Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter Fun

Some may think of winter as a gloomy time of year when it’s time to hunker down and stay indoors. Others embrace winter as a time to enjoy winter sports and activities. Being diverse in landscapes, Japan has plenty of offerings at this time of year.

Naturally, during the winter there’s skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating to be done. Areas like Hokkaido and Nagano are home to some world class ski-fields. Hokkaido in particular receives good amounts of snow as early as October and can keep its fields open well into the spring months. If you’re looking for somewhere closer to Tokyo, Nagano is only a few hours away by bus or train and was of course the site of the 1998 winter Olympics making it rich in winter sports facilities.

After a day on the ski slopes it’s popular to unwind in one of Japan’s many onsens (hot-springs). Popular winter resort areas are famous for their many natural onsens. The resort town of Nozawa in Nagano is famous for its dozens of onsens throughout the village, many of which are free of charge. Relaxing in hot natural spring water is a great way to sooth the aches, pains and injuries of skiing or snowboarding. You may even be lucky enough to enjoy outdoor springs that are a unique experience if there is snow falling.

If you are looking for things to do in the city, cities like Tokyo are remarkably clear during the winter months. The trees may be stripped bare but the air is fresh and crisp and the sun shines mostly every day. Winter is also the best time of year to view Mt.Fuji. The clear winter air makes it easy to spot the great mountain from far and wide. Its snow-capped peak makes for an idyllic scene.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Animated Characters ARE Giving

You’re never too far from a cartoon character in Japan. Animated characters promote everything from baby food to the police. This year there’s a new trend for animated characters; promoting charity.

During the new year’s break, a man from Nagasaki anonymously donated several school bags to a children’s charity. He did this under the moniker, “Naoto Date” (Tiger Mask), a famous character from the animated series Kamen Rider. Since his generous act, there have been hundreds of cases of anonymous donations made to charities and organizations across Japan, all of whom adopt the names of popular animation characters.

This current fad has highlighted the fact that many Japanese want to donate to charities but lack the channels to do so. Most donations have been to organizations that help children. The ability to do this anonymously has also been a boon.

Anonymity and blending in with the crowd are something of a virtue in Japan. Doing good deeds in secret has accelerated this charitable trend. Using popular animation characters has made it an even more attractive prospect for many Japanese.

The current Tiger Mask fad actually occurred in the early 1970’s and was somewhat short-lived. With any hope, this trend will not only continue, but expand and make donations to charity a commonplace event.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Happy New Year!

New Year’s, or oshogatsu, is the largest and most important holiday in Japan. There are a multitude of customs and traditions both old and new that Japanese people follow at this time. Some customs have been around for centuries while others are more recent additions to the holiday.

One of the most important customs of the holiday comes days and even weeks before January 1st. People send friends, family and colleagues nengajo (greeting cards). The influx of cards in the postal system causes Japan Post to hire hundreds of temporary postal workers each year. The giving and receiving of cards for new years is a relatively recent custom that was adopted in the 1800’s and is based on the western tradition of sending Christmas cards.

Of course there are many other traditions that you can discover in Japan at this time of year, but for foreign visitors perhaps the most striking is the new year’s celebration itself.

The celebrations and events at stroke of midnight on December 31st in Japan are somewhat different to those that westerners are used to. Instead of huge parties, fireworks and carnivals, towns and cities in Japan are flooded with people travelling to their local shrine. At the stroke of midnight shrines sound their bells 108 times to signal the beginning of the new year. People then give their prayers at the shrine, usually with their entire family. The crowds in larger centers like Tokyo can be massive. To cope with this the city’s train system runs around the clock at this time.

According to the Chinese calendar, this year is the year of the rabbit. Souvenirs and collectibles, featuring the animal of the year are a popular item at the start of the new year and are available at many shrines and shops across the country. The Chinese new year officially begins on February 3rd this year. China-towns in Japanese cities like those in Yokohama will also hold special parades and festivals to see-in the year of the rabbit.

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