed up in all out Christmas decor, are setting up elaborate window displays and Christmas trees, all the while blasting festive music from speakers as you enter the holiday shopping heaven to escape the cold Tokyo winter air. I must say, it is hard not to get into the holiday cheer as Christmas in Japan is truly all around us.

How did Japan come to celebrate Christmas?
Christmas was introduced by Francis Xavier, when Christian missionaries first came to Japan in the Sengoku era (戦国時代, Sengoku jidai, from 1467 through 1603, Warring States Period). But the modern celebration did not begin until around 1900 during the Meiji Restoration (明治時代, Meiji jidai, from 1868 through 1912), when Japan opened its doors to the West after a long period of isolation.

Tokyo Dome City Winter Illumination. Photo by Taichiro Ueki.

Tokyo Dome City Winter Illumination. Photo by Taichiro Ueki.

So Christmas in Japan is clearly a big deal. But is it the same?
Not quite. With less than one percent of Christians living in Japan, it should come as no surprise that Japanese Christmas or クリスマス (Kurisumasu) is more of a secular novelty holiday. It is non-official, so yes, it is a regular work day. Anyone, who has ever experienced Christmas in Japan, will tell you that it is a commercially driven event geared mainly towards couples. Thus, it is thought to be a romantic holiday—resembling Valentine’s Day in the West—commercialized by the consumer marketing, urging couples to dine out at expensive restaurants, buy into expensive gifts, and partake in couples-only special events. Needless to say, this is the day when hotel rooms and honeymoon suites are booked solid weeks in advance. This Christmas celebration, unlike in the West, happens on Christmas Eve or クリスマス・イブ (Kurisumasu Ibu), making it, perhaps, the most romantic night of the year. Being single on this day is looked down upon, many opting in to get a hold of a last minute girlfriend or boyfriend, and escape the dreadful experience of spending the eve alone.

There is no place like Tokyo Disneyland to really get into the Christmas spirit. Photo by othree.

There is no place like Tokyo Disneyland to really get into the Christmas spirit. Photo by othree.

Now, Christmas being a romantic holiday and all, does not mean that kids and families are completely excluded from the festivities. For families, Christmas Eve is often celebrated with a “traditional” Christmas dinner (more on that later) with a small decorated Christmas tree being put up the day of, only to be taken down shortly thereafter. Santa Claus  (サンタクロース, Santa Kuroosu) or more commonly known as サンタさん (Santa-san, Mr Santa) is still a very popular character. Some even, albeit few, believe that Christmas is in fact a day celebrating Santa’s birthday. Gift giving is also observed, but only with children who believe in Santa. So once the kids stop believing in Santa, gift giving stops being a tradition.

‘Traditional’ Christmas Dinner
Now Christmas in Japan would not be Christmas without that special “traditional” family Christmas meal featuring everyone’s beloved Kentucky Fried Chicken (ケンタッキー, Kentakkii). Yes, you read that right. The Christmas table staple in Japan is indeed the finger-lickin’ good poultry combo that was eagerly adopted in Japan as the authentic festive meal choice. After all, isn’t it how it’s done in the West?

So how did the turkey and ham turn into fried chicken, particularly KFC’s fried chicken, you ask? In December 1974, a couple of years after first entering Japanese market, KFC ran an ad campaign「クリスマスにはケンタッキー」(Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii, “Kentucky for Christmas!”). It was so successful that most Japanese people came to believe that fried chicken is indeed the staple of the traditional Western Christmas dinner, rendering the tradition of eating turkey or ham unknown to the general public to this day.

Colonel Sanders’ signature Christmas outfit. Remind you of anyone? The resemblance is uncanny! Photo by Mark.

Colonel Sanders’ signature Christmas outfit. Remind you of anyone? The resemblance is uncanny! Photo by Mark.

In fact, KFC is such a widespread custom that most Japanese families reserve their Christmas Party Barrels weeks in advance, accounting for 20% of the company’s annual sales. The pre-ordered meals come in options of a ¥5800 (approx. $50) Premium Series rotisserie chicken or a ¥4090 (approx. $35) KFC classic fried chicken dinner sets. Those who fail to plan ahead and pre-order are in danger of standing in line for up to six hours for a chance to have a very merry “traditional” Christmas dinner.

KFC, however is not the only place one can get a hold of a Christmas special fried chicken. MOS Burger, Japanese popular hamburger chain, McDonald’s, department stores, as well as local supermarkets are also trying to cash in on the craze by offering a variety of fried chicken meals. Despite all the effort, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without Colonel Sanders’ classic signature dish.

Japanese Christmas Cake. Photo by y_ogagaga.

Japanese Christmas Cake. Photo by y_ogagaga.

