Tag: Japan

Okuribi–Send Off Fire

August 16th is the last day of obon — a summer festival that honors the spirits of the dead. It’s the day everyone has to send back all those ancestors who have being hanging out at the family altar, feasting on fruit, sticky rice cakes, and sake’. Because, really, you don’t want them hoards of ghosties hanging around all year round. Especially that obnoxious Grandpa Hiro, right?

In order to send them peacefully back to the other side you have to perform what is called okuribi (送り火), translated more or less as “send off fire”. Everyone’s familiar with the lit paper lanterns floated down rivers. This is called toro nagashi. It’s a kind of send off fire, but  it’s a boring way to do it.

My favorite way is what  my town does at the beach every August 16th. Here, let me explain in photos.

First someone makes a bunch of these puppies. Back in the day there were fifteen to twenty all up and down the beach. This year only three. (#sad) I guess our town is spending all its budget on tsunami towers, no money left over to send the spirits back home in style.

Okuribi one

The first one is just for the kids. They teach a bunch of elementary aged children how to hold the fire, how to swing the torches, and then once it gets dark, they let them loose. The idea is to land one of those flaming ropes into the open top of the broom-looking thing.

It’s always crazy with the old men yelling at the kids and chastising them for trying to kill each other. Entertainment at its finest.

Okuribi kids

Once lit, the whole thing goes up in flames. Slowly. They pre-load them with fireworks, too. Because if it’s not dangerous enough having twenty people winging flaming ropes all around in the dark, you need to add more bottle rockets.

okuribi fireworks

The next two were reserved for adults. Anyone who wants to give it a try is invited down. No training needed. Let’s do this thing.

So most of the time this is going on a team of Buddhist monks are lined up with drums and chanting okyo to make the transition for the ancestors easier. My interpretation is that the spirits get woozy and ride the smoke back to heaven.

okuribi adult readying

Here’s the moment when the adult team actually landed one of the fires into the top. Woo hoo!


Here’s a neat long-shutter shot.

okuribi guruguru


And then at the end after all three are lit, the first one pretty much burned down, more fireworks in the back.


okuribi green


Because no matter what the culture there can never be enough things-that-blaze-and-blow-up.

There was even a short fireworks show after all this ended.

So long, Grandpa Hiro.


Summer Desserts

In Japan sweets are sublime.  Let me give you an example. The other day I was picking up some sticky rice cakes for my mother-in-law and I came across this.

dessert full turned

It’s a gelatin dessert, but there’s a goldfish floating there. And little red and white bean “rocks”. Seaweed even!

dessert one spoon out

And there,  minus one gelatin bite. Almost to the rocks.

Dessert big spoonful out

MMmmm, sweet red bean gravel and anko seaweed.

And the fish was delicious, too.



Japanese Picture Books

I was walking through the kid’s section of the bookstore the other day when this beauty caught my eye:

PB tengoku



How absolutely awesome, I thought. It’s a picture book about paradise, or Buddhist heaven.


Hey, wait. If they have a book about gokuraku“-極楽,  they surely must have a book about…


And they did!

PB jigoku



There it is. A picture book about Buddhist jigoku-地獄.

So cool. So cool.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. It wasn’t two days later when I was browsing the library that this lovely piece of work stopped me in my tracks.

PB oshiri


An entire picture book on animal butts. And if my guess is correct, will probably end with a nice pink human one!

(No, really. I need to go back and thumb through that one. Just for curiosity’s sake.)

Okay, okay, but really,  it doesn’t end there (or maybe it *does* end there).

Alas, no Japanese bookstore or library is complete without a book about…

PB Unko


Hold on. It’s better than that. It’s not a book about poop. It’s an entire set of (karuta) cards on the subject.

Unko Karuta.

Screenshot 2015-05-02 08.54.56


I’ll let that haunt your thoughts for awhile…


My Anti-New Year’s Noodles

On New Year’s Eve in Japan everyone (and I mean everyone) eats something called toshikoshi soba, year-crossing soba noodles. It’s a thing.  And it’s delicious.

