For some of you reading, perhaps you’re familiar with the old line that you should never open an umbrella indoors, lest you be cursed with bad luck. Perhaps you’ve lamented over your coming 7 years of bad luck over that mirror you dropped. Or maybe you’ve even been hesitant to pass beneath a ladder, for fear of something bad happening.
Whatever your particular brand of superstition, chances are many of them hinge on bad luck. In Japan, however, it may come as a surprise that many commonly held superstitions are not only completely unrelated to luck, but are also incredibly, and oddly, specific.
In Japanese funeral rites, more specifically Buddhist funeral rites practiced in Japan, the body of the deceased is laid with the head pointing North. It is said that when Buddha died, he fell with his head facing North, and the Japanese replicate this by directing their deceased in the same direction. It follows then, that sleeping in a way that mimics the way the dead rest will bring you bad luck.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The story goes that if you hiccup 100 times in a row, you might as well bend over and kiss your butt goodbye. This one apparently comes from a lack of knowledge of disease in the past. People who have hiccuping to the degree that they would have 100 in a row usually have some underlying cause that can lead to death if untreated. In the past, with no knowledge of disease, the hiccups themselves were associated with death, and not as a symptom of something more serious.
If you have allergies or a cold, don’t worry. This is for those random sneezes you get out of nowhere that immediately make you go “well, that was weird.” This superstition comes from the idea that, since a sneeze is not something you can make yourself do, a random sneeze is caused by the connection made between yourself and a person talking about you.
Though some might be quick to jump on the “weird Japan” train with this one, it’s not actually a superstitious belief in transmogrification. People say this to remind their children and family members that no matter how tired you might feel after eating, it’s unhealthy to lie down and then fall asleep on a full stomach, as it can lead to weight gain. The cow part just means getting fat.
According to acupuncture, various spots on the body supposedly stimulate various responses. The center top of the back of the head, a common place for a cowlick, is one such spot, and applying pressure to it is said to cause a gastrointestinal response.
Most popular laundry detergents have a variety made for indoor drying. You can look for the phrase 部屋干し用(へやぼしよう － heyaboshiyou). These laundry detergents are designed to prevent souring.
In the west, it’s often said that visualizing an audience in their underwear will help ease your nerves. In Japan, you eat “people” to calm down. If you’re facing a big speech or some other nerve-wracking activity, simply write the kanji for “person”, or 人 (ひと) on your palm 3 times and pretend to eat them. The idea is that your audience will look very small to you from wherever you are standing; so small in fact, that should you wish, you could reach out and eat them, so there is no reason to be nervous.
This superstition comes from Daikokuten, a hybrid Buddhist/Shinto god often associated with wealth and good fortune. He was known for his rather large earlobes, so people who also have large earlobes are thought to have a predisposition for wealth.
In the older, less modern days of human trafficking, this was told to children to keep them quiet at night to prevent them from being kidnapped by traffickers (snakes). Today, it’s just another superstition.
Japanese is full of homophones, or words that sound the same but have totally different meanings and spellings. Two of these are 夜爪 and 世詰め which are both read as よづめ, or “yozume”. The first yozume means clipping nails at night. The second means to die before your parents. These two homophones carry a bad omen, so it is said that if you do yozume (clipping your nails at night), it carries the other meaning as well.
So, since the “dying before your parents” meaning would mean you wouldn’t be around to see your parents’ funerals (as you would be, ya know, dead), clipping your nails at night will give you a curse that will prevent you from being at your parents’ funerals, no matter how hard you try.
In Japanese, the word for thumb is 親指 (おやゆび), or oyayubi. This literally translates into “parent fingers”. The idea is that when you see a hearse, you should protect your parents from death by covering them, i.e. covering your “parent fingers” with the rest of your fingers.
During the past few weeks, Ken has seen a number of SUVs with small rowboats on top, presumably for some sort of nature excursion. While driving, he covered his thumbs when he saw them because he thought they were hearses at first. This happened two other times recently. Then today, he saw what he thought was another SUV/boat combination, smirked, and didn’t cover his thumbs, only to realize it was indeed a hearse. He’s pretty worried about his parents now. ;)
No matter what culture you come from, chances are there are seasonal foods that we all look forward to. In the summer in Japan, Nagashi soumen is one such food.
