New Years in Japan

The first few days of the new year are very important in Japan. Many people follow traditional customs and rituals that have been passed down from generation to generation.

New Year’s day is usually a day spent with family. Many people go to a shinto shrine for “hatsumo-de”, which is the first shrine visit of the year. People pray for good health and luck in the new year.

traditional customs:  伝統的な習慣      rituals: 儀式

passed down: 受け継がれる generation to generation: 代々


New Year's ShrinePeople lining up at a shinto shrine for “hatsumo-de. 


You can often find bonfires on the shrine grounds. These are to burn good luck talismans and charms such as “daruma” from the previous year. They are burned, and replaced with new ones for the new year.

shrine grounds:  境内   good luck talisman/charms: お守り

previous year:  前年          replaced:  取り替える


Burning DarumaBurning “Daruma” dolls at a Shinto Shrine. Both eyes filled in indicate a wish that has been fulfilled.

Dondo YakiCeremonial rake “kumade” being burned. These rakes “rake in” good luck.


At home, it is customary to display a “kadomatsu” outside the home.The “matsu” means pine, and the most common types are made with a bamboo structure and pine decorations.

the most common types: 主流、一般的な

KadomatsuMini “kadomatsu” decoration. The two kanji means “welcome spring”.

A popular dish for New Year’s is “ozoni”. A kind of soup with mochi (sticky rice cakes) in it. We enjoy ours with chicken, carrots, and daikon, among other things.

popular dish: 人気料理


OzoniHomemade “ozoni”.

Shiobara Hot Springs (塩原温泉)

We took advantage of some nice weather to visit Shiobara Hot Springs, located in Nasu-Shiobara City in Tochigi Prefecture. Shiobara is famous for its many baths, which feature water with various colors ranging from white to black (see Jessica’s post from October). These can be enjoyed at the many Japanese-style inns and hotels in the area.

We arrived in Shiobara in the afternoon. The fall colors in the surrounding forest were past their peak, but were still quite beautiful.

its many : 様々の   feature: 〜を特徴とする     Japanese-style Inns: 旅館

surrounding: 周辺の   past their peak: ピークを過ぎた

Shiobara Utusnomiya-5Beautiful fall colors in Shiobara.

First, we stopped by a local eatery famous for its “Soup Yakisoba”. Yakisoba is usually a fried noodle dish. However at Kobaya Shokudou, they serve the yakisoba in a soup, much like ramen.

local eatery: 地元の食堂

Shiobara UtusnomiyaSoup Yakisoba!

After our meal, we took a walk along the Houki River that runs through the town. The red Japanese maple leaves that had fallen along the riverbank were still bright and colorful.

runs through the town: 町を貫く      riverbank: 川岸

Shiobara Utusnomiya-4“Momiji” (Japanese Maple) leaves by the riverbank.

Shiobara Utusnomiya-2“Momiji” leaf on a a bridge. 

On our way home we decided to eat dinner in Utsunomiya City. Utsunomiya is famous for its gyoza (fried dumplings) and is in fierce competition with Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture to maintain its position as the number one city for gyoza consumption in Japan.

We ate at the Utsunomiya Gyoza Kan, situated across the street from Utsunomiya Station. The regular, garlic, extra meat, and soup-style gyoza were all excellent!

fierce competition: 激しい競争      maintain its position: 順位を維持する

gyoza consumption: 餃子の消費量

Shiobara Utusnomiya-9Utsunomiya Gyouza Kan (the character is Kenta)

Shiobara Utusnomiya-10Garlic Gyoza!

Kyushu Part 1: Kagoshima Prefecture

We recently visited the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands – the island of Kyushu. The kanji characters for “Kyushu” mean “Nine Provinces” (九州), although currently there are seven prefectures. On this trip we first visited Kagoshima Prefecture.

Kagoshima Prefecture is well-known for its prominent, and very active volcanic island, “Sakurajima” (桜島, Cherry Island). The volcano’s eruption warning level had just been raised to level 4 while we were there. Fortunately, there was no major eruption, but many tourist facilities on the island were closed as a result.