If you ask around you’ll hear loads of reasons why you’re supposed to eat these specific noodles on New Year’s Eve. The main one, though, is that the soba represents the way you wish to live: hosoku nagaku. In other words,  you’re hoping to live a thin and long life. The thin translates as not too extravagant. You know,  living modest and within your means. Sounds reasonable.

We have participated in this tradition every December 31st since I’ve been married, usually buying soba from the store and fixing it ourselves or going out to eat in a noodle shop. But this past New Year’s Eve I decided to level up. I’d make my own.

First, I bought some soba-ko, soba flour.


Second, I watched about three dozen Youtube videos to get the technique down.

Next, the fun began. Actually, everything went rather smoothly. Although a true soba enthusiast might say my noodles were a little thick. But, hey, I always thought the living modestly to be a bit boring.

Cutting Soba

I got them all cut and nicely jostled.

Soba Noodles

And that’s when a problem arose. I made the noodles at noon, but I wasn’t planning on cooking them until supper, six-ish. I figured it would be okay to air dry the puppies. What could go wrong, I thought. But as the day progressed and I checked on them they began to get sticky. So I did the thing anyone would do. I sprinkled them with flour and re-jostled them. I did that like four or five times before dinner.

Come six o’clock I make a bunch of tempura and put the water on to boil. I drop the soba oh-so-carefully into the pot, making sure to time them precisely. I’m really getting excited now.

That’s when it happened. My timer beeps and I go to dump the noodles into the colander and ended up with this:

Too Short Soba

All the noodles broke into tiny pieces. Delicious, but we had to eat them with a spoon. And not only that but kinda a really sucky omen. Instead of living a thin and long life…how about a short and kinda chunky life. Oh dear.

I then announced to my sulky family that the thousands of tiny pieces of soba meant we’d have thousands of good lucks the coming year. They still looked a little glum but decided it best to agree with me.

A problem remained, however, what to do with the left over soba chunks? There was still quite a bit left after our meal.

It took me a day of pondering, but in the end I figured it out. I heated up some olive oil and tossed those little guys in there, fried them up nice and crispy, and then sprinkled them with salt.

Soba chips!

Fried Soba Chips

Now THEY were delicious!

The moral of the story: When you’re going to screw up a long-honored Japanese tradition, reinvent it, deep fry it, and eat it with salt.

The Mini Museum of Masks

Japan is narrow and mountainous and hugely populated.

When asked what I miss most about the States (while I have several answers depending on my mood) “space” invariably gets mentioned. No sprawling parks with giant old trees and hide away benches where you can read undisturbed for hours. No lush lawns with dogs and children romping around. No house that is  so large that if you happen to sneeze all of your neighbors won’t hear.

Everything is built tight and close.

Which makes going for walks interesting. I can go on the same daily stroll in my neighborhood for years and still spot some odd WTH that makes me stop and shake my head. Or laugh. Or take a photo. And then if I get really wild and adventurous and trek off my beaten track, well…

This happened the other day when at first I saw this:

Masks 1

On closer inspection I found  a small sign written in a shaky hand announcing with an equally shaky arrow that there was a museum just behind the house, on the other side of a hedge.

Never one to obey those “How to Survive a Horror Movie” rules, I went right on in.  And met this fellow:

Masks 2


You can’t see him all, but, YES that is Santa Claus right there beside a Cyclops-in-the-mouth-of-a-screaming-wooden-thing.  I continue on.

And then there was a little shack and this:

Masks 3Lots of wooden ojizo, some crane origami, and a Zero fighter hung from the ceiling.

Moving right along I stumble across this guy. I’m assuming he’s daruma, no eyelids and all. Hey, what’s he looking at anyway?

Masks 4


What? Behind me?

I reach the very back of the house, the point of no (easy) escape, still waiting for some old man with a hatchet to leap out at me. But instead I find this.

A soul-stealing, devil mask with red glowing eyes.


Masks 5


That’s when I high tailed it out of there.

All in all, though, I came away with a nice warm feeling, thinking to myself, what a lovely hobby for some nice elderly man to have. He makes masks and statues and shares them with the neighborhood. He lures unsuspecting people into his tiny garden to entertain them. Lovely!

After further thought, I’m assuming that’s what that warm, tingly feeling was. What does haven’t your soul ripped out feel like anyway?