Friday, February 18, 2011

Hina Matsuri, Coming Soon to a Department Store, School, Day Care Center or a Home near you!

Our Travel Photo Thursday offering for 3 March 2011
One of the things I really enjoy about living in Japan is all the different cultural events and festivals that I have a chance to see and participate in that as a foreigner, most of us have very little knowledge of.

One of those cultural experiences in Japan occurs every year on the third of March. For girls all over the country, it is a very special day. It’s a celebration for just being a girl known to the local population as “Hina Matsuri” or the Festival of the Dolls.

Its origins have been traced back to ancient China but it really gained popularity in Japan during the Edo period, 1603–1867. In its original form, people would make dolls, commonly known as hina ningyo, out of paper and then float them down a stream as a way to get rid of bad luck. Later it was combined with other traditions and it evolved into what we see today.

Today, the festival consists of a display of dolls, either in the home or in a public display such as in a school. The dolls are set up at the end of February and remain on display through the 3rd of March. The display is taken down immediately on March the 4th. To keep the display up beyond that is believed to invite bad luck.

On that special day, girls will invite their closest friends to their home for a party. Special foods are prepared and enjoyed. If the day falls on a weekday, many times schools or day care centers will hold a separate party or celebration just for the girls and dolls are set up on a special tiered display.

Traditional displays consist of seven tiers but displays with lesser numbers of tiers are not uncommon. The upper top most level dolls that represent the Emperor and Empress. The next lower levels are filled with dolls that represent Ladies in Waiting, musicians, and Ministers of the Emperor. Lowest tiers are filled with miniatures of furniture, carriages, food, and musical instruments. The dolls are dressed in the traditional ancient Japanese style.

Usually, the parents or grandparents of a newborn baby girl will purchase a doll set or the set can be passed down from generation to generation. The new doll sets often become heirlooms and great care is taken to pack and unpack every individual piece of the set each year.

For families that cannot afford the larger and more expensive doll sets, smaller sets or even ornate origami (folded paper) doll figures are made and used in their place. Sometimes these modest hand made displays are just as beautiful and impressive as the more expensive versions.

Just prior to the festival, many of the popular local department stores will put out Hina-Matsuri displays of various sizes for sale. Some stores will cordon off very large areas for the displays. When these displays are up, it would probably be a very good idea for parents of young children to keep a closer eye on their youngsters while shopping. The reason being is that in Japanese business operations the principle is: if you break it, you bought it.

This Post featured in Travel Photo Thursday

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Riding it "Doggy" Style

A week ago we had one of those really rare (at least this year anyway) beautiful bright sunlit days that we just had to get out of the house with our cameras. Cherry blossom season up north was starting to wane, the traffic up that way is also a nightmare as a result of training season for the Japanese professional baseball teams being in session.

The Defending Champion Nippon Ham "Fighters" from Sapporo Japan make their training camp in Nago. This year they have a brand new rookie phenom pitcher named Saito. I can't remember his first name off the top of my head. Hell, it's a miracle I remembred his last name. It turns out that he was the last pitcher to win back to back championships at the National Koshien high school tournament four years ago.

After his senior year and having won every game he ever pitched as a high schooler, he opted to go to college instead of putting his name in the draft. If I remember correctly, he never lost a game in college where he was the pitcher of record either. Anyway, he made a name for himself during the high school tournament some years before which roughly translated to "Engrish" means the Handkerchief Prince.

Yeah, instead of wiping his sweaty brow with his forearm like a real man during the tournament, he pulled a hanky out of his back pocket during the middle of the game. All the old ladies thought that was so cute and a star was born. His mother wrote a best seller about how she raised him and ever since training camp opened, it's been wall to wall women (of all ages) at the stadium where they practice. I know because I drive past there on my way to work every day.

Now you're probably asking yourself what the hell does all of this have to do with the title of this post? Well I'll put those of you with dirty minds at ease because I did not catch young Mr. Saito doing the nasty in the bushes with some young baseball groupie bimbette! I didn't catch him with some older married woman cheating on her husband either. If I had, I would be selling that picture for gazzilions of Yen to the Japanese media. We didn't even go to see any of the teams in training, at least not yet.

We all gathered at Ryukyu Mike's hang out and headquarters, a bar in Kin called "My Place." We were going to take in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Kin at the base of the new mega-dam they're building. But Rusty, Mike's new sidekick, I guess I'm regulated to the status of has-been in that category, met us there and informed us that the festival didn't start until 4:00 PM that afternoon. Now we had about five hours to kill.

Well we stopped at a new place called the Okinawa House of Pancakes (OHOP) for lunch. That's a pretty decent place by the way, well worth a trip back and well worth a restaurant review. That is, if I ever get around to it. Anyway, when we stepped back out into the street, all the cloud cover that made it look as though it was going to be a really crappy day for shooting had burned off and the skies were the clearest blue we had seen in what seemed like weeks.