We also visited the caves where historical figure Saigo Takamori spent his last few days. Shiroyama Park is close by, and offers splendid views of the city and Sakurajima.

prominent: 目立つ、突き出した   active volcanic island: 活火山島

eruption warning level: 噴火警戒レベル    tourist facilities: 観光施設

historical figure: 歴史的人物    splendid views: 素晴らしい眺め

Kagoshima SakurajimaMt. Sakurajima as seen from Shiroyama Park.

Kagoshima was historically controlled by the Shimazu Clan, and the historical remnants of this era can be found at Senganen Gardens (仙巌園), and the accompanying Tsurumine Shrine (鶴嶺神社).

historical remnants: 歴史的な残り物  accompanying: 隣接、付属

Priests Tsurumine JinjaShinto priest at Tsurumine Shrine, located next to Senganen Gardens.

About an hour south of Kagoshima City is the town of Ibusuki (指宿). Ibusuki is a popular destination because of its famous “sand baths“. Geothermal energy heats the sand, which is shoveled onto customers by the staff. We spend about 15 minutes “bathing” in the sand.

destination: 目的地    sand bath: 砂風呂

geothermal energy: 地熱エネルギー   shoveled: ショベルで盛る

Ibusuki Sand Bath 1People enjoying the “sand baths” of Ibusuki.

Ibusuki Sand Bath 2Visitors to the “sand baths” wearing yukata.

Lavender Fields (ラベンダー畑)

We have had very hot temperatures continue for over two weeks here in the Northern Kanto Plains. To escape from the heat, we headed up to the Tambara Lavender Park in Numata City, Gunma Prefecture.

Tanbara is a ski resort during the winter months, but in the summer it is home to over 50,000 lavender plants, in addition to other flowers including sunflowers, marigolds, lilies, and hydrangeas. The temperatures were around ten degrees cooler than in the plains – roughly 25 degrees Celsius.

It was nice to see the many bees and butterflies flying from flower to flower!

Northern Kanto Plains: 北関東平野    escape from the heat: 暑さから逃れる

headed up to:  へ向かう    sunflower: ひまわり   marigold:  マリーゴールド

 lilies: ユリ   hydrangeas: アジサイ  ten degrees cooler: 10度涼しい

flying from flower to flower: 花から花へと飛び交う

Tanbara Lavendar FlowersA sea of flowers.

Butterfly LavenderButterfly feeding on lavender.

Sunflower and Bee Sunflower and bee.

Tanbara Lavender CloudsSummer cumulonimbus clouds.

Fujioka Matsuri (Fujioka Festival)

July 18-20th was a three-day weekend. Monday was “Umi-no-hi”, or Marine Day (also known as “Sea Day”, or “Ocean Day”.) We live in Gunma Prefecture, which is landlocked, but nonetheless we took advantage of the weekend by enjoying one of the main events of the year in our city, Fujioka Matsuri.

The festival features, dancing, music, parades, food stalls, games, among other things. However, the main events are the “Mikoshi” and “Dashi”. These two events take place on Saturday, and Sunday, respectively.

The “Mikoshi” are portable shrines carried on the shoulders of a team of (usually) men.

The “Dashi” are large, traditional wooden floats that are pulled by ropes and which carry people playing instruments such as drums and flutes. Each one belongs to the a particular neighborhood in the city.

three-day weekend: 三連休   landlocked: 陸地に囲まれている

took advantage:  〜を生かす  food stalls: 屋台   among other things: 他にもある     

take place: 行われる   instruments:  楽器  belongs to: 〜に属する    

particular neighborhood:   特定の近所/地区

Men pulling a Dashi festival float.

People pushng a Dashi festival float.

Men carrying a Mikoshi portable shrine.

Men carrying a Mikoshi portable shrine.

Arches National Park

We visited Arches National Park (アーチーズ国立公園), in eastern Utah near the city of Moab, Utah. This national park is famous for its unique geography and natural rock formations, of which the arches are the most well-known. It is a large park (310 square km), and we spent three days exploring the area. In addition to the rock formations, you can find dinosaur tracks, and petroglyphs carved into the stone by the Native Americans who lived here long ago.

eastern Utah: ユタ州の東部   unique geography: 珍しい地形

natural rock formations: 自然にできた岩層   well-known: 広く知られた

square km:平方キロメートル  exploring: 散策する  in addition to: 〜に加え

dinosaur tracks: 恐竜の足跡   petroglyphs: 岩面彫刻

Delicate ArchThe famous Delicate Arch.

