December 11, 2014 

Fox Udon and Raccoon Udon 

 

          If you go to a Japanese restaurant, you can see “Kitsune (fox) Udon” and “Tanuki (raccoon) Udon” on the menu. Udon is thick, white wheat noodles in a savory soup with added ingredients making a wonderful winter meal.

 

          Even though this dish might be called fox or raccoon, luckily, they are not really made with the meat of those animals.

 

          The first reason it is called Kitsune Udon is because it has a piece of fried tofu which is seasoned to be quite sweet with rice wine and soy sauce. The color of this grilled tofu is just like the light reddish brown striped fur of a fox. The second reason is that Japanese people believe that fried tofu is a fox’s favorite food. They offer fried tofu for Inari shrines (the god of the harvest shrine) because foxes are the messenger of this god.

 

          On the other hand, Tanuki Udon has bits of fried Tempura crumbles on top. People might think it is a serving of Tempura Udon, but actually, there are no tempura vegetables or shrimp inside, but just the butter crumbles so people feel like they are being deceived by raccoons.

 

          The other reason for the name of raccoon Udon was that it was first called “Tane-Nuki.” (omitting the “inside” of the tempura pieces). This “Tane-Nuki” gradually became “Tanuki,” another famous Japanese pun.

 

          Both Foxes and Raccoons are believed to trick people with mysterious powers from the olden days. They are always acting as a tag team, together even on the Udon Menu.

 

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October 31, 2014

Mikoshi

 

A Mikoshi is a portable shine set onto long poles so that it can be carried by multiple people in a festival parade. Depending on the region, the Mikoshi festival can be a way to thank the gods for a good result, such as a bountiful harvest. You see, followers of the Shinto religion, indigenous to Japan, believe that the Mikoshi is the home of a divine spirit.

 

Even though this Mikoshi is from Shintoism, no one is barred from participating in carrying the Mikoshi. Japan has become so liberal about this tradition that even Foreigners can jump in and help to carry it nowadays.

 

This festival is a workers’ parade, because usually, Mikoshi carriers wear a traditional short Kimono,  called “Happi.” When this name is translated to English it is called a “happy coat” to reflect its use during festivals and its length. In the old days, craftsmen, like carpenters, gardeners and firefighters wore this Happi as part of their uniform for working.

 

The people parade together in the street during festivals shouting together “Washoi! Washoi!” There are various theories about the etymology of this shouted expression, “Washoi.” The theory that seems the most reliable combines the phrases, “Wa shite”( Harmonise) with “Shou” (To carry [something] on the back.) So, their shouting means “Let’s tote the Mikoshi for harmony together.”

 

Just as the peoples’ shouts are bringing their voices together, the Mikoshi festival unites people. Even though the people are strangers at the beginning, while carrying the Mikoshi they become closer, even to the point of developing a friendship, or at the least to enjoy drinking together after the festival is completed.

 

It can be very surprising to see the Japanese -- who are usually reserved or quiet people -- shout loudly and become so friendly during the Mikoshi festival.

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October 10, 2014

Hamaya – Ceremonial Arrow  

 

         The Hamaya is a decorative arrow to shoot evil away. On New Year’s Day, temples and shrines sell their own branded Hamaya as an auspicious item for the coming year.

 

         This originates from the Heian Era (794-1185). In the imperial court, noble people competed against each other with their archery skill to entertain the Emperor. The best archer received a prize as a recognition of his superior skill.

 

         “Hama” is the target, and “Ya” is the arrow. However, “Hama” also sounds like “break evil.” Because of this connection to ridding one’s family of evil, people started giving one as a gift to families with baby boys. Later, temples and shrines got on the bandwagon and started selling these decorated arrows for people to “shoot evil spirits and target good luck.”

 

         Even though Hamaya is an arrow, the tip is not sharp. This is because this arrow is not to hit a real target, like people or animals, but to shoot away malice, evil and a wicked heart.

 

         Just like Daruma, Hamaya is valid for one year. After a year has passed, we return it to the temple or shrine in order to buy a new one to make a great year.

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