Awa Odori The humidity of a Japanese summer is broken by seasonal foods, excursions to the mountains and beaches and summer festivals. The principal summer event is OBON, an honoring of the spirits of the dead. Obon usually takes place between July-August. It is a time that many Japanese return to their hometowns and visit their families and enjoy the local traditions and festivals. A staple of the events is BON ODORI, folk dances performed outdoors and in concentric circles around a raised platform called a YAGURA. ODORI means dance and BON is the abbreviated name of a Buddhist text, URABON.

The Obon festival in Japan has been held annually since 657 A.D. Though a memorial observance, there is a festive mood. It is a time to remember and honor all those who have passed on before us, to appreciate all that they have done for us, and to recognize the continuation of the influence of their deeds upon our lives. Obon is also a time of self-reflection; the joy one feels is not from the happiness of getting what one desires, but the joy of awareness and appreciation. The first Bon Odori in the United States was performed in Hawaii in 1910. The first organized Bon Odori in the continental United States was held in the auditorium of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in 1931. The odori has become a popular annual event across the United States, bringing together both those of Japanese heritage and others. See Obon for more information about Bon Odori in the western states, including Sacramento.

Hinamatsuri is on March 3

March 3 is Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival or Girls’ Festival), when people celebrate the happiness and health of daughters. Families with young girls mark this day by setting up a display of dolls in their homes. They set out offerings of rice crackers and other food for the dolls.

The dolls wear costumes of the imperial court during the Heian period (794-1192) and are placed on a tiered platform covered with red felt. The size of the dolls and number of steps vary, but usually the displays are of five or seven layers; single-tiered decorations with one male and one female doll are also common.

The top tier is reserved for the emperor and the empress. A miniature gilded folding screen is placed behind them, just like the real Imperial throne of the ancient court.

On the second tier are three ladies-in-waiting, and on the third are five male court musicians. Ministers sit on either side of trays of food on the fourth step, and the fifth row features guards flanked by an orange tree to the left and a cherry tree to the right.

The practice of displaying these dolls on the third day of the third month on the traditional Japanese calendar began during the Edo period (1603-1868). It started as a way of warding off evil spirits, with the dolls acting as a charm. Even today, people in some parts of the country release paper dolls into rivers after the festival, praying that the dolls take people’s place in carrying away sickness and bad fortune.

Most families take their beautiful collection of dolls out of the closet around mid-February and put it away again as soon as Hina Matsuri is over. This is because of an old superstition that families that are slow in putting back the dolls have trouble marrying off their daughters. (Information courtesy of

Sing along with “Ureshii Hinamatsuri” song

Akari o tsukemashou bonbori ni
明かりをつけましょう ぼんぼりに
Ohana o agemashou momo no hana
お花をあげましょう 桃の花
Go-nin bayashi no fue taiko
五人ばやしの 笛太鼓
Kyo wa tanoshii Hinamatsuri
Let’s light the lanterns
Let’s offer flowers, peach flowers
Five court musicians are playing flutes and drums
Today is a joyful Dolls’ Festival

Christmas Season

Christmas in Japan? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus in Japan (and Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty etc). With only a about 1 percent of the Japanese population following the Christian faith, Christmas is still celebrated, though in a uniquely Japanese way.

There is no Japanese word for “Merry Christmas.” People just say it as an English word with Japanese pronunciation: “Merii Kurisumasu” (Click to listen to the pronunciation).

Colonel Santa and Christmas chickenDoraemon SantasChristmas cake

Christmas in Japan is a festival of lights and rich decorations displayed primarily in the cities and depāto (department stores).In almost every shopping mall and cafe Christmas carols can be heard. (Listen to Silent Night in Japanese) Christmas tree and Santa shaped cookies and food displays fill the panya (bakeries) and food courts in the basements of the large depāto. Some families have cultivated traditions like the Christmas chicken dinner (from KFC) and pretty Christmas cakes. Many of the holiday light displays go up in November and until Christmas there is an atmosphere of celebration present. But almost immediately after Christmas day, Christmas disappears. The focus of everyone’s attention turns to Oshōgatsu, the New Year activities. See this post for more about New Years.

