マスコットキャラクター character mascot

You can’t stay in Japan for long before meeting a character mascot. Cities, prefectures, companies, all have a cute mascot to personify and represent them to the public. Sometimes they are controversial, such as when Nara combined two things it is most famous for—deer and the Great Buddha—to make a mascot in the form of a cute infant Buddha with antlers. The effect was oddly disturbing.

Character mascots have been in the news this month because the annual character mascot grand prix took place in Saitama prefecture. This year’s overall winner was Bari-san, an egg-shaped bird character representing Imabari city (a major producer of yakitori chicken).

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This is the mascot of the central ward of Osaka city, Yumemaru-kun. I met him outside the gas building one day at lunchtime. He is wearing Osaka castle on his head.

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This is Koya-kun, the mascot of Koya-san, the mountain monastic settlement that we visited earlier this month:

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One of the mascots of Sakai city, where we live, is Sakaeru. He represents a 16th-century European (a Dutchman, judging by his shoes), reminding us of Sakai’s importance in the early days of contact and trade between Japan and Europe.DSCN4562

Hanging from a strap around Sakaeru’s neck is a mini-mascot called Misosakai. Misosakai is a helmeted, near-spherical brown bird.

Another mascot of Sakai city is Zabieru-kun, a Portuguese character. You can see him riding in this ship in the parade; he’s the one in the green hat. While the original St Francis Xavier tried to bring Christianity to Japan, his modern namesake promotes “eco” living.DSC_0640

Also at the Sakai festival was Mimi-chan, the mascot of Sakai city’s Minami ward.

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Marching in the parade was Chin-den-kun, the mascot of the Hankai tram (known affectionately as the Tin Tin Train).

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パン pan—bread

Bread is really good in Japan. Not the stuff you get in supermarkets; that’s awful. Bakery bread is where it’s at. Even small bakeries do an incredible range, including freshly-baked French-style baguettes and bâtards (best I’ve found anywhere outside France), pizzas, white loaves, doughnuts, a Breton cake called kouign-amann, and Japanese inventions such as curry bread (much nicer than it sounds!)

This is our local bakery, Pan-de-Bell:

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We usually walk there on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The dogs wait outside while we go in and buy our breakfast.

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Just inside the door, you pick up a tray and a tongs.

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And make your selection from the huge variety on offer. Prices vary between around 1 and 2 euro for these pastries.

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The bakery often has seasonal specialties. For example, when I took this photo in October, they were advertising autumn specialties such as anpan with chestnuts, anpan with pumpkin, soft bread with cod roe, and danish with sweet potato, pumpkin and chestnuts. Japanese food culture is very seasonal!

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Earlier, in September, they were selling these tsukimi denisshu (moon-viewing danish). There is a tradition in Japan of going out to view the harvest moon (the full moon in September), and the bakers came up with the idea of putting full-moon-like dango on a danish pastry for the occasion.

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Here’s the Christmas display at the Hankyuu department store bakery last week. On the left and middle of the picture is Stollen (German cake) and on the right is panettone (Italian Christmas cake). Behind the panettone is another German festive treat, Lebkuchen.

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One thing you can’t get in Japan is traditional Irish-style bread. Even ingredients such as stone-ground flour or buttermilk are not readily available. So on a recent trip to Ireland I bought some packets of Odlums Quick mix to bring to Japan. It’s great to have the smell of freshly-baked bread wafting through the house!DSCN4754

Note on the word of the day:

The Japanese word for bread, pan, is borrowed from Portuguese pão. This is a very early borrowing dating back to the time of the first European contacts with the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 15th and 16th centuries. Other words borrowed from Portuguese at this time include botan (button), arukooru (alcohol) and tabako (tobacco).

年末 nenmatsu—year end

New Year is the big celebration of the year in Japan. While Christmas Day was a normal working day for me, I am now enjoying 10 days off work for the New Year holiday.