Christmas Cake
Following the “traditional” hearty Christmas meal, it is also a custom to end the day with the “traditional” Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ, Kurisumasu keeki), also because “that’s how it is done in the West”. The cake in question is not however a fruit-filled loaf, but a Japanese-style Strawberry Shortcake: an airy vanilla sponge cake layered with strawberries and whipped cream, often adorned with a festive Christmas message at the top. It was first sold in 1922 by Fujiya Food Service Co., Ltd. and has since become a seasonal winter dessert staple. I must add, as an avid desert lover, that it is a truly lovely and light goodness with the sweetness level of just right.

Interesting: By December 25th the cake prices drop dramatically in hopes to sell out before the 26th. This practice gave rise to a nickname for unmarried women over 25. A woman was considered marriageable until her 25th birthday, and by 26th she was considered expired and should be sold at a discount rate, thus earning the nickname of a “Christmas Cake”. This is highly offensive, and thankfully quickly becoming outdated as average age for marriage is changing, and couples tie the knot more and more well into their late 20s and even 30s.

Christmas in Japan might be completely different to what we are accustomed to. But it is no less festive or special. It has that something unique and memorable. After all, Christmas festivities differ from country to country, from one family to the other. And Christmas in Japan is so distinctively Japanese, one must experience it at least once in a lifetime.

メリークリスマス, everyone!

Taiiku-no-hi and Undou-kai. It’s All about the Sports!

Japanese CultureAlyonaComment

Japan is famous for holding a holiday for just about anything. These holidays emphasize the important things in life that should be celebrated. They mark the changing seasons, important life events, or are simply there for everyone to come together as a family and friends to just have fun. So it should come as no surprise that in the culture where health and wellness play an important part, Japan has a dedicated holiday for just that - the Health and Sports Day (体育の日, Taiiku-no-hi). Commemorating the opening of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, today Taiiku-no-hi is observed annually on the second Monday of October. 

Wait, Summer Olympics in October?! The Olympics in Tokyo of 1964 were moved to October to avoid the Japanese rainy season that is often followed by the extreme summer heat. So to commemorate this historical event, the very first Taiiku-no-hi was held on October 10, 1966. It was set as this date until year 2000, where it was moved to become the second Monday in October. This year, 2015, it is held on October 12th; coincidentally, the same day as Canada’s Thanksgiving, where everyone also gets together as a family, but instead of health or sports, it is the day about food, food and more food.

Today Taiiku-no-hi marks more than just the ‘64 Tokyo Olympic memory. In addition, it is around this time schools throughout the country will choose to hold their annual 運動会 (Undou-kai), bringing together an entire community for an all-day event of bonding, fun and some friendly competition.

Photo by 明宝 出版.

Photo by 明宝 出版.

Undou-kai (運動会)
Undou-kai, lit. translated as athletics meet, is essentially a sports festival similar to the North American Field Day. It is a compulsory school event; held by kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools throughout the entire country—with students’ participation being mandatory. Divided into two major teams, red vs white, Undou-kai becomes somewhat of a mini Olympics event; full of traditional and nontraditional sports-related contests.

Conventionally Undou-kai is held on Saturday or Sunday, on the weekend of or leading up to the Taiiku-no-hi. The date here varies depending on the school. As a matter of fact, some schools choose to break out of the trend and hold the event in May, in order to lessen the disruptions of the fall semester. You see, as soon as the Unodu-kai ends, the students start to prepare for the Bunka-sai (文化祭, Cultural Festival), which is held in November. This leaves the students with very little time to concentrate on their studies as the school year draws to an end—Japanese school year ends in March.

Photo by Ishikawa Ken from Kamakura, Japan.

Photo by Ishikawa Ken from Kamakura, Japan.

So, how much effort goes into the preparation? More than you can imagine. Teachers and students prepare and practice practically everyday for weeks leading up to the event. A lot of classes get shifted or canceled altogether as a result. The time spent in preparation is all part of the experience. The extensive planning, training, and practices in the 蒸し暑い (mushiatsui, ‘hot and humid’) Japanese September weather strengthens the bond that Undou-kai works hard to cultivate among the students and their hard-working dedicated teachers.

The Undou-kai festival traditionally takes place on the schools’ 運動場 (undoujou, sports field) grounds, which in the days prior to the event gets a complete makeover. Students and teachers spend hours preparing the field to have it fit for the Undou-kai standards. Freshly painted white chalk lines, flags from all over the world hung on the rope and stretched across the field are all a part of these great preparations. Surrounding the sports field, large canopies branded with the school’s name are being put up by the teachers and the PTA volunteers. With so much time spent on weeks-long preparations and practices, the expectations cannot be less than perfect. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was going to be televised!

Photo by MIKI Yoshihito.

