August is Ghostly Japan: Japanese superstitions & other mysteries . . .

Ghostly Noh mask of a woman courtesy of Your Japan Private Tours Ltd

More Japanese people believe in old superstitions than you might think, even though Japan has some of the most developed cities in the world.

Every country or culture has its own superstitions. Sometimes the symbol of fortune or a sacred object in one country has a completely different meaning in other cultures. For example, Japanese think that if a bird poops on you that it is a good luck sign. A European would never think of that as a good sign. Another example is snake skin. Some Japanese people put pieces of a shed snake skin in their wallet in the belief their money will return the way a snake’s new skin returns.

One superstitious thing many Japanese people are really careful about is yakudoshi or misfortune/bad luck years. There are three different ages in one’s life that are believed to be particularly bad for unfortunate incidents or events: 25, 42, and 61 for men, and 19, 33, and 37 for women. The year before and after these ages are also part of the bad luck cycle. The middle year, called taiyaku (big misfortune), is the worst. Japanese people visit shrines to pray to the gods to rid them of bad events (yakuyoke). Some shrines hold special rituals for yakuyoke. Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto offers this service (on most days) from 9:00 to 16:00 for Yen 5,000.

Another way to stop the bad energy of yakudoshi is to carry something that has seven special colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, navy blue and purple). Belts, wallets, bracelets and pendants are among the things one can find in Japan with these 7 colors. Recently, 7-color straps for cell phones have become very popular.

Some locations are more alive with superstition and power than others. One of the most famous in Kyoto is Ichijo Modori-bashi Bridge, where the dead come back (modoru) to life. In the early Heian period (794-1132), a monk named Jozo was training deep in the mountains. One day he got a letter that said his father was in critical condition. He tried to return quickly to Kyoto to speak with him one last time. However, he arrived only to see the funeral crossing over the bridge. Jozo prayed strongly that his father would come to life so that they could speak again. Suddenly the sky above the bridge became dark, a bolt of lightning struck, and his father revived. This is how the bridge got its name. In WWII, many Japanese soldiers came to this bridge in the belief that they could come back from the death fields of war. Engaged women are warned not to cross the bridge as it may turn her into an unengaged woman again.

Another legend related to this bridge is about Abe no Seimei, the most famous sorcerer of the Heian period (794-1185). According to one story, he hid his magical power or shikigami under the bridge. Therefore, the bridge is believed to have some mysterious power from him. Abe no Seimei is still very famous and there is a number of books and information about to him. Seimei Shrine, a 5-min. walk north of Ichijo Modoribashi bridge, enshrines his spirit. Many people from all over Japan come and visit here every day.

Japan is also alive with superstitions and stories of ghosts. For example, many people believe that the ghosts of unhappy ancestors remain caught in the water worlds after Obon (August 10-16) and so many stop swimming after August 16th.

In the Edo period (1600-1867) telling ghost stories was a popular night time fright game in which groups of people would gather at night and lit one hundred candles, taking turns telling ghost stories. For each tale told a candle was extinguished, deepening the shadows and the tension until the room was plunged into darkness—ghosts would then appear!

Yurei, usually the ghosts of females who died in the grip of intense emotions such as jealousy or despair, are considered to be the most terrible ghosts. They are depicted as a shadowy figure draped in a white burial kimono; hands are limp and beckoning, hair long and messy.

A well-known yurei tale is about Oiwa and her husband, Iyemon, who betrays her. But when Iyemon tries to poison Oiwa, he only disfigures her, leaving one eye bulging from a swollen, partly bald head. Finally, he impales Oiwa and her servant to a door and throws them into a river. Thinking his troubles are over, he marries. When he lifts his bride’s wedding veil he is terrified to see the vengeful face of Oiwa’s ghost. Drawing his sword, he mistakenly beheads his new bride!

Content courtesy of Ian Ropke, Japan destination expert and travel designer (since 1990). Going to Japan? Visit us @  .  . .


 The Sento Japanese Communal Bath: A big part of traditional Japan that is slowly fading

The Sento Japanese Communal Bath–A big part of traditional Japan that is slowly fading

The sento (Japanese traditional public bath) is a word with deep communal meanings in Japan.  A place where people can be with people in the most natural of ways.  A place to get super clean.  A place to warm up in the dead of winter.  A place to reconnect oneself with the old ways of the Japan and the spirit of the local community.

