Festival of the Seven Herbs 

Traditionally, January 7 is a significant day in Japan. According to Shinto custom, adopted from ancient Chinese custom, January 7 is jinjitsu (person's day), a day when criminals are spared from punishment. More applicable to the general population, January 7 is also the day of nanakusa no sekku, the Festival of the Seven Herbs. People celebrate nanakusa no sekku by eating nanakusa gayu, rice porridge with seven herbs. It is believed that eating the seven herbs on this day will bring good health and longevity in the upcoming year. It is also believed that eating a light meal of rice porridge and herbs will help settle stomachs troubled by six days of indulging in sake, beer, and osechi ryouri.

There are seven herbs traditionally used in nanakusa gayu, although it seems that what actually gets used depends on what's available in each region. You can buy the traditional seven in packaged sets.

Clockwise from left, the seven herbs are hakobera (chickweed), suzushiro (daikon radish), gogyou (cudweed), nazuna (shepherd's purse), seri (water dropwort, or Japanese parsley), suzuna (turnip), and hotokenoza (nipplewort).

We followed the recipe on the package and put toasted mochi in ours, in addition to the herbs.

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108 Bells 

In Japan, New Year's Eve is full of rituals to prepare for the passing of the old year and the crossing into a new one. One of these rituals, joya no kane, occurs at Buddhist temples. Joya no kane is the ringing of the temple bell 108 times on New Year's Eve. As we understand it, each of the 108 tolls represents a sin or a defilement of a person's mind. If a person hears all the tolls, he can repent for 108 of those defilements. The tolling begins before midnight and continues until the tolls are complete, straddling the changing of the year.

We went to Zenmyouji, a small temple rising above rice fields west of Kitakami to experience joya no kane. The tolling was underway when we arrived, as local people had already come to pray and make offerings at the bell. We were greeted by a very friendly woman who directed us up to the bell. She instructed us to approach the bell with our hands folded, make our offering, and ring the bell before returning to the greeters, who would give us a mikan (clementine). She then invited us to enter the temple for a prayer ceremony that would begin at midnight.

Incense greeted us when we entered the temple, as did a number of other attendees. At midnight, the ceremony began with the ringing of a smaller bell inside and the beating of a drum. The monk offered his prayers, then invited the attendees to approach and offer theirs. All the while, the larger bell outside tolled, as people continued to arrive and ring it, asking forgiveness of the old year's wrongs and praying for a better year ahead.
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Dawn of a New Year 

The new year dawned with spectacular weather, which some people have taken as an auspicious sign for the year.

We weren't actually up at dawn on New Year's Day, so this photo is from the second. But the weather was gorgeous both days, so we expect New Year's Dawn probably looked a lot like this.
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Shameless Commercialism, 2009 Edition 

Another year, another calendar. Check it out at Cafepress: thirteen of our photos from around Kitakami, Iwate, and other nearby places in Tohoku! Just click the calendar to take a closer look.
related link
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Safety Driver 

Late at night, especially on weekends, there's a common sight on the streets of Kitakami: pairs of cars, one with a taxi-style light on the roof. But if you look closely, the printing on the taxi light doesn't say "taxi". It says "daikou".

Daikou is a service for people who drive to a bar, pub, party, karaoke, or whatever, then drink. Drinking and driving laws here are draconian, so even if you've only had one drink all evening, you can't drive home. Instead, you call a daikou company. They arrive with a car (the one with the light on it) and two drivers. One of them drives you home (or to the next party) in your car, and the other car follows to take the driver to the next fare.

Amazingly, this service is cheaper than taking a taxi, so it's very popular.

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Pie Are Square 

A couple of weeks ago, we visited the local model shop. Usually when we drop by, the owner's wife sets out tea and coffee and we visit for a bit after Matthew's done his shopping. This time, she showed me a holiday edition of a Japanese cooking magazine, which got us to talking about apple pie. She apparently had a pie crust in her freezer, which she tried to give me. I had to refuse, citing our lack of an oven. Matthew had told them that he'd be back in a few days with a visiting train buddy. She likes to give us things, so I wondered whether a pie would be forthcoming.

Sure enough, when Matthew went back on Monday, he received a pie. A Japanese apple pie, that is.

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Holiday Finery 

The trees in front of the Kitakami city office, all dressed up for Christmas. The name of the decoration scheme is "Ribbon Showers."
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You Know You're In a Big City When. . .  

. . . there's at least one giant TV mounted on a building downtown.

This is Morioka's giant TV. Kitakami, alas, isn't big enough for one.
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Old Non-Habits Die Hard 

The genkan, or entryway, serves an important purpose in Japanese buildings. It is much more of a transition zone between inside and outside than in most American homes. When we enter someone's home or an office building, we remove our shoes and coats in the genkan before we enter; similarly, when we leave we put our outerwear back on in the genkan. Except that putting my coat on in the entryway is the one custom I just can't get after a year and a half.

We've put a lot of effort into learning many of the niceties of daily Japanese life and do a reasonable job of being polite members of society. So it's especially frustrating that something as basic as not wearing my coat all the way inside won't stick with me. Actually, it's more embarrassing than that: it wasn't until last week that it really sank in that wearing my coat inside was not daijoubu. And I had that unfortunate revelation as I was leaving a classroom at one of the companies where we teach, coat on. After that, it was like the Japanese etiquette mistake version of the walk of shame — walking quickly, kind of slinking, looking at absolutely no one as I went.

Mortification still fresh in my mind, I returned to the company today for my regular class, firmly reminding myself that I would not put my coat on until I reached the genkan. Which I successfully managed to do, but only after wearing my coat most of the way to the classroom when I got there.

Maybe I need to tie my coat to my shoes with string.
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Serving Suggestion? 

Although we've been here about a year and a half, Japanese packaged foods continue to surprise us. Last night, we made a bowl of ramen that we'd received at a community event a few weeks ago (community events in Japan always involve giveaways of household items). The picture on the package showed some garnishes like scallions, dried bamboo, and a thin slice of cow tongue. Tongue isn't a common ramen accompaniment. We assumed that it represented a serving suggestion and thought the inclusion of tongue kind of odd. The picture made sense, however, when we opened the package and found noodles, soup base, sauce, and a small package of dried garnishes that included . . . a thin slice of cow tongue.
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