Photo by MIKI Yoshihito.

On the day of the event, everyone—students, teachers, parents, and community spectators—arrive at the hosting school’s ground at 8:30 am. The students are dressed in their standard school sports uniform (usually blue shorts and a white poloshirt with the school’s emblem), and a white/red reversible hat (白赤帽子, shiro-aka-boushi). The hat is important as it will indicate the colour of the team the students belong to. The teachers are often seen wearing bright matching team t-shirts to stand out in the crowd amongst the excited visitors and parents.

The event starts with a student parade, few short speeches from the principal and the PTA, and the national anthem followed by raising the Japanese flag. At this point the main event is kicked off with yet another tradition of performing a short warm up, to a piano music played over the loudspeaker system and lead by the students, known as ラジオ体操 (rajio taisou, calisthenics). Rajio taisou is a stretching routine developed by the government and broadcasted daily, early morning over the NHK radio. It’s popularity began soon after the WWII, in order to boost the health driven culture. Today it is a must-do stretching routine prior to performing any sports related activity.

Rajio taisou stretches at Junior High Undou-kai.

"Our Radio Exercise" Tohoku campaign to regain a sense of community led by Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, one of the areas struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

After 5 minutes of rajio taisou stretches, the games, races and other fun, lighthearted activities begin. There are a number of games that are traditionally present at every Undou-kai across Japan. These games are 綱引き (tsunahiki, tug-of-war), ムカデ競走 (mukade kyousou, ‘multi-legged’ race), 組体操 (kumitaisou, gymnastic formation), and, of course, a good old-fashioned relay. Here are some of other games that you most surely will find at the event:

Photo by 明宝 出版.

Photo by 明宝 出版.

Tama-ire (玉入れ)
Tama-ire is a game played by all members of team red vs team white. Each team gets a lot of small beanbags in the colour of their respective team, and a bamboo basket attached to a high pole. The competition is to see who can get the most of their beanbags into their own basket in a given time. The game ends by counting the number of beanbags in each basket over a speakerphone. (On a side note, one of the schools I was teaching in—to promote English studies—the principal had the students count the beanbags in English!)

Photo by Rick Cogley.

Photo by Rick Cogley.

Kibasen (騎馬戦)
Kibasen, translated as cavalry fights, is a game of piggyback fighting. Each team forms mini teams of four, where the three lock hands and form the horse to carry the fourth one wearing a bandana. The object of the game is to charge at your opponent with all might, colliding in an arm fight, trying to get the bandana off or knock the opponent off his or her horse entirely. Although this game is dangerous and results in back, arm and head injuries, it is also incredibly popular, and often considered the highlight of the event.

Photo by MIKI Yoshihito.

Photo by MIKI Yoshihito.

Found these videos of Kibasen performed by Grade 5 and 6 at Elementary school level and High School level.

Odori (踊り)
Odori or dancing, involves students coming together as one in a large choreographed dance crew. Students perform dances to songs that vary from traditional to fun and upbeat modern pop music. More often it is traditional, with one that seems to be the popular choice. “Soran Bushi” (ソーラン節) is a classic song sung by the fishermen hailing from the Hokkaido region. It is very energetic, and creates quite the effect when danced by the entire student body.

Elementary School Grade 5 and 6 Soran Bushi performance at Undou-kai.

Around noon there is a lunch intermission, where each students gets together with his or her family to enjoy the grand festival bentos their mothers prepared at 6 o’clock in the morning. These bentos are famous for being overly extravagant and typically include rice or sekihan (赤飯, lit. 'red rice'—rice boiled together with red beans), fish, tempura, vegetables, sushi and much more.

Photo by inugamix imagines.jp

Photo by inugamix imagines.jp

The event comes to an end in the late afternoon. At this time both teams would have completed all the games, races, and contests—earning team points. The points here are then calculated, and the winning team, red or white, is awarded with a trophy and a lavish flag of the winner. Then more speeches follow, and the Japanese flag is lowered; thus, ending the event.

Photo by 明宝 出版.

Photo by 明宝 出版.

After the event, everyone: parents, PTA, teachers, and of course students—really everyone—stay behind to help and clean-up the entire field. Everything—from chairs, canopies, musical and sport equipment, to flags and decorations—are all dismantled and put away. This way, in a matter of an hour or two, the entire field is returned back to normal, as if nothing ever happened at all.

A lot of work and dedication goes into preparing an event of this magnitude. Undou-kai is perhaps one of the most looked forward to events, and is definitely the highlight of the school year for most students. The festival brings the entire student body together as one. Working closely for weeks leading up to the event, relying on each other as a team during the games, teaches students cooperation and developing deeper bonds and friendships. After all, it is not about who is the fastest or the strongest, but which team had the best teamwork ethic. Without it games like Tsunahiki (tug-of-war), Mukade Kyousou (‘multi-legged’ race), Kumitaisou (human pyramid) or the thrilling Kibasen (cavalry fights) would not be possible to pull off.