During the Edo era sento were perhaps the most popular community attraction as woodblock prints from that time clearly depict.  In those days both women and men bathed together.  It was only during the Meiji period with the arrival of strong Western influences and morals that the sexes began bathing separately.  In pre-war Japan the sento was still pretty much where everyone went to wash, as baths were heated with wood, and very few people could boast of having their very own private bath.  The arrival of gas lines in the 1950s changed things dramatically: suddenly people were able to have their own, easy to heat bath in the home.  However, in the beginning, this was a luxury all the same, requiring considerable initial expense.  But over the last twenty years nearly every Japanese home has acquired its own bathing facilities and the sentos have fallen dramatically in number.  Changes in the attitudes of younger generations to traditional and inconvenient customs and practices have further eroded the customer base for sentos.

1024px-Kiyonaga_bathhouse_women-2What has kept the local neighborhood sento alive and well is the fact that a fair number of homes in certain neighborhoods, often characterized by a high density of tight nagaya (row houses or townhouses) have no bath.   Another factor that influences the survival and popularity of the sento is perhaps the age-old desire of people to be close to people.  This is, of course, only true of those areas that still continue to foster a healthy, neighborly community spirit.  And there are few.  However, in cities like Osaka and Tokyo the public sento of old has all but disappeared.  But larger cities and towns that survived the war and which still have extensive areas of machiya and other traditional wooden structures, there still exist a remarkable number of sentos and living community areas.  Below are descriptions of 5 popular community sentos in Kyoto well worth visiting.  Entry is ´ 290 (not including towel).

Don’t be surprised if people stare at you.  Most patrons will assume that you’re not from the neighborhood for a number of reasons, and they’ll probably be right.  Remember to behave respectfully, wash before bathing, and most importantly of all to relax and let the warmth soak into to your bones.  If in doubt, do like those around you.  You can hardly go wrong.

Recommended Sento in Kyoto

Funaoka Onsen

This sento is probably the oldest one in existence in Kyoto, dating from the late Edo period.  The ceiling of the change rooms are high and made of fine wood.  Of particular interest are a  number exquisite, almost baroque ranma (Japanese wood carving panels) which partition the change room.  Open daily 15:00 – 1:00.  Located directly south of Daitoku-ji Temple.  Tel: 441-3735.


This sento is entirely modern and thus quite the experience.  Three stories high, bathers change on the first floor and then ascend, by elevator, to the second floor where there are several large baths including a big whirlpool.  There is also a large sauna on the 3rd floor, more pools and the added luxury of a wooden, outdoor hot tub.  Open 16:00 – 11:30 pm, closed Tuesdays.  Tel: 561-3232.


This sento, located a little south of the Sanjo shopping arcade, is one of the few sentos that is open in the morning.  Here you can see business people from local shops, sometimes for hours at time, relaxing, chatting and, of course bathing.  This is a large sento with several big pools, a separate cold bath and shower set up, whirlpool, and steam bath (a sauna is located next door to the entrance to Sakura-yu).  Located between the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku arcades three streets south of Sanjo.  Open 9:00 – 23:00.  Closed Fridays.  Tel:  221-4062.


Located 50 meters southwest of the entrance to the Kurodani Temple zen complex (a wonderful place any time of day, especially around sunset when the monks file into the meditation chamber and to begin their daily 30 min. chant), Tokiwa-yu is one of several sentos remaining in the Okazaki area (where the high number of old, tiny houses, many without bath, makes the local sento indispensable).  Open 16:00 – 11:30 pm, closed Wednesdays.  Tel: 771-5035.


This sento is a fine example of a war period community sento: wooden floors, the patina of time and good use.  Hot pools & cold.  Steam bath too!  Located 20 meters south of Kitaoji two streets east of the Kamogawa Kitaoji Bridge (east of Kitaoji Station).  Open 16:00 – 11:30.  Tel:  701-1739.

Written by Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT, since 1992), a Japan destination expert for travel and tourism. He specializes in private travel (customized day trips with guides / private guided tours) and digital guidance solutions (about 25% of our business and growing!). Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit or call us on +1-415-230-0579.