On New Year’s Day, we will eat special traditional food called o-sechi. This was delivered to our house today in the form of a stack of 3 boxes tied up in a cloth. It has to be kept frozen until New Year’s Eve, and we couldn’t fit it into our tiny freezer, so we brought it over to Yuko’s dad’s place to store it in his freezer.

It’s traditional to clean the house thoroughly from top to bottom, and to have everything looking nice in preparation for the new year. So we spent much of today scrubbing the cooker and the bathroom. It’s a good motivation to do a proper cleaning, even if it is only once a year!

A lot of shops are closed around New Year, so the days before can be a bit hectic as people try to get all their grocery shopping done. We headed out early to a nearby supermarket (Sun Plaza in Mikunigaoka) and I took the opportunity to take some photos.

Here is a display of kagami mochi in all different shapes and sizes:

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The original concept of kagami mochi (literally, “mirror mochi”) is two sticky rice balls (mochi) on top of one another, with a decoration on top (for example, a small citrus fruit called daidai). However I am not clear on exactly what is on sale here in its modern incarnation. Judging by the illustration on the side of the box, it may be a container (edible?) with lots of mochi inside.

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We bought a small one with a maneki-neko (beckoning cat) on top. Oddly, not all the manekineko are identical; some are left-handed.

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Here are wreaths that you are supposed to drape on top of your kagami-mochi.

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I mentioned before that Japan has a bewildering array of types of citrus fruit. These ones are dekopon, from Kyushu. As Wikipedia explains, they are a cross between a kiyomi and a ponkan. They are also expensive.

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The inscription on the box says:

“The flesh is soft and is juicy. It smells, and it is rich and very sweet. The sun in Saga was bathed in enough, set up, and it grew up”.

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These are dried persimmon (a delicious treat which we tried on our recent trip to Gifu):

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Here are dried persimmon on a stick (kushi kaki) from Wakayama. The kanji character 串 kushi means “food on a skewer” and is one of my favourite characters because it looks so like what it means. Each stick costs 498 yen.

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These beautifully-presented “excellent musk melons” come from Kagoshima and cost 1580 yen each.

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Sun Plaza had a display of foreign sweets, including Cadbury’s chocolates, TimTams (for homesick Australians), Haribo, Walkers shortbread, and so on. I wondered whether there was a market for such items, as I can’t imagine they get many foreign shoppers.

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Buy a case of beer and get a free house-cleaning item for your New Year clean-up. The picture on the yellow box shows the 7 lucky gods in a boat.

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One of the 7 lucky gods is Ebisu, and he is also a brand of beer. I bought a six-pack which came in a free Yebisu cooler bag, featuring a picture of the god holding a fish.

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The brand name uses the archaic spelling “Yebisu”. Modern Japanese does not have a “Ye” sound; the Japanese word for yen is en. If you look at the white label attached to the front of the beer cooler, you can see “Yebisu beer” written in Japanese as ヱビスビール, using an old character ヱ that is no longer used in modern Japanese.

Note on the word of the day:

The Japanese word for “weekend” is 週末 shuumatsu. Similarly, the word 月末 getsumatsu refers to the end of the month, and 年末 nenmatsu to the last days of the year.

高野山 Koya-san

High in the mountains of Wakayama prefecture is a valley filled with monasteries, sacred to the Shingon tradition of esoteric Buddhism. It’s called 高野山 kouya-san, and it’s designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.

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It is said that the valley is surrounded by 2 concentric rings of 8 peaks each, in the form of a mandala or a lotus flower, with the monastic site at the centre.

Koya-san first became a sacred place in the early 800s, when a monk called Kobo Daishi arrived from China and founded the Shingon branch of Buddhism. (He is also said to have invented the hiragana characters.) Various legends offer improbable explanations of why he chose this location. In any event, its inaccessibility has been an advantage in turbulent times.

Now, 1200 years later, the valley is home to dozens of monasteries and thousands of monks (not to mention, on any given day, thousands of tourists, pilgrims and visitors).

Lots of visitors stay overnight in the monasteries. They can eat vegetarian meals, take part in sitting meditation, and experience the simplicity and tranquility of monastic life.