Tsukimi. It's All about the Moon.

Japanese CultureAlyonaComment

In Japan, as the sakura trees bloom, the spring commences with a celebration, known as 花見 (Hanami, ‘flower-viewing’), with lots of drinking and outdoor socializing. The autumn in Japan, however, commences on a slightly different note. The 中秋 (chushu, mid-autumn) highlight is 月見 (Tsukimi, ‘moon-viewing’). In contrast to the spring’s celebration of the newly bloomed sakura tree blossoms, it is a harvest festival honouring the autumn full moon.

Traditionally Tsukimi celebration takes place on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Japanese lunar calendar (太陰暦, taiinreki). According to the modern solar calendar (新暦, shinreki), this date falls from mid-September to early October. Because the celebration takes place during the 満月(mangetsu, full moon), the date shifts each year. This year, 2015, Tsukimi falls on September 27th. This day is also known as 十五夜 (juugoya, fifteenth night) or 中秋の名月 (chushu no meigetsu, mid-autumn harvest moon). It is believed that the mid-autumn moon is the most beautiful, as it appears especially bright in the clear autumn air due to the relative position of the earth and the sun during this time of the year. 

Tsukimi, however, is not simply a solitary moon gazing experience, but a historical tradition of holding parties to view the harvest moon in style that dates back a millennium ago. In fact, even at times when the moon is not visible, such as 無月 (mugetsu, "no-moon") or 雨月 (ugetsu, "rain-moon"), the festivities do go on.

A bit of short history.
Tsukimi first began practiced in Japan during the Heian era (平安時代, Heian jidai; 794 to 1185), as elements of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) were first introduced. The aristocrats of that time would hold events of reciting poetry under the full moon aboard boats, in order to revel in the moon’s bright reflection on the surface of the night’s waters. During the Edo era (江戸時代, Edo jidai, between 1603 and 1868) Tsukimi was celebrated with much vigour, that sadly came to an end in the Meiji era (明治時代, Meiji jidai, from 1868 through 1912).

So what to do on the day of the event?
Today Tsukimi is celebrated in a company of small gathering in a place where the moon can be seen clearly to be appreciated. Traditionally these places would be the 縁側 (engawa, veranda, porch or balcony) of one's home. The decorations are centred around the autumn plants, with 薄 (susuki, pampas grass) being the main event.

Tsukimi-dango from Gyukkado on Rakuten.

Tsukimi-dango from Gyukkado on Rakuten.

Another decorative piece are the Tsukimi-dango (月見団子) that are placed as an offering to the moon as the thanks for the harvest. The Tsukimi-dango are round rice dumplings (mochi) that are meant to resemble the moon - celebrating its beauty. They are piled in a small pyramid on an altar during the festival as a prayer for an abundant harvest. Other seasonal foods that take part in the festival are taro, edamame, chestnuts and sake.

During the month leading up to the Tsukimi festival, it is common to find restaurants, as well as homes, serving moon-themed dishes. Some of these dishes are Tsukimi-soba and Tsukimi-udon, where the noodles in broth are topped with an egg to resemble the bright moon in the dark sky. Other Tsukimi inspired foods include rabbit-shaped (why? - see below) and moon-shaped desserts.

The most notable of them all, though, has to be the Mc Donald’s Tsukimi burger (月見バーガー). Introduced in 1991 and served as an autumn seasonal menu ever since, Tsukimi burger is special due to the addition of a fried or poached egg to the patty. The egg once again is meant the resemble the moon, and is a tasty way to get in the moon festival spirit.


So, what’s up with the rabbit?
In North American culture, the full moon is thought to have a face. In Japan, however, instead of a face you see an image of a rabbit pounding the mochi (rice cake) dough using a huge mortar and a mallet. According to Japanese folklore, a rabbit lives there, making the mochi dumplings every full moon. As a matter of fact there is even a children’s song about it:

うさぎ うさぎ 
何見て 跳ねる。 
見て 跳ねる。

usagi usagi
nani mite haneru.
juugoya otsuki-sama
mite haneru.

English translation:
Bunny, Bunny
What are you looking at as you hop?
The Moon of the 15th night
I’m viewing as I hop.

You can check it out on YouTube here.

If you happen to miss the festivities or the moon-viewing this year, no worries! There is always next year. Be sure to mark you calendar and get into the spirit of it all by September 15th, 2016.

New Katori Buta Print!