An Old Interview with New York Golden Boy David Kidd (1927-1996)

David Kidd (1927-1996), who passed away on November 30, 1996, Year of the Rat, resided in Japan for over 40 years, some 20 of them in Kyoto. Besides founding the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts (located in Kameoka, just 15 miles west of Kyoto) he has also, at one time or another, been a contributor to The New Yorker, university language instructor, advertising copy writer, and antique dealer. Before settling in Japan, he lived in Peking from 1946 to 1950, and was witness to the Communist takeover of that city. His experiences during those years are related in his astonishingly timeless memoir, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1988).

Interview from the early 1990s which first appeared in the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide.  Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours, was the Editor-in-chief of KVG from 1994-2009.

YJPT: Had you intended to come to Japan all along, or was it the revolution in China that got you here?

DK: I originally planned to go to China for four years to become a scholar and then go back and teach and write serious books. When you’re young, you don’t know any better! First it was going to be China four years, Japan four years, and India four years. China was almost exactly four years, then I came to Japan and four years became eight, and by the time I got to India I realized my plan would never work. Two weeks in India wasn’t very good for me, and four years would have killed me! Anyway, I graduated from the University of Michigan when I was 19–I was in a big hurry–and received an exchange scholarship with Yenching University which was offered to me by the American  ambassador to China at that time, [Dr.] Leighton Stuart.

YJPT: Your book is dedicated to him, isn’t it?

DK: Yes, and quite rightly. If it weren’t for him . . . I used to read all those travel books about people going all around the world doing wonderful things but they never told you how they got there! My scholarship didn’t involve any money–it only allowed me to attend that university and have a place to stay–so I started teaching English immediately. When my students asked difficult questions about grammar, I told them they should have learned that in high school!

YJPT: We’ve heard there are plans to turn your memoir Peking Story into a movie.

DK: The movie rights have been sold again–for the fifth time. But this time to a real producer, so I think this might be it. The real question is: Who plays me? It’s important for the character to be taller than the average Chinese and blond. Several years ago I had considered my friend, David Bowie, but now he’s too old, I think. This Daniel Day Lewis just may be the one. Wasn’t he a blond in “My Beautiful Laundrette”?

YJPT: In your book you don’t really go into detail about how you actually left China.

DK: I had a section about that but my publisher thought it was better not to include it, because the last chapter was already complete in itself. I think we’ll probably put it into the movie though, along with a lot of other extra material. I’ve been working on a film script myself but can only make suggestions since the screenwriter will have his own ideas. But I think it’ll probably start with a flashback, with me standing in the ruins of Peking, something that was once beautiful, and saying, how did it get this way? Then it’ll go back, alas, forty years. I would like it to show a last, loving glimpse of old China. When I was first there, Peking was falling slowly into gorgeous ruin but was still intact. Old mansion families and princely homes, like the Yu mansion itself, were still there. The Yu mansion is the major character in the book, and what happens to it is its total destruction. I’m even now amazed that any culture could wipe itself out in a short 35 years.

YJPT: What else did you leave out of the book?

DK: Since I wasn’t in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, I could only describe the people I knew who had experienced it, without going into detail. I had to write the last chapter [describing his return to China in 1981] very carefully because if I wrote it the way I really felt about it, I would lose my reader. Mao hated the intellectuals because he thought they would undo everthing he had done. His whole purpose was to wipe them out. [During the Cultural Revolution] you only had three choices: you got killed, you committed suicide, or you turned off. When I went back I met a number of those who had just turned off their ability to suffer, to enjoy–anything.

YJPT: What did you do after you left China?

DK: I went to New York and taught the history of Chinese art at the old Asia Institute. One day two young Japanese arrived, one claiming to be the son of a famous tea master. He turned out to be the present Mr. Sen [Sen Soshitsu, famous internationally minded headmaster of the Urasenke School of Tea]. After performing a tea ceremony at the Institute–which was a great success–he invited me and Jay Gluck to Japan, and three months later we were on our way. Three typhoons and numerous stops later I finally arrived in Osaka on Christmas Eve, 1951. The city was absolutely flat, with just these funny little buildings dotting the blank landscape. I later discovered they were kura [storehouses] that hadn’t burned during the bombings. I spent a very cold winter in Kyoto living at Urasenke, and by summer I discovered I had a deadly case of T.B. The next year was spent in the old international hospital on Rokko where I first started writing stories for The New Yorker.

YJPT: Where did you finally settle?

