Izakaya: Japan’s Pub Culture

Izakaya are Japanese pubs. They vary greatly in style, price, menu and atmosphere. Approximately 1 out of every 5 restaurants in Japan can be considered an izakaya.

People don’t commonly have house parties, dinner parties or backyard barbeques in Japan. Coworkers, friends and social clubs use izakaya as a venue for get-togethers. Izakaya are also popular spots for a date.

A wide range of special occasions are celebrated at izakaya from birthdays to retirement parties.

Food

Izakaya menus vary greatly and often include original items. Izakaya food can be generally classified as drinking food — popular foods for a social or party situation.

Common izakaya foods include: Edamame (boiled young soybeans), Sushi, Sashimi, Yakitori, Karaage (Japanese fried chicken), Deep fried dishes (e.g. Tako Karaage ~ deep fried octopus), Tofu dishes (e.g. Agedashi Tofu ~ deep fried tofu in broth), Western style junk food (e.g. pizza, french fries) and Japanese fish dishes (e.g. grilled squid).
There are hundreds of common izakaya foods. The focus is on salty, oily foods that can be shared with a group of people. Starches such as rice and noodles are often missing from izakaya menus. These are not considered drinking foods because popular izakaya beverages (such as beer and sake) are already high in carbohydrates.
When rice or noodles are consumed they are customarily ordered at the end of the night — to make sure no one goes home hungry.
As with other restaurants in Japan, Izakaya sometimes have a button at the table that can be used to summon staff. Otherwise, customers can shout “sumimasen”.

Layout

As with western pubs, izakaya often have bars or tables where you sit alongside other customers.

Izakaya can be very small (with just a few seats) or massive multi-floor restaurants. Large izakaya are social places for groups of friends. It’s common to visit small izakaya and standing izakaya (tachinomiya) alone or with a few friends.
Many excellent izakaya have outdoor seating on the street. Others (tachinomiya) are standing room only — customers purchase drinks and snacks and essentially stand on the street. It often seems as if the less facilities a restaurant has the more popular it becomes.

Music and Entertainment

Some izakaya go to great lengths to pull in customers. Themed interiors, costumed staff and performances may be used to pull in customers. For example, several ninja themed izakaya in Tokyo feature ninja performances.

Izakaya don’t usually play popular music or have music performances (as western pubs do). Background music (when there is any) is usually traditional Japanese music. The focus of most evenings at izakaya is lively conversation (although parties can also be rowdy).

Visiting a Izakaya

Visiting an izakaya is a recommended Japan experience. The main challenge you’ll face at izakaya is ordering. Some izakaya have English menus, others don’t. Many traditional izakaya don’t have a menu at all. Or rather, the menu is posted on the wall (in Japanese) with paper strips. When the restaurant runs out of an item the corresponding paper strip is pulled from the wall.

The language barrier is present at any restaurant in Japan. It shouldn’t hold you back. Worst case — you’ll just order randomly.
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The Art of Japanese Kanji

Kanјі was adopted from the Сhіnеse chаraсtеrs and has been used in Japаn as a wrіtіng sуstem for hundreds of уеars. Lеаrnіng Kаnјі isn’t really diffіcult, but it is very timе cоnsuming. To get to a lеvеl where you can rеad Kanјі in сontеxt rеquires daily praсtiсe for at least 6 mоnths to a уeаr. Therе are many wаys to leаrn Јараnesе Κаnjі. Lets take a look at somе.

Learnіng Jaраnesе kаnjі involves a lоt of rеаding and writіng рrаctiсе. А greаt way to leаrn how to rеаd kаnjі is with the helр of the intеrnеt. Тhеrе are a lot of tutоrial vіdеоs that teасh the reading, meanіng and strоkе оrdеr of Κаnjі. Іn fact, there are many frеe vіdеos tutоrіаls that you can find on YоuТube. Аlthоugh most of them are сreаted by аmаteurs the qualіty of these vіdeо lеssons are quite good.

Аnothеr way to leаrn Japаnese kanjі is with the helр of hоw-to books. Thesе books help you lеarn Κаnјі сharаcters by leаrnіng strоkе оrdеr through lоts of wrіtіng рrасticе. Ѕome рeоple can lеarn kаnјi quite fast using these kind of bооks as they fіnd that the writіng рrасtice helрs them mеmоrizе the reаdings and mеanіngs of kаnјі.

It takes a lot of patіеncе, dеtеrminatіon, as wеll as conсentratіon in order to lеarn, undеrstand and rеаd Јараnese kanјі at a рrоfісіent level. Аlsо, kаnјі is only part of the рісturе. Ѕtudеnts must first lеаrn Japаnеsе hiragana and kаtakanа before taking on kanјі. Alsо you should reаlіze your gоаl is not to mеmorіze hundreds of kаnјi, but to learn to read kanji.

Goоd luсk with your kanji studiеs!

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kinro kansha no ni @nihongadaisuki (Flickr)

Kinro Kansha no Hi: the japanese Labor Thanksgiving Day

Kinro Kansha no Hi: the japanese Labor Thanksgiving Day.