Arches National Park TreeTwisted Tree in Arches National Park.

Bird Cafe

Pet cafes are fairly common in Japan. Since housing in Japan tends to be small, and because many apartments do not allow people to keep pets, animal lovers go to pet cafes to relax, and enjoy the company of animals. While cat cafes are well-known, there are also pet cafes that feature rabbits, reptiles, and birds. We went to a bird cafe in Omotesando, Tokyo. The birds were bright, colorful, and cute…but they were loud!

fairly common: やや一般的   housing: 住宅

tends to be~: ~の傾向にある   do not allow: 禁止する・許されない

the company of~: ~と一緒にいる・共に過ごす

well-known: 有名・知られている

reptiles: 爬虫類    loud: うるさい

Bird 1Resting bird.

Bird 2“Hello there!”

Wisteria Flowers (Fuji)

Fujioka City, in Gunma Prefecture is having its annual Wisteria Festival from April 25 to May 10th. “Fuji” in Japanese is “Wisteria” in English, so the city takes its name from the distinctive purple flowers. There are many events going on during the festival, including various performances and exhibitions. Vendors are selling their wares as well. The highlight of the festival may be the natural tunnel of wisteria flowers. When seen at full bloom, they are quite impressive!

annual: 毎年の  wisteria: 藤   distinctive: 独特の

performances: 演技・講演   exhibitions: 展示会

vendors: 商人・店   wares: 品物   highlight:(祭り)の目玉

quite impressive: (非常に)印象的

Fujioka Wisteria 1Wisteria flowers in a row.

Fujioka Wisteria 2Purple and pink flowers!

Fujioka Wisteria 3Wisteria flowers, as seen from below.

Cherry Trees and Dogwoods

103 years ago, in 1912, the mayor of Tokyo presented the city of Washington D.C. with a gift of approximately 3,000 cherry trees. The trees traveled by ship to Seattle, from where they made the journey to the capital, Washington D.C.

Three years later, in 1915, the American government sent 60 dogwood trees (40 white, and 20 pink) as a reciprocal gift of friendship. Dogwood trees are known as “hanamizuki” in Japanese, and are popular due to the fact that they are hardy, and bloom shortly after the cherry trees have lost their blooms.

This year marks the centennial of the original gift of dogwood trees. The post office has issued special stamps to commemorate this occasion.

Dogwood Hanamizuki Stamp

Special stamps celebrating the Centennial (1915-2015)

presented: 贈った   approximately: およそ    made the journey: 旅をした

capital: 首都     dogwood trees: ハナミズキ  reciprocal gift: お返しの贈り物

due to the fact that: と言うことにより    hardy:  丈夫 

centennial: 100周年     issued special stamps:  記念切手を発行する  

commemorate: 記念する

Dogwood HanamizukiA pink Dogwood (Hanamizuki) in Fujioka City

Vending Machines in Japan

Today’s photo is of four vending machines found next to a local train station. Many visitors to Japan are surprised by the number of vending machines that can be found here. They are ubiquitous, especially in central areas of cities. However, they can also be found in locations that are seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

I think it’s rare to see vending machines outdoors in America, because some people would try to break into them to steal money, or vandalize them for fun. Vending machines in America are most often found indoors.

Another thing that surprises many people, is that you can buy not only cold drinks, but also hot drinks, depending on the season. There are even some vending machines that offer wifi hotspots for passersby, and others that can recommend drinks to people by guessing their gender and age.

Japanese Vending Machines

vending machines:  自動販売機  visitors: 観光客    can be found: 見られる

ubiquitous: 至る所に有る     seemingly:一見した所

middle of nowhere: 何も無い場所     rare: 珍しい

break into them to steal money: 壊して金を盗む    vandalize: 壊す/いたずらする

not only ~ but also~: 力  depending on: 〜により   passersby: 通行人/通りかかる人

guessing: 推測する     gender and age:  性別と年齢