Soumen is a type of Japanese noodle made from white flour. It is typically dipped in a soy sauce-based dipping sauce, and is served cold, making it a popular summer dish for it’s cool, refreshing taste. The noodles themselves are not sticky or greasy, and are actually quite slick. They don’t have much flavour alone, so the dipping sauce is essential. Garnishes like Japanese basil (シソ shiso), sliced leeks (ネギ negi), and myoga ginger (ミョウガ myouga) are also commonly eaten with soumen.
If you have never had soumen, you can find it at many restaurants or you could even try your hand at making it yourself! This is what it looks like dry:
流しそうめん (nagashi soumen) literally means “flowing soumen”. Sometimes cooked soumen noodles are put down a bamboo shoot flowing with cold water. People will stand along the shoot and try to catch noodles as they quickly flow past, then dip them in a small bowl of sauce. If a noodle is missed, however, fret not! Usually the person after you will catch it. In this way it almost becomes a kind of competition.
This style of eating soumen was started in 1955 in Miyazaki prefecture. Farmers started doing it during break times, and it became incredibly popular. Nagashi soumen is now done all over Japan during the summertime.
There are a number of ways you can make a slider for the water and noodles. If you are crafty, you can purchase and split bamboo logs, remove the knot between segments, and lay them slightly overlapping end to end, at a slightly downward angle.
You can also use cleaned plastic bottles and other kinds of plastic to rig up a slider.
If actually making a slider isn’t your thing, there are a number of tools you can buy that emulate the experience.
Whatever your method for nagashi soumen, it is definitely something you should try at least once. It’s an excellent way to pass the time, have a little excitement, and have a refreshing treat in the beastly Japanese summer.
Stay cool and have fun, everyone!
For info on sunscreens available in Japan: https://www.lifeabroad.jp/html/personal_care/sunscreen.html
For info on insect repellents available in Japan: https://www.lifeabroad.jp/html/daily_life/insect_repellent.html
For tips on how to stay cool in the summer: https://www.lifeabroad.jp/html/daily_life/heating_ac.html#cooling
Aedes albopictus, or the Asian tiger mosquito, also known as evil incarnate. These abominations are common in many countries, and most of you will be familiar with them. You will see them flying around your homes, poorly air conditioned schools and government work places, and generally everywhere. They look like this:
When you notice one of these bastards flying around your face, generally being annoying and disruptive, he’s often not the one you should be worried about. Mosquitoes often work in pairs, and when one is busy distracting you, another is busy popping you like a Capri Sun.
So if you see one that is flying around you but not trying to land on you, look around for another one that’s already on you.
If like me you were not born in Japan, everything from the common cold to mosquito bites on this side of the pond can cause much more severe reactions. Having not grown up here, my immune system is not accustomed to the variations in bacteria and viruses, so when I get sick, boy do I get sick. A simple cold will have me out of commission for 3-4 days with extremely high fever, severe body aches, coughing that can break ribs, and general malaise so bad I am bedridden.
This reaction is not typical for Japanese people, whose immune systems are accustomed to common attackers to where they can typically continue working throughout their illness. In a similar way, when Japanese people get bit by a mosquito, they can generally expect an average sized bug bite of average itchiness. When I get bit, I can expect something like this:
That is one bite, with a horrendously itchy and painful welt that took up almost the entire width of my arm. This is actually an allergic reaction. If you are not from Japan and have a tendency to get bit by mosquitoes (I envy those that don’t), you may have a similar experience. Unfortunately the only thing that can be done about it is to apply one metric tonne of itch cream and wait for it to dissipate, after which you may be left with scars for months and months even if you did your best not to scratch the damn thing.