Japanese Culture, PICA WorksAlyonaComment

Today we are launching our new addition to the summer prints collection: Katori Buta Print

蚊取り豚 (katori buta), literally translates as ‘mosquitto-removing pig’, is a small ceramic pig that is brought out in the summer to ward off bugs, mosquitoes particularly. Inside burns a green spiral incense, called 蚊取り線香 (katori senkou, ‘mosquito-killing incense’), derived from the 除虫菊 (jyochuugiku) flower. In small doses it repels bugs, but in large, kills them. The incense and the burner are a staple in many Japanese homes, and are customarily associated with the summer image in Japan.

A bit of fun facts and history about the incense itself.
Katori senkou was invented at the end of the 19th century by a trader at the time, Ueyama Eiichiro. He was the first person to import the seeds from the United States that claimed to grow flowers that could kill insects. The plant was called Tanacetum cinerariifolium, a Chrysanthemum. Ueyama gave the plant 除虫菊 (jyochuugiku, “bug-banishing chrysanthemum”) name, and began to cultivate it in Japan.

Soon Ueyama began to produce the plant’s active ingredient in incense form. However the effect would not last long. So in 1895 Ueyama’s wife, Yuki suggested to shape the incense in long spiraled sticks to create a longer-lasting effect. This classic shape, its deep green colour, and the iconic packaging with the trademark red rooster head are still kept today.

Kincho Uzumaki Katori Senko Mosquito Coil Set from Japan Trend Shop

Kincho Uzumaki Katori Senko Mosquito Coil Set from Japan Trend Shop

The katori buta itself is then used as a holder to keep the incense burning safely. There are other holders available on the market. But the pig is a classic favourite and is often featured in TV shows, commercials, anime and manga.


Our print features the classic white ceramic katori buta with the green burning katori senkō on the inside. Inspired by Japanese pop culture, we also added ミーンミーン (min min) writing in the top left corner of the print, setting the scene of the Japanese hot summer’s day. “Min min”, better known in Japan as ‘the sound of summer’, is the chirping sound made by the min-min-zemi [みんみんぜみ・ミンミン蝉] cicada species—one of the many species found in the trees in the heart of the summer season in Japan. Their classic almost deafening tune signifies the arrival of summer, without which the summer just isn’t summer in Japan. And with the temperatures rising up and above 35°C, it is the perfect time to leisurely sit outside alongside your katori buta as you break open a watermelon all the while taking in the warm sunlight rays and enjoying your very own outdoor summer orchestra.

Japanese summer memorabilia at Shibuya's LOFT. Note the 'watermelon penguin', 'ukulele white bear', 'shaved ice', 'takoyaki', and of course 'katori buta' on the top shelf!

Japanese summer memorabilia at Shibuya's LOFT. Note the 'watermelon penguin', 'ukulele white bear', 'shaved ice', 'takoyaki', and of course 'katori buta' on the top shelf!

Together with the 風鈴 (fuurin, windchime), うちわ (uchiwa, Japanese traditional fan), かき氷 (kakigoori, shaved ice) and すいか (suika, watermelon), 蚊取り豚 (katori buta) completes the Japanese summer ensemble.

We hope that just like the warm memories of the summer past, our Katori Buta and the Watermelon Windchime prints will keep you warm in the winter, reminding of the warmer days to come.

What We Love about Natsu Matsuri

Japanese Culture, Photo JourneyAlyonaComment

Summer is in full swing now. So let’s talk Japanese Natsu Matsuri (夏祭り, summer festival) culture. Or more importantly what to expect when attending one.

The matsuri (祭, festival) events bring together communities, residents and of course, the curious gaijin  (外人, foreigners). Most are based on culture, some on religion. The best ones just celebrate the awesomeness of life itself. Here are our two favourites:


Mikoshi 神輿 (portable shrine)
Shinto-based matsuri are festivals dedicated to a specific neighbourhood Shinto shrine. Some are celebrated once a year, and some every two years. This is where you’ll get to see a large number of genki (元気, lively, spirited) volunteers, dressed in traditional mikoshi bearer clothes, carrying the portable shrine, while rhythmically lifting it up and down to amuse the enshrined deity.

Mikoshi at Sanja Matsuri '15

Mikoshi at Sanja Matsuri '15


The parade lasts for a day or two, with the portable shrine being carried along the streets of its neighbourhood. There is music and “wasshoi” (わっしょい, heave ho!) chanting. Lot’s of chanting. Bearing the mikoshi is no easy task. “Wasshoi” encourages the group to keep up the rhythm and the pace, providing the necessary energy to keep up with the important task. The highlight of the parade is the return of the mikoshi to its shrine. The participants go wild, with genkiness to the max.