Christmas in Japan has been cultivated by corporations to create a “Hallmark Holiday” of sorts. Though more a commercial holiday than a traditional one, it is popular nonetheless. The Christmas atmosphere in the cities can be enchanting. Christmas eve is an important romantic day of celebration for young couples, something like our Valentine’s Day dating expectations.

One of the most impressive seasonal sights are the light displays, a.k.a., illuminations They can be extravagant and dizzyingly elaborate. We hope to soon hare some photos or videos of Japanese illumination displays taken by our students, faculty and friends.

Some of Japan’s best illumination spots
      2015 Sapporo, Osaka, Hiroshima’s Dreamination, Sendai’s Starlight Pageant
               Tokyo Dome, Tsuruoka (Yamagata), and more Illuminations across Japan

Roppongi Hills 2014

Shiwasu 師走

SHIWASU is a Japanese work for December which literally means “teachers run around”. This word reflects the busiest month of the year. During December, BOUNENKAI (forget-the-year-party) are held among co-workers or friends in Japan. It’s a Japanese custom to send OSEIBO (end-of-year gifts) around this time of the year. Also, it’s customary to write and mail NENGAJOU (New Year’s postcards) in December so that they are delivered on New Year’s Day.
An important Japanese end-of-year custom is OOSOUJI which means extensive cleaning.  In contrast to spring cleaning that is common in the US, oosouji is traditionally practiced when the weather is rather cold.  It’s important for the Japanese to welcome a new year with a clean state, and all cleanings are done at home, work, and school before New Year’s holiday.

When the cleaning is done, New Year’s decorations are usually placed by December 30 around and inside houses.  A pair of KADOMATSU (pine and bamboo decorations) is placed at the front door or at the gate.  SHIMEKAZARI or SHIMENAWA made with a twisted straw rope, paper decorations, and a tangerine are hung in various locations to bring good luck.  It’s said that bamboo, pine tangerines are symbols of longevity, vitality, good fortune, and so on.  Another New Year’s decoration is KAGAMIMOCHI which usually consists of two different size round shape mochi (rice cakes) small one on top of the bigger one.

Since its traditional for the Japanese to eat MOCHI during New Year’s holidays, MOCHITSUKI (pounding of mochi rice to make mochi) is done at the end of the year.  People traditionally use a KINE (wooden mallet) to pound steamed mochi rice in the USU (stone or wooden mortar).  After the rice becomes sticky, it is cut into small pieces.  As prepackaged mochi are commonly sold at supermarkets nowadays, mochitsuki is not as common as it used to be.  Many people use automatic mochitsuki machines to make mochi at home.  In addition, a plenty of OSECHI RYOURI (New Year’s food) are prepared before New Year’s holiday.

Japanese usually spend OOMISOKA (New Year’s Eve) rather quietly with the family.  It is traditional to eat soba (buckwheat noodles) on New Year’s Eve since thin long noodles sympolize longevity.  It is called TOSHIKOSHI SOBA (passing the year noodles).  Soba restaurants around the country are busy making soba on New Year’s Eve.  People say to each other “YOI OTOSHI O” which means “Have a nice year passing” at the end of the year.

Before midnight on New Year’s Eve, temple bells across Japan begin to toll slowly 108 times.  It’s called JOYA-NO-KANE.  People welcome the New Year by listening to the sound of temple bells.  It is said that the temple bell tolls purify us of our 108 worldly desires.  At many temples, visitors can strike joya-no-kane.

OTSUKIMI, Harvest Moon Festival

 It’s Otsukimi, the Harvest Moon Festival, and this is the ideal setting in which to celebrate it.  While few Japanese are lucky enough to have tearooms, let alone a pond with a view to    the  east, this ancient festival is meant to celebrate the beauty of the moon, and the fall harvest.  At most homes, it’s celebrated in a much more humble manner.  Autumn flowers and     susuki (pampas grass, which is at its tallest and most beautiful at this time), are displayed, and kabocha (pumpkin), chestnuts, satoimo (taro potato) and tukimi dango (small white rice dumplings, piled high on a tray), are offered to the moon in the family alter.  The dumplings were traditionally thought to bring happiness and good health, and the offering is not only for the moon’s beauty, but an expression of gratitude for the autumn harvest.


