January 13, 2015

Daruma Doll Festival- Haijimadaishi Temple

A visit to a shrine, within the first few days of the new year, is a very important aspect of Japanese culture, known as hatsumode. There are various celebrations held at these shrines, but we chose to attend the Daruma doll festival, at Haijimadaishi Shrine, near our home.

The shrine was decorated for the new year with colorful bunting. Love all the use of color!

The first prayer of the new year is very important, so the line to the actual shrine was very long. We didn't wait in the line, but just walked around enjoying the festivities.

There were lots of food stalls.

Japan does not really have street food AT ALL, except for at the festivals, so it's always a treat.

The chocolate covered banana on-a-stick, is always a favorite!

Daruma is a good luck doll for the upcoming year.

You buy a new Daruma doll each year, and color in one eye when you make your wish. If your wish comes true during the year, you color in the other eye.

You bring last year's Daruma to throw in the fire, which is part of the "out with the old, in with the new" approach to the new year, that I really like.

There were stacks, upon stacks of Daruma's, of all sizes, waiting to be purchased.


There were also many colorful and festive decorations of other kinds.

One of my favorites, was the kabura-ya, or arrow with a "turnip" shaped tip. These are modeled after arrows that the samurai used, to attach messages to and shoot them into a fortress or other enclosure. Now, they are sold at Shinto shrines at the new year, as protection from evil spirits.

I don't personally buy into superstition, but really liked the look of it, and the tiny daruma attached. Here is a closer look.

At one point we were motioned over by a group of fire fighters who were on their break. The ladies in the group were fixing lunch for the guys. 

They were so kind, and offered us a bowl of soup. It was a miso soup with some vegetables. It tasted so good and warm on a cold day.

We enjoyed talking to them for a few minutes, and one of the guys had very good English. Then they offered us the "dessert" soup. It was a sweet red bean (azuki) soup, with a brick of mochi at the bottom.

Mochi is made from pounding rice into a paste, then forming it into the desired shape. It is a very popular dish around the new year. It kind of had a chewy texture. We really enjoyed trying these truly authentic new year foods, and  chatting with these nice people. Thanks fire department!

I really loved this dragon dog! When you see a dragon, in a parade or elsewhere, hold your head out. If the dragon comes up to bite your head, you will have good luck. I didn't know this and have lost several chances at luck! Better late than never....

Doesn't look as menacing from this angle!

It has been so much fun for me to learn about this amazing culture, which is so very different from my own. Happy New Year!

January 5, 2015

Shopping + Gambling = Fukubukuro

New Year's Day is the most important Japanese holiday, where many "firsts" are celebrated. Some of these special firsts include; first prayer, first sunrise, and first ...SALE! The Japanese phenomenon known as fukubukuro, (or "lucky/happy bag"), entails heading to a store on January 1-3 and buying a bag with unknown contents for a set price. The only guarantee is that the bag will be worth more than you paid, sometimes several times more, but it's a gamble. Count me in!

We got an early start on New Year's Day, and headed to the mall about 30 minutes prior to opening. Good thing too, as the parking lot was filling up fast.

The line was already long and getting longer by the minute, I guess you could liken it to Black Friday shopping in the States. And it was COLD!

At least we had a great view of Mt. Fuji!

Finally, at the stroke of 8:00 am, the mall doors opened. Then an orderly line of people were sprinting through the mall, (orderly, of course) to whichever store they wanted to try first. I was laughing out loud, this may have been my favorite part!

The girls and I had already discussed, at length, which stores we wanted to select. We love a certain  store that sells Japanese goods, and we planned to go there first. This is where I made my first rookie mistake. Some stores will show you the contents of the bag, then you can decide if you want it or not. This particular store had a display of what was in the bag, but I was so caught up in the moment and the excitement, I didn't really study it carefully, I just bought it. More on that later....

Our first lucky bag of the year!

Many stores had a huge line.

Starbucks probably had the longest line. It looked like most people headed there first (blurry picture, but you get the idea).

The next predetermined store was Francfranc, a really cute housewares store that I like. The box itself was so cute, I couldn't resist. There was a white box titled "Urban Chic", and a pink box titled "Flourish". Hmmm, the choice just got more difficult...

Alas, the girl's made me get the pink box, so my friend Merri chose the white box. Which would have the best contents?

Each store only sells a limited number of bags, adding further pressure to the situation. You can't think it over too long, or you risk your bag selling out. This really created an atmosphere of urgency! This was the kitchen store, and I just couldn't decide, until we overheard that there was a frying pan inside. I needed a new one anyway, so, why not?!

The Body Shop had a clear display of the bag contents, and it was a very good deal. Some of the stores did that, but with most, you were definitely rolling the dice. I would love to know which stores sold more, the displayed contents or the surprise bag? I would actually bet on the surprise bag!

