MY FAVES: Spring traditions in Japan
MY FAVES: Spring traditions in Japan
During your time in Japan, you might have noticed that we have many traditions to go with every one of the four seasons. Spring brings a bounty of flowers, seasonal foods and traditions for you to experience.
The season is one of the most anticipated seasons as it involves the arrival of warmer temperatures and cherry blossoms. Soon, cherry blossom spots will draw people in for hanami, a spring tradition for picnics under the blush blooms. Hanami is one of the more popular and well-known traditions, but there are many more for you to ring in the arrival of spring.
These are some of my favorite spring traditions. Enjoy the long-awaited season with the joy and fun of the unique traditions.
- Setsubun – Kick off spring by warding off evils and inviting happiness in
If you were able to venture out in town on Feb. 3 this year, you may have encountered flying beans and fleeing demons. We celebrate Setsubun, which literally means “change of seasons,” on the day to kick off the preparation for the upcoming planting season.
Although it is still very cold in the beginning of February, the fun tradition of mamemaki bean-throwing reminds me that spring is just around the corner every year.
We purify our homes with mamemaki on the day: Someone in the family dressing up as a demon and others throwing handfuls of beans and chasing the demon away while shouting “Demons out and happiness in!”
When we practice the spring tradition at home, I always make it sure to shout the magical phrases as loud as I can while throwing the beans with all my strength, so that our home will be purified and filled with happiness, health and prosperity.
- Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) – Annual celebration of daughters
Hinamatsuri, also known as Doll’s Day or Girls’ Day, is a time when Japanese families display “Hina Dolls,” or a set of the emperor and empress in traditional kimono attire. Celebrated on Mar. 3, the holiday is a celebration of Japan’s daughters and prayers for their happiness.
On the day, we decorate the set of the hina dolls and offer special sweets and peach blossoms on the altar. So, the holiday often called “momo-no-sekku,” or festival of peach. You may have noticed giant displays of dolls and celebratory foods on sale at your local department stores, all for Hinamatsuri.
My wife handmade a set when our daughter was born 30 years ago. We have kept celebrating the holiday with the set without missing since then, although our daughter no longer lives at home. Looking at the set of dolls always reminds us of the arrival of spring, and a lot of pleasant memories with our daughter.
- Higan (memorial) – A visit with our ancestors
There is a saying in Japan that goes, “No heat or cold lasts over the equinox.” The autumnal and spring equinoxes are considered the border, and thus the end, of the respective hot and cold seasons. In Japan’s Buddhist tradition, these times also represent passing from one realm to the next.
Higan (literally, “other shore”) is a seven-day Buddhist memorial service held on the equinoxes (three days before and after). The concept can be likened to Memorial Day in the U. S. in that it is a special time set aside to remember friends and family who are no longer with us.
On Mar. 20, we visit our family tomb in temples or common cemeteries to offer prayers for deceased family members and friends. Sweet rice-gluten balls, or “botamochi,” are commonly eaten during these periods. (The name botamochi comes from spring flower “botan,” or peony.)
In Okinawa, there is a similar tradition of tomb visiting called “Shiimii”, which takes place April and early May.
Both the Vernal Equinox (Mar. 20 or 21) and Autumnal Equinox (Sept. 22 or 23) have been observed as holidays for more than 1,000 years in Japan. Originally, the Higan ceremony called on devout Buddhists to visit temples and offer prayers for the souls of the dead. Records indicate Higan was widely observed as far back as the 9th century A.D. when the equinoxes became religious holidays and the emperor called on Buddhist monks to read scriptures for these rites.
- Ichigogari – Enjoy the sweet smell and taste of spring
In Japan, strawberry picking is a popular spring activity. When the fruits become ready to pick in early January, many families (like us) flock to strawberry farms. Some even making a trip to famed picking spots in the country’s mountainous regions for a taste of the sweet berries. Strawberry-picking at local farms can be enjoyed until around the consecutive Japanese holidays, referred to as “Golden Week,” in early May in mainland Japan.
My wife and I always visit a strawberry farm in Yokosuka City where our home is located or neighboring regions, such as Chiba Peninsula or Atsugi City nearby NAF Atsugi and Camp Zama to enjoy the taste of spring. While walking around in a greenhouse of a strawberry farm, I probably ate 50 or more strawberries within 30 minutes.
It is fun to pick different types of strawberries and compare their textures and flavors with each other, too. Sachinoka is a smaller, crispier berry with sligthly sour taste; Akihime strawberries are larger, with a soft, springy textures and sweeter taste. Benihoppe, which is a crossbreed of the two, is large and bright red with a well-balanced taste.
Be sure to visit a strawberry farm this spring. Here is my advice - choose smaller berries that are red, as they are usually sweeter and tastier than big ones. And white berries don’t mean they weren’t ripe. They are ripe and tasty, just like red one. So, pick both red and white fruits and find a new favorite variety!
- Hanamatsuri – Celebration of Buddha’s Birthday
Just like Christmas, there is also a birthday of Buddha and that usually celebrated on April 8 in Japan, and it that reminds us of being the midst of spring. You may have seen anyone pouring sweet tea onto a small statue in the garden of a temple in April.
On this day, Buddhist temples place the statue of Baby Buddha in a small shrine so visitors, using a ladle, can pour sweet tea over it.
Although not a national holiday, many Japanese observe Buddha’s birthday, including students. When I was a student many years ago, my elementary school teachers would bring our classes to a nearby temple to take part in the traditional service.
According to the legend, when Buddha was born in Nepal on April 8, 566 B.C., a lot of beautiful lotus flowers blossomed from the earth and surrounded him while celestial birds chirped beautiful songs. Perfumed blossoms rained down from heaven, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe him. Pouring sweet tea onto the statue of Baby Buddha symbolizes the scene.
The celebration of Buddha’s birthday is always an annual reminder for me to remember Buddha’s precious teaching that is “regard yourselves as precious ones and don’t compare with others, thus you can stay much more at ease,” in the warm air of mid spring in April.
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