DK: First to Wakayama, which was a mistake! Then I moved into a true palace in Ashiya [between Osaka and Kobe] which was originally built in Shikoku in 1867 as the great mansion of a sake-making family. It was later rebuilt in Ashiya in 1903. After fifteen years it somehow turned out that I owned the house but not the land. The owner told me to buy the land for $5 million or move the house. To his amazement I took the house and went. A couple of years ago I gave it to the University of Hawaii, and now we’re raising the $2 or $3 million it will take to ship it there and rebuild it on campus.

YJPT: And then you moved from Ashiya back to Kyoto?

DK: Yes. I had toyed with the idea of moving back to Kyoto anyway, since it really is the cultural center. More so at that time than now, as they continue to destroy it building by building. It’s very methodical, the extermination of old Kyoto. In former days, we looked out over Kyoto and saw gray roof tiles and green gardens. Today, all white; concrete, and not good concrete, either. Japanese architecture is so excessively expensive to maintain that I can understand why Japanese get out of these old houses as soon as they can. It’s only because I’m a fanatic that I keep this 60 year-old house going. China was destroyed by revolution, and now Japan–Kyoto in particular–is being destroyed by money.

YJPT: Tell us about the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts.

DK: I dreamed it up in a frenzy one night–a “Berlitz school” of Japanese culture–and founded it in 1976. I was the director for twelve years with my friend, Yasuyoshi Morimoto, as co-director. We not only taught foreigners about the traditional arts, but taught our Japanese staff how to teach them. The school was financed and continues to thrive under the direction of Oomoto-kyo [a religious organisation] whose followers believe that the practice of the arts is itself a spiritual practice. Their Kameoka center, built on the site of an old castle, has incredible facilities.

YJPT: How did you first get involved with Oomoto-kyo?

DK: I got to know them through strange circumstances. An acupuncturist named Dr. Mii brought my mother back from a stroke, which was the first miracle I had ever experienced. I asked him how he had done it, and he explained that he was an Oomoto-kyo follower. So that’s how I found Oomoto, and how Oomoto found me. It’s all very mysterious.

YJPT: Did you become a member of the religion?

DK: No, I could not have done that because, first of all, I never become a member of anything, and, second, it would have made me useless as the neutral party I had to be.

YJPT: Looking back over your life, do you regret that you didn’t pursue an academic career?

DK: Not in the least. When I came back from China, I visited the University of Washington in Seattle, where friends from Michigan were on post-graduate courses. They were all thrilled because I was the freshest thing right out of China. They offered me scholarships but it was too late, I had tasted the world. I couldn’t go back into those ivory towers and forget it all. However, I have enjoyed writing a number of scholarly articles, most of which have appeared in Oriental Arts, a London magazine.

Courtesy of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT). Ian Ropke, founder and owner of YJPT (since 1992), is a Japan destination expert for travel and tourism. He specializes in private travel (customized day trips with guides / private guided tours) and digital guidance solutions (about 25% of our business and growing!). Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit or call us on +1-415-230-0579.

Nihonjin & Nihongo: Japanese culture & language


A few days in Japan and every visitor gets the feeling that it might be a good idea to study Japanese. Of course thinking about it is always much much easier that actually starting to learn anything at all. This is especially true of something as hard as Japanese, one of the five most difficult languages in the world. On the other hand, if you think it is going to be hard, it probably will be.

Start off on the right foot by believing that you can learn a little and then from there a little more and so on. What ever you learn, even if it seems totally useless, will, in the end lead you to something new. Start at the place that interests you or that is the most interesting for you. Some people get into the kanji (Chinese ideograms), some enjoy creating grammar patterns and others take a more practical approach by memorizing verbs, nouns and adjective. No matter where you start you will find that your understanding of the Japanese and their culture will improve. In the end, you can’t lose!

Unlike nearly all languages in the world, written Japanese is a mixture of two historical realities. First of all, spoken Japanese came before written Japanese (which was developed some time in the late 8th century in Kyoto). Therefore, when they modeled their words onto the Chinese writing system everything did not exactly fit. For example raku, kyaku or koku, key Japanese sounds, do not exist in Chinese. Therefore, Japanese is a combination of kanji and hiragana. Second of all, many Japanese words (more and more every year) are borrowed from other languages, especially English and German. These words, though written using katakana, which makes them easier to identify, are usually quite different from the sound of the original word. For example, mass communication, is masukomi in Japanese. Even the words ‘situation’ and ‘all mighty’ have Japanese counterparts. To make things even worse, the meaning of the original word and the Japanese version of it may be entirely different. Consider the German word for work, ‘arbeit’; in Japanese arubeito means part-time job.