Most of the department stores had different brands sponsor a bag, so they had many different tables set up, with many different price points. It is said that fukubukuro may be a way of helping the stores sell through excess merchandise, because another Japanese superstition is "not to start off the new year with last years trash." (Most Japanese even thoroughly clean and organize their homes this time of year, for the same reason.)

One last purchase for the girls, they got to choose the Y500 ($5) bag at their favorite store, Kiddyland.

Whew! Here is our haul. Even just hearing the name "happy bag" makes me happy. The anticipation  of seeing the contents, was just like Christmas morning!

We found a table in the food court and started opening, along with everyone else! The mood was very festive, with everyone anxious to look over their treasures.

The girls bag contained LOTS of hair accessories. This was definitely worth more than the $5 price. But, poor Ella wasn't super excited with this pick, because she has a shorter hairstyle. And so it goes, with gambling, I suppose. And on to my bags...

Remember my first, hurried purchase from the Japanese store? Well, I am now the proud owner of a winter kimono jacket! Also, a pocket tissue case, some fancy locally handmade nail polish (in brown and white), polish remover, a very soft hand towel (?, still haven't figured out it's use) and the best part was the cute hounds tooth canvas bag. I paid Y5000 (about $42 in today's exchange rate) and it's definitely worth more than that, but is this stuff I need? That's the question.

Next, my darling pink box from Francfranc had a very interesting mix of stuff.  Here goes; a French macaroon pillow, a floral apron and matching hot pad, a floral hand towel, a rose fragrance room spray, one tea cup with two plates, and two floral forks and spoons, which the girls actually LOVE! Again, this is not stuff I would actually buy if I walked in to the store with Y5000 ($42) on a regular day. (And, no Merri's "Urban Chic" box was not much better than my "Flourish" box. Haha!) 
And lastly, my best score of the day was at the kitchen store. It was a Y3000 ($24) bag and I got a nice frying pan, spatula, utensil holder, a small draining/roasting pan, a pig shaped microwave lid, and two fish scrubber sponges. This was the jackpot for me, as I will actually use all of this stuff!

And so it goes with gambling, you win some, you lose some. Did I make some rookie mistakes? Yes. Did I have some buyers remorse? Yes. Would I do it again? Absolutely!!!

January 2, 2015

Home for the Holidays

"Oh, there's no place like home for the holiday's," so the song goes....and it's so true! Matt was scheduled to attend a conference in the States, so we tagged along to spend time with family. We met up with Matt's parents and sister Steffanie, in Las Vegas, then hitched a ride with my sister (who lives in Vegas), to Salt Lake City, for the remainder of the visit.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed, at the beginning of this excursion.

We had several hours to kill at Narita International Airport. They actually had a craft station set up which helped us kill some time. The girls painted their own Daruma doll, a symbol of good luck.

The finished product, along with a great backdrop!

Fast forward 13 hours...not so perky anymore as we awaited our connection in LAX!

Ahhh, viva Las Vegas!

We landed about the same time as Matt's parents, so we met them at their gate. Everyone was so happy!

Our favorite Vegas hotel has two swans, appropriately named Elvis and Priscilla. The girls enjoy feeding them lettuce, provided by the staff.

Vegas in December is beautiful! The big casino's are decorated to the hilt, as money is no object. 

December is truly our favorite time of year to visit!

The aquarium at Caesar's Palace Forum Shops, is always a highlight. We even found a special visitor feeding the fish! 

We ran into Rick at Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, from the Pawn Stars fame.

We also ran into an old friend on the Strip. (Yes, it was a wax figure, but we had grandpa going for a few minutes!)

Poor Matt always gets called up on stage as a volunteer, no, he does not actually volunteer. I guess he is lucky. The Mac King Comedy show was no exception! Haha!

We spent the evenings visiting at the nightly reception. It was such a wonderful visit, and so good to spend time with Matt's family.

Now on to Salt Lake City....we arrived just in time for grandma's "Cousin Christmas Party." 

And sugar cookie decorating, of course!

We attended Zoo Light's at Hogle Zoo. 

It was even a relatively warm evening, and so much fun. There were also fire pits to make s'mores, one of my all-time favorite treats. And, of course the kids had a ball!

The girls were able to join the children's Christmas program at church. They worked very hard all week to learn the songs.

And, we were even able to corral the kids long enough for a cousin Christmas picture.

I enjoyed visiting my brother, Adam's studio. This is his copy of a Rembrandt. AMAZING!

Sadly, our time came to an end too soon. It was so nice to spend a few weeks at Christmastime with family and friends. So good for my soul. 

(This is the look you have after 24 hours of travel, when finding out that you missed the 4 o'clock shuttle home, by seven minutes, and would have to wait 2 hours for the next one. Merry Christmas!)