Crowd at Sanja Matsuri '15

Crowd at Sanja Matsuri '15

We had the pleasure of attending the Sanja Matsuri (三社祭, literally "Three Shrine Festival") this past May on our latest Tokyo visit. Its one of the biggest mikoshi matsuri in Tokyo, taking place in the Asakusa neighbourhood that happens only once every two years. The turnout was great. Lots of food, sunlight, fun, excitement and more food. And yes, this blog was a great excuse to share our trip festival photos with the world.

Fireworks 花火
Hanabi (花火, fireworks) is by far one of my favourite matsuri. If you think you’ve seen a great firework display before, Japanese hanabi will top it! These people are true artisans in the craft of explosive coloured lights. I’d say it is not even as much as a celebration, but more of a competition. Think bigger, brighter, and more colourful than you’ve ever seen before. They are also longer, with Tokyo’s Sumida river fireworks being displayed practically nonstop for over 2 hours. Your visit to Japan in the height of the summer heat will definitely be worth it, if you catch one of those.

There are many more types of festivals as well. Some feature dancing, music, lanterns. Some are meant to celebrate a specific cultural event, such as Tanabata. (Read more on Tanabata here.) I won’t go into detail for all of them, but I will point out the three things most of them all have in common.

One: Yukata 浴衣
Yukata, (浴衣) is a Japanese light summer kimono. It comes in many colour variations, and similarly to kimono, is tied with a matching colourful obi (帯, sash). Unlike kimono, with yukata you have an option to tie the obi yourself or get a ready-made easy to put on clip-on. If you visit any of the Japanese summer matsuri, you’ll see almost everyone wearing one. It is a humble cultural experience that survived the time of change towards modernization. I highly recommend wearing one, as it adds to the experience of the summer matsuri celebration, allowing you to fully take part in all the festivities of the event.

Image from ふりふ. Shop these yukata at Furifu.com

Image from ふりふ. Shop these yukata at Furifu.com

Two: Kingyo Sukui, The Game of Fish
Kingyo Sukui (金魚すくい, goldfish scooping) is a game of patience, perseverance and downright luck. The highlight - if you win, you get to take the living creature home. That is if you win. Catching the fish in the pool is no easy task. First, you pay for the flat net that is made of paper. Then you must use this net to try to scoop up the fish. If you leave it in the water for too long, the paper will dissolve. If you apply too much force, the paper will rip. I won’t even go on to mention the fundamental nature of the fish not staying still in one place. I’d say one thing though: attempting to catch one is definitely the best part. Did I mention you get to keep it!


Three: Matsuri Food!
For me, food is by far the highlight of any matsuri. Japanese food is known to be healthy and light. But when it comes to Japanese festival food, it is quite the opposite. Most of the real estate is taken up by pop up food stalls filled with grilled, deep fried, baked, and sweetened goodness. The menu ranges from the oh-so-famous yakisoba (焼きそば, grilled soba noodles), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, grilled savoury pancake containing a mix of ingredients), takoyaki (たこ焼き, wheat flour-based batter grilled ball filled with diced octopus), taiyaki (鯛焼き, batter fried and filled with red-bean paste or custard fish shaped goodness), ikayaki (いか焼き, grilled squid), kushiyaki (串焼き, grilled skewered meat goodness) to my favourite jagabata (じゃがバター, baked potato served with a large helping of butter and miso paste). For desert there the skewered choco banana (チョコバナナ) - chocolate dipped banana, kakigoori (かき氷) - shaved ice with a flavour syrup of your choice, and other candy treats. I am sure I missed some. The spread is just too great to take in in one seating.

じゃがバター (jagabata)

じゃがバター (jagabata)

かき氷 (kakigouri) - Note to self, leave the topping to the pros. Went a bit crazy on the syrup, and ended up with sweetness of a lifetime.

かき氷 (kakigouri) - Note to self, leave the topping to the pros. Went a bit crazy on the syrup, and ended up with sweetness of a lifetime.

July and August are filled with matsuri. If you are planning on visiting Japan, make sure to book your time around one of the many events. If, however, you happen to live in Toronto or are staying in town for the next couple of days, make sure to come by the 3rd Annual Toronto Japanese Summer Festival that is held on Sunday, July 26th at the Yonge-Dundas Square. (For more info visit the festival’s facebook page.)

Tanabata, a Festival of Love and Stars

Japanese CultureAlyonaComment

Summer is a very special time in Japan. July in particularly is special, because it is the end of the ‘rainy season’, a time when it quite literally rains every single day for a month. July is also very special, as it marks the beginning of the Japanese summer festival culture. It is the time when communities get together to celebrate, often wearing the traditional 浴衣 (yukata, a light cotton summer kimono) and rejoicing to the sound of music, dancing, parades, 花火 (hanabi, fireworks), and oh-that-so-awesome festival food. The summer festivals kick off with the first one of the season, and perhaps one of the biggest of them all - the Tanabata festival.