でた でた つきが

まるい まるい まんまるい

ぼんのような つきが

Japanese Schools and Ethics Lessons

In Japan respect and the community has been very significant in their culture. The Japanese language is ripe with honorifics that promulgate these respectful relationships. As part of the comparison of Japanese schools with those in the USA here is a video about two schools and the student’s experience in modern Japan.

The video reveals how two Tokyo schools encourage children to feel a sense of obligation to help others.classroom bowing Pupils are asked to work in groups with particular responsibilities, including serving each other lunch and cleaning the school buildings at Suginami Dai Elementary and Koenji Junior High.
The Japanese Ministry of Education wants to encourage children’s individual strengths, yet it’s aware that if there’s too much emphasis on this, young people may no longer feel a strong sense of public duty.

As a result, schools are putting increased emphasis on moral education lessons, with great pressure on teachers to cultivate a sense of morality and citizenship. This school’s role is not just to teach language, but to share culture and learn from each other. Consider how the lessons in Japanese schools can be applied here to our corner of the world. What can we do this week to promote and demonstrate respect and a sense of community?

Soji no Jikan

At Sakura Gakuen more than just the language of Japan is shared. A blend of cultural experiences and lessons is part of our curriculum. This includes more than the Culture Days, cooking, crafts and field trips. Class discussions, projects and skits often focus on culture. As part of the examination of culture, the similarities and differences between Japanese and American schools is a relevant topic for our students. This post is a glimpse of one of the many practices at Japanese schools.

Japanese students sweep, wipe, rake and clean up their school on a daily basis and have fun doing it. soji no jikanThe daily ritual of soji no jikan, cleaning time, is not only a practical way of maintaining the school, it is a subtle lesson that reinforces student’s responsibility, a sense of community, and respect. By everyone cleaning, the task is made easy and fast. Additionally simple life skills are taught as well as the idea that cleaning is not a punishment but just a daily routine. The web is full of videos showing that it can be very entertaining and everyone participates in the soji no jikan, including the sensei.

Check out this fun video that makes you want to clean.

Typically in Japan soji no hikan is performed after lunch. In schools that provide lunch, the students themselves serve the meal, taking the food to classrooms and picking up after the meal. The school clean-up includes not only the classrooms but the school grounds and playing fields as well.Students sweep, wipe, rake and clean up their school on a daily basis and have fun doing it.

More descriptions of Japanese school life are pending

「初…」 「Hatsu…」 the “firsts” of the year

Celebrating the new year in Japan also means paying special attention to the first time something is done in the new year.

Hatsu-hinode (初日の出)is the first sunrise of the year.  Before sunrise on January 1, people often drive to the coast or climb a mountain so that they can see the first sunrise of the new year.

Hatsu-moude (初詣)is the first trip to a shrine or temple to pray.  Many people visit a shrine after min\dnight on December 31 or sometime during the day on January 1.  Many people dress up or wear kimono for the Hatsumoude. 

Hatsu-yume (初夢)is the first dream of the new year.

Kaki-zome (書初め)or Fude-hajime (筆はじめ)is the first callygraphy and Hatsu-dayori (初便り)is the first exchange of letters.

Shigoto-hajime (仕事はじめ)is the first work  and Keiko-hajime (稽古はじめ)is the first practice of the new year.

Hatsu-gama (初釜)is the first tea ceremony of the year and the Hatsu-uri (初売り)is the first shopping sale of the new year.

Welcome to Japanese Culture!

Image by Bernadeta Szanto Ozimec

This section of our website will feature a rich variety of all things Japanese. We are calling for submissions, so be creative! You could submit a photo, an essay, a recipe you tried and liked, travel stories, or artwork. It’s up to you.

Maybe you’ve already uploaded a video on “How to fold a paper crane” to YouTube and you’re just waiting for it to go viral.

What better way to share your amazing skills than to submit it to