For us, however, it was just a day-trip. We took the Nankai Koya line train to the end of the line, and then transferred to a cable car for the final steep ascent to the valley.

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This unusual-looking steeply-raked carriage carries passengers between Gokurakubashi (539 metres) and Koyasan (867 m).

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As we gained altitude, the rain turned to snow.

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It would be a fascinating place to visit at any time, but today the thickly-falling snow made it even more beautiful and other-wordly.

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The first place we visited was the Okunoin cemetery. It’s a huge area filled with mature cedars and monuments dating back over many centuries. It includes the graves of many of Japan’s most famous historical figures.

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There is something very iconically Japanese about the sight of snow falling on cedars. David Guterson used this as the title of his novel about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

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In the cemetery, we found a monument to termites, saying “termites, rest in peace”. This was erected by a pest-control company in memory of their millions of tiny victims.

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There were also monuments erected by companies in honour of their deceased employees. This one, for example, is Nissan’s.

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Some company monuments even have a letter box where current employees can drop in their business cards when they come to visit.

This monument has a nice statue of a dog.

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Unfortunately, photography is banned in the central area of the cemetery. This especially sacred area, which contains the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi himself, is reached by crossing a humpbacked stone bridge. We went inside some of the temple buildings, one room of which was filled – filled! – with huge golden lanterns. In another a monk, seated with his back to us, was chanting.

Apart from the mausoleum area, this monument to the Lady Go is the largest in the cemetery.

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We found this extraordinary stupa made up of jizo statues.

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In addition to the usual red bibs, many of the jizo in the cemetery were wearing crocheted garments and woolly hats today, donated no doubt by kind-hearted people who were concerned that they might catch cold.

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After lunch we briefly visited some of the temples. We were amused to see two people building a “snow jizo” in one of the temple car parks. Like a snowman, but with hands joined in prayer.

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The simplicity and elegance of the Japanese temple architecture were heightened by the snow cover, their understated beauty all the more evident in a world reduced almost to black and white.

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Finally, it was time for us to return to the cable car station and descend to the snow-free world below.

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カモシカ kamoshika—serow

Gifu is a remote and mountainous area in the middle of Japan. We went there for the long weekend to see the beautiful colours of the autumn leaves.

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On the Saturday morning we were walking on a hill called Shiroyama (castle hill).

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It’s called Castle Hill because there used to be a castle on the top. Now there’s just a flat clearing and a stone marker where the castle used to be. The marker says 本丸 honmaru, meaning the main hall.

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On the way down the hill, we spotted this animal. It’s a serow.

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He was not very bothered by our presence, and tolerated my coming closer to get a better picture:

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Eventually, he thought I was a little too close for comfort, and clambered to his feet. I backed off and gave him some space.

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What’s a serow? Well, in Japanese it’s called a カモシカ kamoshika. Serow have an unusual ability. They can make vinegar with their faces. They have an extra set of nostrils below their eyes, from which they secrete vinegar.

Note on the word of the day:

The Japanese word for deer is シカ shika. In English we use the name “sika deer” to refer to the type of deer that is native to Japan, and now lives wild in Ireland and other countries, having been introduced from Japan. Since “sika” just means “deer”, a sika deer is a “deer deer”. The serow is called kamoshika, which looks like it means “duck deer”.

Strictly speaking, a serow isn’t a type of deer, but a type of “goat antelope”.

屋上 okujou—up on the roof

Here’s a little park in the heart of Osaka, where I sometimes sit and have lunch in the sunshine. Can you guess where it is?

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There’s even a small shrine, with fox guardians.

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Well, as alert readers will have guessed from the title of this post, this little haven is actually on the roof of the 8-storey building where I work.

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Sitting up here on a sunny day, it’s easy to forget you are high above the busy streets of the city.

Looking down into Midosuji Avenue. The gingko trees lining the avenue are still beautiful in their autumn yellow, although some are now starting to lose their leaves.

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