七夕 (Tanabata), meaning the “evening of the seventh”, traditionally takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month, but often tends to vary in dates depending on the region. It is a festival inspired by a legend of star-crossed lovers, and is often synonymous with celebrating 恋 (koi, (romantic) love) and casting one's 望み (nozomi, wish).

The Legend, 物語 (monogatari)

昔々 (mukashi mukashi, ‘Once upon a time’), Tentei (天帝, Sky King) had an only daughter, called Orihime (織姫, Weaving Princess), who was known for her beauty and craftsmanship in weaving exquisite garments at her father’s request. Everyday she would sit the at bank of the Amanogawa (天の川, Milky Way, lit. "heavenly river"), diligently weaving new garments to her father’s delight. She was very dedicated to her work, however, alone with no free time to find herself an eligible suitor. Tentei realized that his only daughter was unhappy, and decided to help her find the happiness she deserved. He arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi (彦星, Cow Herder Star), who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way river. They had an instant connection, a love at first sight of sorts. They married shortly after, spending every single minute together, sharing the happiness one can only dream of. 

They were so engrossed with each other, that they forgot about their daily duties. Orihime forgot to weave the garments as she was supposed to. And Hikoboshi forgot to tend to his herd, leaving his cows to go astray. Tentei was enraged that Orihime forgot of her task. And in the heat of anger, he separated them across the vastness of the Amanogawa, forbidding them to ever meet again.

Orihime was extremely heartbroken over her loss of her husband, pleading for Tentei to let them see each other again. Her father was moved by his daughter’s tears, and allowed them to meet once a year on the ‘seventh day of the seventh month’ at the banks of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way river. However, on the first day of Orihime’s re-union with Hikoboshi, she realized that there is no bridge for her to cross the river and be together with her beloved. She cried and cried, until a flock of magpies flew over and created a crossing path with their wings, allowing Orihime to walk over to the other side. The magpies promised the star-crossed lovers that they would come to the couple every year from now on. It is believed that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come, leaving Orihime and Hikoboshi to wait to meet until the following year.

The legend follows the two stars Vega and Altair, represented by Orihime and Hikoboshi respectively. This makes Tanabata a Star Festival, and quite popular with couples. Traditionally and today Tanabata is celebrated with colourful street decorations, music, parades, festival street food, and most importantly by hanging colourful strips of paper from the 笹 (sasa, bamboo) branches. When hanging the paper strip, one also writes his or her wish on it. It is believed that Tanabata is a very auspicious day for wishing, for the powers that allowed Orihime and Hikoboshi to come together on this day can also grant wishes to others.

To many in Japan, Tanabata means dressing up in yukata, coming together as a community to celebrate love, life and the stars. Today, the Tanabata festival can also be experienced outside Japan in many corners of the world with a prominent Japanese community. Check in with your community to see if the festival is held near you.

Furin: The Blissful Sound of Japanese Summer

Japanese Culture, Thoughts, PICA WorksAlyonaComment

Our new print is in! We'd like to welcome a new addition to our shop of Japanese things we love - the Windchime. And just in time for the summer!

When I think of Japanese summers, I imagine すいか (suika, watermelon), かき氷 (kakigoori, shaved ice), 花火 (hanabi, fireworks), 浴衣 (yukata, a light cotton summer kimono), and of course our favourite 風鈴 (fuurin), the glass windchime. Traditionally, in Japan the windchime has long been regarded as a symbol of good luck. The sound of the bell ringing is thought to ward off lurking evil spirits. Perhaps you noticed that most Japanese key chains are adorned by a small bell for the same reason. But I think there is another symbolic meaning behind the chime. A practical one at that. The tinkling sound of the windchime when played by the wind, reminds us of the cool gentle breeze on a hot summer’s day. Our windchime print is meant to remind us that those summer days are just around the corner. The print’s bright colours will warm up your space, and bring back the joy of the crisp melodic sound of the windchime, when rattled by the gentle movement of the air. The Japanese text, 「夏のそよ風」 (“Natsu no soyokaze,” “The gentle wind of the summer”), captures this very essence.

So how did we come to love it so much? 