For many the biggest challenge of any new language lies in the grammar. Japanese grammar is not really difficult. It is simply quite different from most European languages, where the verb is between the subject and the object. Japanese sentences are constructed with the verb at the end, after the subject. In English and Spanish, you would say: “I went to the fish shop”. In Japanese, you would say: “I fish shop to went.”

If you are German, then you do have an advantage as German sentences also end in the verb. This explains why Japanese people learn German much more quickly than they do English. German’s strict obedience to its rules versus English’s maddening disobedience to the rules it is supposedly built on, most likely also makes German easier for the Japanese.

Some people say sentences ending in verbs are perfectly suited for a culture that is as hierarchal and deeply polite as Japanese society is. If you get the feeling, clearly or just as an intuition, that the person you are speaking with is already displeased with what you are saying, you can simply change the verb at the last minute. For example instead of saying: “I don’t want to compromise.” you can say: “I will compromise.” In this way you can avoid conflict, an core desire in Japanese social interaction.

One of the aspects of Japanese that can be the most difficult for Westerners lies in the appropriate level of politeness. There are three levels of polite language: keigo or “formal Japanese”, the polite “masu” verb form, and the straight verb form style. If you really want to be safe, then two levels are probably enough: the masu form for formal or polite situations and the straight, almost brutal, plain verb ending for informal situations. The first form is always safe but can be a bit stiff at times. The key lies in knowing when which form is truly the right one. When in doubt choose the more polite form.


If you have a good memory, then learn Japanese the super fast way: memorize words and expressions only and forget about, at least for the time being, grammar all together. The best mix is: 40% verbs, 40% nouns and 20% adjectives. A superb book for this is Japanese for Native Speakers, Hokuseido Press. It has what is considered to be the essential of all essential vocabulary lists, broken down into nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. at the back: these 20 pages are priceless for any serious Japanese student. Kyoto also has more than its share of excellent Japanese schools with courses suited to every type of person and level. See page 14 for a list and call today! Get further into Japan and Japanese culture: learn a little Japanese every day.

For a deeper look into Japan consider Your Japan Private Tours: Quality Japan travel expertise since 1992: private guided tours, itinerary design, off-the-beaten track destinations no matter where you travel in Japan:


Shinto: All about deities, shrines and symbols


Shinto is Japan’s original religion and today it maintains a strong position next to the country’s other main religion: Buddhism. It is interesting to note that nearly all Japanese do not even know what the word Shinto means. The word Shinto comes from the Chinese characters: god and path. Elegantly translated Shinto means The Way of the Gods. Today, if you want to get onto the subject of Shinto you more or less have to begin talking to people about the world of the jinja or shrine.

Shinto for the average Japanese of today is a world of superstitious beliefs and practices that most people do. Few understand very much about the religion and this is understandable as there are basically no holy texts. Shinto has no real founder, no religious laws and only a very loosely organized hierarchy of priests. It is a religion of the wild world of nature, of which humans are just one tiny part.

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Evidence indicates that its main beliefs came into existence before 500 BC. These beliefs are a combination of many things: nature worship, shamanism, fertility cults, and techniques for divining the future. Until the end of WWII, the Emperor of Japan was regarded as one of the many gods or kami in the Shinto pantheon. He descended to earth from heaven as the kami that would live among men.

The divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, gave birth to the islands of Japan and their other children became the deities of Japan’s many clans or tribes. Their daughter, Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess) is the mother of the Imperial family. Her shrine at Ise is one of the largest in Japan and the emperor journeys there every year to pay his respects. Indeed, much of the emperor’s yearly life revolves around the many rituals and ceremonies that he, as a god, has been performing throughout the year for over 1,500 years.

The gods or deities of Shinto are very unlike the gods of other religions. They do not get angry and they do not try to influence people with the ideas of sin and guilt. Many of the Shinto gods do not have a human form, for example, mountains, rocks, trees, rivers, which are usually considered to be guardian deities of a particular area and clan.

Shinto and Japanese Buddhism are also quite accepting of each other. The Buddha is just another kami or deity. And the many kami of Shinto were viewed as nothing more than manifestations of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In traditional Japanese homes it is quite common to find two altars: one for Buddhism (called a Butsudan) and another for Shinto (called a Kami-dana or Shelf of Gods).