Even one of these can be unbearably itchy. I can tell you first-hand that the hot spoon method doesn’t work. Neither does pressing an ‘x’ into the bite with your fingernail. The most effective products I’ve found are Muhi S and Kinkan. You can find info on itch relief products here:
For those of you from the U.S., there is a product called After Bite that was super effective and contained ammonia. They reformulated, taking out the ammonia, and now After Bite doesn’t work at all. Kinkan (キンカン）has ammonia, menthol, camphor, salicylic acid, and capsaicin, so it works wonders on bug bites. Just be sure not to put it on broken skin or rashes, as it will burn and make the issue worse.
If the OTC stuff doesn’t work, you can always go to your doctor or dermatologist and they will give you prescription itch relief cream. They are usually steroid based, so be sure to follow the instructions carefully and wash your hands after use.
A couple years ago there was an outbreak of Dengue Fever in Yoyogi Park. This year seems to be all right so far, but with the number of mosquito-borne diseases we should watch out for, prevention is key. Luckily, insect repellent can be found easily and affordably in Japan. We actually have an all-English list of repellents, with their active ingredients and instructions on the Life Abroad website. Check it out here:
Most repellents here, like in other countries, contain DEET. For most people, DEET works great for keeping mosquitoes away from you. If you’re like me,however, DEET does literally nothing to deter mosquitoes from feasting on your delicious delicious blood. No matter how much I apply, the damn things still manage to drink me. Luckily, however, I have found a solution: I make my own. It works like a charm and it smells awesome, too.
Mix the alcohol and peppermint oil together. Pour into spray bottle. Add the purified water. Shake well before use. Store in refrigerator for cooling sensation during use.
All of these ingredients can be bought on Amazon or your local drug store. The peppermint variety happens to be the one that keeps mosquitoes off of me (the only times I get bit now are when I forget to spray myself). There are other varieties where you can use other kinds of oil that may work better for you.These kinds of sprays work by masking your smell from mosquitoes. Peppermint makes me smell delicious, but not to tiny blood suckers. It also keeps my skin feeling cool, which is a bonus considering how hot it is already.
NOTE: In the event of an outbreak of Dengue Fever, Malaria, Zika, or any other mosquito-borne disease, please follow the directions of the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) or the World Health Organization (WHO).
Until the mosquitoes finally go away for the year, take care to protect yourselves!
If you’ve ever seen or studied Japanese theater, you know that traditionally, it is primarily a male art. Kabuki and Noh are probably the most well-known to the West. In these forms of theater, all roles are played by men, even female roles.
Takarazuka is Japan’s answer to the lack of female representation in theater. Founded in 1914 by Ichizo Kobayashi, the girls at his Takarazuka School put on their first performance, and history was born. Takarazuka celebrated its 100th birthday in 2014.
The Takarazuka Revue consists of 5 all-female theater troupes founded throughout the 1920s and 30s (Flower, Moon, Snow, Star), and one in the mid 90s (Cosmos). There is also a specialist troupe (Senka) consisting of superior performers that can join performances of any of the other 5 troupes.
Takarazuka troupes perform primarily at 2 main stages in Hyogo and Tokyo. Each troupe has a Top Star for “otoko yaku”, or male lead performances, and a Top Musume for accompanying female leads.
Current Top Star for the Flower troupe, Rio Asumi.
Current Top Musume for the Flower troupe, Ayase Senna.
The Takarazuka Revue perform everything from Broadway musicals and classic Japanese theater, to film, comic, and anime adaptations. They also perform original productions. Some of their most famous performances include Les Miserables, The Rose of Versailles, Gone with the Wind, and Romeo & Juliet.They perform almost 1,500 times per year, and sometimes perform overseas.
Takarazuka has an average yearly viewership of 2.5 million people. They are extremely popular for their beautiful costumes, unique performances of various adaptations, and most notably, the actors who take on male roles. The “otoko yaku” have a feverish following, and many female fans often develop feelings for them, especially for the Top Stars.
The Top Stars and Top Musume are the pride of Takarazuka, as well as its backbone; without the Top Stars and Top Musume, “Takarazuka is nothing”. The subversion of traditional gender roles is also something that makes Takarazuka extremely popular, particularly in a society whose gender roles are still rigidly defined. Whatever an individual’s reasons for loving Takarazuka, it is worth going to see at least once.
If you want to learn more about Takarazuka or order tickets, please visit http://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/index.html