During our stay in Japan, we decided it’d be ok not to invest in the AC. Houses and apartments in Japan usually don’t come with any appliances. Everything needs to be purchased at the time you move in. When we first settled, the weather was nice and cool. So after buying the refrigerator, washing machine and everything else under the sun needed for daily comfortable living, we decided to put off shopping for the エアコン (eacon, AC). After all, the unit aside, electricity in Japan is expensive, and running one would cost a pretty penny. We thought we’d rather spend that money on other fun stuff Japan had to offer. Then the summer came. It was easily above 35°C on any given day. And as the consumer demand for the AC rose, so did the prices. To save our cash, we found tons of alternative cool ways to keep our house cool. Pun intended. We wore Japanese specially designed water soaked scarves that keep your neck cool. Used gel-infused cooling seating pads for comfort. And with two retro-style fans that would blow the air about the room, it somehow became manageable. Not all, but most of the time. The time was also right after the 3.11 Touhoku Earthquake, and the government was actively promoting 節電 (setsuden, electricity conservation). So even if we owned one of those babies, we weren’t allowed to run it during peak hours, which is when you really need it. We were determined to brave the summer heat as we were.


One day as we were out and about shopping, we stumbled upon a special sale on a unique collection of windchimes that were painted in most amusing designs. One of them stood out to me. The top was painted to resemble a watermelon, and the string attached was painted red with black drops to suggest watermelon seeds. Watermelon windchime?! It was a fated love at first sight. I knew I had to have it. And I never looked back. 

The windchime made the living room window its permanent home. We had very little wind where we lived in the summer. And when a slight summer breeze would flow through our windows, the windchime created the most soothing sound. It was the sound of hope. Hope for a gust of wind that might visit our quarters and cool us down. The sound seemed to make the room cooler or 涼しい (suzushii, cool, refreshing) as Japanese would say. 

When I first started working on the print, I wrote a small copy that I had plans to include in the final design. My plans for the design changed, and I ended up not using it. ...もったいない (“mottainai,” “How wasteful”). Despite the change, I would still like to share it with you here, as I believe it perfectly captures the meaning behind our windchime print. So here it is: 

「夏のそよ風。風鈴の涼しい音と共に太陽の光を浴びる。」(“Natsu no soyokaze. Fuurin no suzushii oto totomo ni taiyou no hikari wo abiru,” “Summer’s gentle breeze. With the refreshing (cooling) sound of the windchime, I bask in the sunlight”).


Windchime is one of those things that holds a special place when one thinks of those summer days in Japan. It is a culturally accepted good luck charm, and a welcomed decoration on a hot summer’s day often seen in every window or porch. And in Japan, you do not feel prepared to take on the heat unless you have one hanging in your home.

In the Land of Daruma (the thing we love)

Thoughts, Japanese CultureAlyonaComment
Notice how the left eye is fainter. It's because it took us a few years to colour-in the second eye.

Notice how the left eye is fainter. It's because it took us a few years to colour-in the second eye.

Today I want to share with you our love for Daruma (達磨).

Perhaps you browsed our shop pages and by now noticed that despite us carrying a wide variety of Japanese themed illustration designs, one is undeniably dominant in our current collection. Daruma doll.

Was that on purpose? Not really. It just happened like that. To be perfectly honest, we always had a soft spot for Daruma. It is angry and cute. It brings luck and holds onto your dreams for you. It is a constant reminder of better things to come and to never stop trying. If you think about it, it would be a perfect choice for our mascot. Unofficially, it actually is.

If you have no idea what Daruma is or does, let me catch you up to speed. Daruma is a traditional Japanese doll, a representation of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. Today it is often found sold in small shops around Japan specializing in charms and other items that one uses to attract luck and fortune. Daruma, however, is no lucky charm. It is an embodiment of a wish or a goal that one values most and sets out to work hard at to achieve. Your wish is sealed by the Daruma when you colour in the first eye. And if you succeed and it comes true, you celebrate by colouring-in the second eye. Make sure to keep Daruma around after that for good luck and as a happy reminder of how far you’ve come.

Does it work? Depends on the wish I guess. For us, it certainly did. We got our first Daruma on our first trip to Japan in ‘07. Back then we were students, visiting the island that we later would call home. We were on cloud nine, and, as one would expect, the trip was amazing. We explored the majestic Tokyo, marveled at its colours, quirks, beauty and culture. By the end of the trip we were certain that we needed to come back to stay. The wish we sealed in our Daruma was just that. Come back to Japan - not as tourists, but as residents. It took four years of determination and hard work. We studied Japanese. Studied the culture. And saved up money. By 2011 our wish came true. We were on the plane, destination - our new home.

It was an exciting time. We’ll never forget how awesome it was. The things we learned. And the amazing friends we made. We still have the Daruma. It now has two eyes. It predominantly resides on the shelf where we can see it every day. It is a reminder of all the hard work we put into our wish for it to come true.

As I said, it is not as much of a good luck charm as it is your personal cheerleader. So go forth, get one and wish wisely. We certainly didn’t stop either. We now have two new additions. They might be small, but they are mighty cute, and as far as we think, the force is with them.