In the shrine people do many things. When entering the sacred zone of a shrine people wash their hands and rinse their mouth in a practice know as misogi (body purification). Then they shake the rope to call the deity and pray, finishing with two claps of the hand. All shrine ceremonies and rituals, including sacred Shinto dance (kagura) and music (gagaku), and sumo (in ancient times), are directed to the deity.

Jinja Things
Ema Prayers: at many shrines, especially bigger ones, you will see small pieces of wood, all hanging together in one place, on which are written prayers to the diety of that shrine; many of these boards have colorful paintings of symbols (animals, etc) of the shrine on them. Guardian Animals: At the entrance to the central grounds of any shrine, you will find a pair of animals; they guard the shrine from evil; common guardian animals include Chinese dogs, Korean lions, foxes (inari), cows, even rats or monkeys. Omamori Goodluck Charms: every shrine sells charms or omamori—small, finely made bags with an amulet in them—that protect against evil, bad fortune, poor health, and many other things; people hang them in their cars and homes. Omikuji Goodluck Slips: tied to trees in the shrine precinct you will see many white slips of folded paper; these are fortune bearing pieces of paper that predict a bad fortune and thus they are left behind, just in case something the diety can reduce or change what is predicted. Shimenawa: in many shrines you will notice thick pieces of rice straw, always woven of an odd number of strands for good luck wrapped around a tree or stone; this rope indicates that the thing encircled is sacred. Zigzag Paper: called gohei this paper marks the boundary of a sacred space.

For a deeper look into Japan consider Your Japan Private Tours: Quality Japan travel expertise since 1992: private guided tours, itinerary design, off-the-beaten track destinations no matter where you travel in Japan:

Giving Gifts: A way to understand the ways of Japan


Gift-giving is as much a custom of every day life as it is an art. And few cultures in the world place as much importance on gifts as Japan does. Naturally, Kyoto was for the longest time the place in Japan where gift-giving customs developed and were refined.

As is true in many cultures, in Japan gifts can be used to express thanks or, more importantly, strengthen or create relationships. Indeed in a society as strictly tiered and densely urban as Japan, gift-giving is nearly always a communication about one kind of relationship or another. An excellent example is when one moves into a neighborhood. In this situation, the Japanese either give buckwheat or soba noodles (because they are long and thus imply a long relationship), or washing machine detergent or soap (to symbolize a clean, pure start to the relationship).
Gift exchange is so important in Japan that there are two primary seasons for giving gifts: oseibo and chugen. Both have historical connections to the ancestor worship rites of the New Year and Obon (mid-August), respectively. Today, both periods occur, not surprisingly, at the beginning of winter and summer, when even the business world, albeit briefly, enters a period of rest and quiet.
Oseibo and chugen were originally nothing more than a simple offering at the family altar. It served as a way to welcome the spirits of the ancestors to the ancestral home. Common traditional offerings included special kinds of preserved fish, rice, and rice cakes (see photo). Later gift-giving expanded to convey gratitude to village headmen, craft guild heads, marriage matchmakers, one’s boss, and anyone else upon whose kindness one’s own life depended. Naturally, corporate related gifts are very common. In a way, the annual winter and summer bonus seasons are a part of the gift-giving period. This is a time that the corporation or business expresses its gratitude, in the form of money, to its workers.
Gift giving and exchange is such a normal part of Japanese daily life that it has developed into something that is very practical. There is a joke that goes: If you wait long enough the gift you once gave will be given to you. Very well connected people have entire separate rooms in which to house their gifts. These gifts are carefully cataloged and to be passed on to the right person. Indeed, gift-giving is an industry in itself.
Naturally, given that space is limited in most Japanese homes and companies, food is a favorite gift. This is especially expressed in the idea of the omiyage or souvenir given to one and all of importance upon returning from a trip. Every place in Japan that attracts a modest number of tourists has it meibutsu or famous thing, usually a kind of cake, cracker, or pickle. In ancient times, all of these things had special merit: they were easy to preserve and yet differed greatly from place to place. Omiyage of this kind are available throughout the town or place they come from, especially stacked up in neatly wrapped (i.e. ready to go at the last minute) boxes at the train station. At any big international airport in the world, the Asian, but particularly the Japanese, custom of giving gifts is quite evident.
Another prominent gift custom involves weddings. In Japan gifts are given to everyone that is invited to the wedding and then another kind of gift to everyone that donated money (about half is returned in the form of a gift). All department stores have special catalogues of popular and naturally suitable items from which one can choose a few or many of the same thing. The “gift” department staff is trained in gift wrapping (an art and a subtle form of communication). In Kyoto, often how something is boxed and wrapped is equal in importance to the gift itself. In the old days and still often enough today, the person bringing the gift will wrap it in a furoshiki: a large, traditional cloth used to carry things and in many other ways (it is usually returned).
When you receive a gift in Japan, do not open it (unless you are asked to). Strange as it may seem, the person giving the gift will usually tell you what it is. This has much practical value: one must remember what one received; one must know what is inside to decide if and how to pass it on. Such are the secrets of gift giving!
In Kyoto the shopping opportunities, both traditional and modern are nearly endless. For a full look at all levels and perspectives, spend a few hours wandering around the world of Takashimaya Department Store (see their AD on page 14). If you do buy something for someone else, just tell the clerk at the counter, “purezento desu, tsutsunde kudasai” (it is a gift, please wrap it).