November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day, a second national holiday in November. It became a holiday in 1948 as a day for citizens to express gratitude to one other for work done throughout the year and for the fruits of those labors.

Labor Thanksgiving Day (Kinro Kansha no Hi in Japanese) is actually a modern name for an ancient ritual called Niinamesai (Harvest Festival). In the ritual, the Emperor makes the season’s first offering of freshly harvested rice to the gods and then partakes of the rice himself.

The history of Niinamesai goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. The first written account is found in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan) – one of the oldest histories of Japan, dating from 720 – which says that a Niinamesai took place in November 673. The origin of the ritual is believed to be much older, going back to when rice cultivation was first transmitted to Japan more than 2,000 years ago. Niinamesai came to be held on November 23 during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and was a nationally celebrated event.

After the World War II, Labor Thanksgiving Day was established to mark the fact that fundamental human rights were guaranteed and rights of workers were greatly expanded in the postwar Constitution.

Today, Labor Thanksgiving Day has become a national holiday while Niinamesai is celebrated as a private function of the Imperial Family.

A number of major events are held on this day. One such event is a labor festival held every year in the city of Nagano, which hosted the Olympic Winter Games in February 1998. Local labor organizations sponsor this event to encourage people to think about issues affecting peace, human rights, and the environment.

In the suburbs of Tokyo, nursery school pupils present drawings and handicrafts to local police officers, who look after their safety every day.

Photo copyright: @nihongadaisuki / Wikimedia Commons
Text source: Japan.org
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Shichigosan: a day of prayer

Shichi-go-san literally means seven-five-three and represents the ages of the kids being celebrated as they reach certain milestones. In modern days we tend to focus on physical milestones, for example: at three, children’s language development increases significantly; at five there’s a clear development of logical thinking; at seven many kids usually start (or have already begun) losing their baby teeth. But back in the day, milestones were based on predominantly cultural signifiers.

It’s because of this that boys and girls are celebrated at different ages:

Three Years Old (Boys & Girls)

Girls and boys’ hair was allowed to grow out. Until then, children’s hair would have been kept short. This event is called kamioki (髪置き), which means “to leave the hair” and let it grow out. (Traditionally, both boys and girls can have their first celebration at age three, but these days it’s more common for girls to go twice and boys only once.)

Five Years Old (Boys)

Back when kimono was the norm, this would be the age that boys would start wearing hakama, signifying their start into adulthood. Boys from samurai families would also start wearing haori (kimono jackets) with the family crest on it. This is called hakamagi (袴着), and literally, means “to wear hakama.”

Seven Years Old

Girls began wearing something close to a proper traditional kimono with an obi tie. Until then, they would have worn a cord around their waists or simply had strings attached to the kimono to keep it tied together. This is called obitoki (帯解き), meaning “to figure out the obi” and indicates girls’ transitioning into womanhood.

As children grow, they encounter so many changes and risk of illnesses, so at these ages it was a time for parents and families to thank the gods for letting their children overcome these. These days, it’s more of a coming of age celebration for families to show affection for each other and allow their kids to have a special day. They visit the shrine, pay a gratuity fee and plod home again. Many will take professional photos to commemorate the event.

Where Does the Custom Come From?

Though there seems to be some debate as to when the custom first appeared, it’s believed it first started in the Heian period (794-1185) but was exclusively for members of the Imperial Family and surrounding nobility.

Others date the origins of the ceremony back to the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Back then, infant mortality was high and many people waited until their kids were three to four years of age to add them to the family registry. The ceremony showed gratitude for the child living this long and gave the family an opportunity to pray for future good health and long life.

By the Edo period (1603-1868) it spread through samurai society from the Kanto region to the rest of Japan for commoners. Once the Meiji Period (1868–1912) hit, Shichi-go-san took on a style similar to what we see today (minus some modern modifications, of course).

Photo Copyright: Johnny Times

Why Is It on November 15th?

Technically, families can visit a shrine for Shichi-go-san any time in November, but the main date is November 15. It’s common for families to go on other days partly because of scheduling issues, and most shrines will start accepting visitors from mid-October, and some even begin in September.

When the practice started in the Heian period, it was a different date — November 15  became the custom from the Edo period. This day was chosen because dog-lover Shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa (often nicknamed Oinusama or the dog shogun for his love of the animal) wanted to celebrate his son Tokumatsu on that day, and eventually others followed suit.

There are a number of reasons why he chose this day, and why it has remained the standard date to celebrate Shichi-go-san. It falls on a day called kishukunichi (鬼宿日), which literally means “the day the demons stay at home.” It’s supposedly a fortuitous day for celebrations that aren’t weddings.

Also, according to the traditional lunar calendar, November was the month in autumn to thank the gods for the year’s harvest. The 15th of the month would be a full moon, and so people thanked the gods for letting their kids “ripen with age” as well.

An added bonus, 15 is the sum of seven, five, and three — a perfect representation of the ages celebrated, and they are also all odd numbers, which are considered more auspicious in general.

Visit Tokyo Weekender for more information.
Feature photo: mieranadhirah
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