With all that time to kill, we quickly decided to head over to the Kin Nature Mirai. That's a really nice nature park built at the mouth of the river. They often hold festivals there and the place is popular with kayakers and bird watchers. There's all kinds of little mom & pop postage stamp sized farms there too.

We had been there only about 15 minutes when the first Osprey flew over. I'm talking about the bird and not the U.S. Marine Corps flying death trap. They aren't scheduled to be deployed to Okinawa till they move that air field from the big city down south to the coast line up north. That's if they ever get around to building it. Somehow in the back of my mind, I'm beginning to get the feeling they won't.

The tide was way out and the place was pretty busy for watching birds. Hell, it was just fun to be out of the house and enjoying the clear blue skies and for this time of year, unusually warm sun. Just to give you the idea of what the weather's been like here as of late, Ryukyu Mike actually wore a long sleeved shirt, regular length trousers and unbelieveable but true, he wore shoes instead of his trademark flip-flops!

Around 4:00 PM, just as we were getting ready to pack up and head on over up stream to the dam where the festival was going to take place, I got a call from the wife with a "honey-do" list. That meant my time for this day was up but just as I was about to leave, Rusty pointed over to the bridge and said something to the effect of "Holy Carp, will you get a load of that!" I hadn't yet put away my camera and turned to see a car crossing the bridge sporting something very unusual on it's roof. I quickly pointed my camera and zoomed in to get a shot of what you see below:
(Click on the image to enlarge)
I guess that's why I like living in Okinawa. Even on a relatively routine day, you're bound to spot something unusual that will bring a smile to your face!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Orchid Show in Progress at: Tropical "Day" Dream-in Center (Photo Essay)

What do guys know about flowers? This is not intended to be a sexist or male bashing remark but the fact remains, most of us guys know very little about flowers. I know to get my wife roses on her birthday, St. Valentine’s Day, etc. I think I even wore a carnation in my lapel when I got married but beyond that, I think that most men know very little about flowers.
Point in fact, years ago when my nephew was visiting Okinawa, being thoughtful and wanting to be respectful, he stopped at the local super market to buy my wife a small bouquet of flowers. What he didn’t know, nor did I at the time, that most of the flowers you can buy at the local market here on Okinawa are intended for use with the Bhutsudan. That is the family altar found in most Okinawan homes. My wife was pleased and really appreciated the gesture. It was after all the thought that counts.

So back to my main question, what do we, guys, know about flowers? We know that ladies love them. We know they’re expensive, they’re pretty to look at, they don’t last very long, and for those of us who’ve tried to grow them, we know how hard it is to care for them. We have a growing garden at our house and I know from first hand experience the effort it takes to make a garden look nice.
Personally, I’d much rather grow lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, papaya, bananas, or some other fruit or vegetable that I can eventually eat. With the economy going to hell in a hand basket, we may all have to rip up our lawns and start growing veggies! Unfortunately, my wife, who has the final say in such matters, would rather grow flowers.

So when the love of my life drags me off to the botanical gardens or even to the local garden center, I have a new found appreciation for all the effort that all those nameless and faceless people put in to grow and display them for us.
One place that many people here have to go see is the Okinawa Expo Park in Motobu. Of course there is the mandatory visit to the Churaumi Aquarium. That place is just Guinness Book awesome. There is also the very entertaining whale and dolphin shows. Perhaps if time allows, you’ll even a stroll through the reconstruction of an old Okinawan village. For those of us who’ve been there already, we’ve seen the signs pointing to a place called the Tropical Dream Center.

The name conjures up visions of a beach resort with beautiful people enjoying the sun, listening to Jimmy Buffett tunes over the sound system, and sipping on a Margarita. To my dismay it’s only a botanical garden that your wife or girlfriend will just have to see that us guys are obliged to go with them or face excommunication.
Don’t fret gentlemen; it’s not a total loss. Sometimes there are events such as concerts and flower shows in the main event atrium. There are the reflecting pools filled with Japanese Coi. Lastly there is the observation tower where, on a clear day, you can see some fantastic views of not only the immediate area but the distant lee islands to the north. If you’re a camera buff, this is a great place to see, get some pictures for the family or to send back home during the winter months and gloat over how warm it is here.

To get to the Expo Park, just get on the highway and follow the signs to Expo Park and the Churaumi Aquarium. As you enter the main entrance of the park, go down the steps to the fountain. From there go to the left and follow the signs to the Tropical Dream Center, you can’t miss it. If you’ve got little ones in tow its advisable to take a stroller as the park is quite large or for 200 Yen, you can ride the trolley.
There is a fee to see the gardens of the Tropical Dream Center but, it is relatively inexpensive when compared to other attractions around the island. The adult fare is 670 Yen. Throw in an Orchid flavored ice cream, maybe a soft drink and if your lucky, a free concert. Not too bad for your money. It’s a small investment that is likely to pay off big dividends later. By the way, the annual orchid show is going on now through Sunday the 13th of February.