Japan Travel

Hidden Japan: Getting into the culture

Bunka-no-hi. Culture Day.

There is actually a holiday here in Japan where national customs and culture are observed called Culture Day, but it came early for our group in Kyushu as we made our very own Bunka-no-hi.

It started at breakfast at our inn deep in the mountains of Gokanosho. We had all been served wonderful coffee (a rarity in Japan, it has to be said) and there was a spare cup. Two of the men in our group were particularly keen on it but were happy for the other one to have it. I suggested that they solve it the Japanese way with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, known as Janken.

We were going through the words and actions for the game, when suddenly the inn keeper came running out of the kitchen with several pieces of string with 50 yen coins tied to them. She handed them out to the group and explained that we should have a challenge – a kind of Janken tournament if you like. So away we went – you find a person with a string around their neck, play Janken, then the winner takes their strings and the loser sits down. It was a scream – fifteen Australians throwing themselves into Janken as if their lives depended on it. Then towards the end the grandmother in the kitchen came bustling out and threw herself into the game as well. She won her way to the final, eventually losing to one of the males in our group. It was such a fun and wonderful way to start our day and really capped off our stay in Gokanosho.

I then decided to follow on with this childhood game with a few Japanese children’s songs about frogs, elephants, cherry blossoms and acorns. This is the trouble with spending time learning Japanese from primary school children – you end up speaking like one of them!

Next on the Culture Day agenda was Moritaka Knife Shop. Moritaka are a famous sword and knife-making family, and the current head craftsman, Mr Moritaka, is a 27th Generation sword-maker. His family made swords for the Genji clan of samurai over 700 years ago. We were very privileged to be able to see and hold three of these family swords, as well as visiting the workshop where today’s Moritaka knives are hand-made. I bought a knife from Mr Moritaka two years earlier and it has pride of place in our kitchen at home. My husband sent me with instructions to get two more, he is that pleased with them.

From samurai swords we went to a local kimono shop in Yatsushiro to try on traditional Japanese kimono for the women andmontsuki hakama (men’s kimono with culotte-like pants wore over the top) for the men. The women who dressed us worked deftly and quickly to wrap us women up and strap us in.

The funniest moment was one of our group happened as she was having her photo taken. She is quite petite and has short, dark brown hair, and I commented in Japanese to the grandmother who was watching the whole spectacle “She looks a bit Japanese, don’t you think?” She replied, “No, her breasts are too big.” We dissolved into giggles – it is very true, they were unhappy with many of the women’s busts because they cause difficulty for putting on the kimono and obi (wide, colourful belt) properly. The aim for the figure is to be flat – they actually pad out your waist to make a smooth a line as possible from the top of the breast bone down to the stomach.

The back of this particular kimono shop houses a tatami room and garden where they do tea ceremonies for visitors. The teenage daughters of the shop owner have been training to do the ceremony and took us through the details and customs associated with this ancient tradition. Every movement is deliberate – every pause, every look, every turn of the bowl, every wipe with the cloth. It has a kind of meditative quality to it – you focus completely on the slow, precise process and become almost entranced as you take in the tea, the design of the bowl, the peaceful setting and the sparing decoration. It’s a very interesting custom and well worth trying to experience on a visit to Japan.

As a final touch, the shop owner writes a beautiful name card for every visitor in Japanese characters, known as kanji. In my many years of living in and travelling to Japan, nobody had ever written my name in characters for me. I had always used the phonetic alphabet katakana to write my name, and it really blew me away when they first assigned characters to my name. They then send you a photo of you in your kimono with your Japanese name written on it to you – it is a lovely gesture and a great keepsake of this experience.

We weren’t done yet with Culture Day! There were still two important experiences left to have – a cherry blossom party (known as hanami) and something as stereotypically Japanese as sushi – karaoke!

We rugged up to face the cool night and settled on blue tarpaulins beneath the cherry blossoms at Yatsushiro Shrine. We soon forgot the cold as a sake blanket enveloped most of us – we ate and drank and laughed and relaxed and enjoyed this celebration of the blossoms.

Then, bolstered by the sake and several Asahi Super Dry beers, my reluctant group agreed to accompany me to the local karaoke bar. Once they were there and ensconced in our private [soundproof] room , it took them about thirty-five seconds to shrug off any remaining inhibitions before they launched themselves zealously into this Japanese institution of the sing-along.

Our local guide says he has never quite seen karaoke done the way we did it. I have to say I haven’t quite seen it like this either. No serious solos, no quiet refrain… More like fifteen boisterous, rowdy Aussies all singing together and bashing tambourines regardless of whether they were in possession of the microphone or not. ABBA, Queen, Olivia Newton-John, Madonna, Kylie, Johnny Cash, Elvis – they all got a work out and likewise so did we. It was so much fun and an unexpected highlight for many in the group.

So as Culture Day came to a close, I hoped that my headcount would still be fifteen come morning and that there weren’t too many sore heads (and throats!) after a full but very rewarding day.

From Yatsushiro it is goodbye to the island of Kyushu and hello again to Honshu. Next stop, Hiroshima.

Some photos from Culture Day:

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