Performances for the gods: Japanese Noh Theatre


Japanese Noh theatre is one of the oldest dramatic forms in world. The early developments of Noh lie in the festive entertainment of various kinds (dance, simple plays) performed at temples and shrines in the 12tha and 13th centuries. Noh drama for much of its history was favored by the samurai, priest and aristocratic classes. Unlike Western theatre, the Noh performer is more a storyteller who suggests the meaning of the play with his movements and through his appearance or costume. Until 100 years ago, the audience was intimately familiar with the plot and the historical or mythological background of the play and knew how to interpret and appreciate symbolic and indirect references to Japanese history, much like early audiences at Shakespeare’s plays.

Nearly all of the Noh plays performed today were written by the start of the 17th century. The vast majority of the core Noh repertoire were written by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (1333-84) and his son, Zeami Motokiyo (136-1443) in Kyoto. Zeami, as the father of Noh, developed most of the principles upon which Noh theatre has always been based. Today, of the roughly 2,000 Noh texts that are known to exist, only 230 core works are still performed regularly. Today, the Noh world has two centers: Kyoto and Tokyo

Dramatically, the Noh theatre is by no means as complicated as Western theatre forms. Essentially, there is no plot and everything on stage takes place very slowly. The plays are quite short: not much more an hour, during which only two or three hundred lines will be chanted. The plays are usually tragic and related to themes beyond the human realm in a space populated by gods, demons and ghosts. The setting is generally a very simple place that has some special significance to the main character or actor (shite). The other main performers on the stage are the waki (playing the role of a Budhdhist priest or the opposite role of the shite) and the one or two actors that “assist” the shite and waki. All the performers in a Noh play are men, even when the role is female.

In addition to the main actors on the stage, who often wear symbolic wooden masks and carry one of two simple props—a fan or a wooden staff—Noh performances involve a chorus of 8 singers and up to four musicians playing one of two kinds of instruments (3 sizes of drums and a flute). The rhythm of the drums indicated the degree of tension the main actor is trying to convey to the audience. All the elements blend into a single harmonic whole and no one single element dominates. In ancient times, when a theatre event could last most of the day, comic relief kyogen plays were often performed between each Noh play. Today, kyogen exists as a theatre form that is usually separate from Noh, though exceptions like the annual Takagi Noh (Fire-light Noh) in June have continued.

The moving spectacle of the Noh is inseparable from the striking, often haunting beauty of Noh men (masks), which can be divided into five basic categories: shin (gods), nan (men), jo (women), kyou (crazy entities) and ki (demons). There are about 80 distinct masks. It takes a master mask maker about one month to finish a single mask.

Though many Noh masks appear to be expressionless, they actually function to express any of the wide range of human emotions–joy, anger, sorrow or pleasure–common to Japanese dramas. Worn with a downward tilt, the mask is said to express sorrow. Tilted upward, the mask conversely is interpreted to express joy and laughter. A Noh mask contains the very soul of the character it depicts. When an actor begins to prepare for a role, it is to the mask that he or she looks to discover the essence of the character. Until the mask is in place, the actor is simply himself, but once it is on, he is transformed—body and soul—into that character. Given the central importance of the mask to Noh, it is no surprise that every Noh school treats its masks with a profound reverence. The leading schools often use masks in their performances that are hundreds of years old!

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