Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Festival)

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March 3rd is Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Festival) in Japan. The traditional way to celebrate is for girls to set up these elaborate displays of dolls – the emperor and the empress are at the top, then the ladies in waiting, then the court musicians. Below there are two guards (with bows and arrows), and lots of traditional furnishings and accessories made of lacquer, including a tea ceremony stand with tiny bowls and even a tea whisk! At the bottom in the middle is a cart that would have been pulled by oxen.

If a family is rich then they might buy a set of hina dolls like this when their daughter is born. A set like this costs a fortune! Of course you can also buy smaller sets, or just single dolls.

These hina dolls are on display at the World Friendship Center in Hiroshima. So if you go to Hiroshima, you can go to see them.

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Chrysanthemum Show

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In November some shrines and gardens have beautiful displays of chrysanthemum flowers of all shapes, sizes and colours. Some are just single flowers, and other are huge domes of hundreds of flowers (all from the same plant I think!). A shrine called Yushima Tenmangu (near Ueno in Tokyo) even has a scene with life size historical figures where everything except their faces and hands is covered in chrysanthemum flowers. Apparently these ‘chrysanthemum dolls’ have been made for hundreds of years. They do look pretty amazing!

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Special Forecast

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Every country has weather forecasts, but in Japan because the Japanese really, really like the autumn season when the leaves change colour on the trees before they fall, they have special forecasts for when and where the leaves will turn red, yellow orange and gold! This screen is in a train station so even people going to work can plan when to take a day off to go to see the beautiful autumn leaves. That’s quite cool, isn’t it!

P.S. They have the same kind of forecasts for the cherry blossoms in the spring.

Samurai Skill

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This is yabusame: mounted archery, in other words trying to hit a target while riding on galloping horse! Yabusame displays to honour the Shinto gods are held in Tokyo only 3 times a year. I was lucky enough to see this amazing festival of samurai skill in Takadanobaba. When the samurai still existed (until the middle of the 19th century) they tested their battle skills in ways such as riding a galloping horse while taking aim and firing at a target. The target is a wooden panel and they use special double point arrows to knock down the panel. At the display there were five riders dressed traditionally as equestrian samurai. Each man had his own horse, and they took it in turns to gallop along a sandy path with 3 targets along the way which they had to shoot at and try to hit. Now just imagine galloping along at top speed and then letting go of the reins to shoot an arrow at a target and then quickly reloading to do it again. There were lots of misses but also quite a lot of hits. One samurai actually managed to hit all 3 of the targets in a row!

Sacred Sake Barrels

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A Shinto priest in special white garments walks past a giant storage shelving unit that holds huge barrels of sake (a strong rice alcohol) that has been donated for the Shinto gods of the shrine. The barrels are called kazaridaru and have been donated to the shrine by sake brewers and companies, who hope that the gods will make them prosperous in return. The barrels hold about 70 litres of sake! But actually, the ones on display are usually empty and just for show. The brewers do donate sake to the shrines though, and the sake is used for Shinto ceremonies and rituals and also given out at festivals. The Greek Gods drank ambrosia, but the Japans Gods drink sake!

Yakuza Tattoos

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These guys are gangsters! In Japanese they are called yakuza and they often have full body tattoos all over their bodies except on their faces and necks, wrists and hands, and ankles and feet – this is so they can wear a long sleeved top and long trousers to hide the tattoos. They want to hide them because first of all they want to be a little secret about their identity, and secondly because in Japan it is traditionally considered that only criminals have tattoos. Of course, that’s what these guys are – criminals!
Because the tattoos can’t usually be seen, if you walk around Japan you usually won’t know if you meet a yakuza. You might meet a guy and not know at all if he’s a yakuza or a perfectly normal man! The yakuza only reveal themselves at certain festivals (like the Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo where this photo was taken) where they pose for photos with nothing on except for a loincloth and show off their tattoos. When they do this they are friendly and safe to talk to (as long as you’re are polite and respectful!) – just normal people if you overlook the tattoos! Yakuza tattoos are usually really high quality and very artistic.
At other times the yakuza might come to your store and say, “give us some money or something bad may happen to your store,” and they kind of control some areas of the city or town they live in . They work in gangs in entertainment areas mostly, and even have offices! But the police don’t often arrest them. It seems that they don’t really see them even though they know they are there. And there are so many that it seems that it is impossible for the police to arrest them all to stop the criminal activities!