This year, despite the odd, warm, sunny day, Japan had a record snowfall in February. My wife, Mandy, and I live in Mori, a traditional mountain village in Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture. At the peak of this rare event, we had seventy centimeters of snow. We had never seen so much snow during our eight years here, or even in our seventeen years in Japan. It averaged out to be about forty-to-fifty centimeters. When we walked outside, the snow was up to our knees!
Being ‘Aussies’, we are not used to such conditions, or such cold temperatures. But it brought out the inner-child in us both, and we had fun playing in the snow, engaging in a snowball fight and making a snowman, which is something we never had the chance to do in our youth in Australia. Luckily the snow melted partially the next day, and a tractor cleared the roads for traffic. Thus we were able to drive to work again without too much trouble.
“Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (This translates as, “Demons out! Luck in!”)
It certainly sounds like a positive thing, in my opinion, and Mandy and I enjoy participating in this activity every year, along with the other neighbors in our rural community. In larger towns and cities, there are festivals to celebrate this event, and instead of throwing beans out one’s door, people are given beans to throw at actors dressed up in traditional demon costumes. The focus of course is on the children, although all ages join in on the fun.
Another popular custom in February, although not traditional, is Valentine’s Day. However, in Japan, it is women who give gifts (usually chocolate) to men on this day. Ladies give gifts not just to their boyfriends or lovers, but also their bosses and male colleagues. The favor is returned on March 14th, a day referred to as White Day. There are different theories as to why Japan’s way of observing Valentine’s Day is opposite to how it is celebrated in western countries, and why it has the additional ‘White Day’. The most popular theory is that the chocolate industry has commercialized this occasion, and invented White Day for men to reciprocate – double the revenue for companies selling chocolate!
On a more personal note, my eldest brother’s birthday and my own birthday also fall in February, one day apart. Hence, February is always a most enjoyable month for me. I get to enjoy Valentine’s Day even more than I did in Australia, receiving chocolates from my female colleagues at work, as well as something special from my loving partner, Mandy. I celebrate it the western way as well – the best of both worlds! Then additionally I get to indulge on my birthday, while also enjoying celebrating my brother’s birthday the day before. It’s a fun month.
This year, this Friday the 21st to be exact, I will turn a corner, or pass a milestone, whichever cliché you prefer. This year’s birthday will mark my 50th year in this world. While I do not have the good fortune to celebrate it with my family in person, my family has gone out of their way to make it a joyous occasion for me. Furthermore, Mandy is also helping me to celebrate it in style, and we will even spend a few days together in Kyoto to mark this special event.
Interestingly, the Japanese people do not see turning fifty as such a special occasion. In their culture, the special birthdays are three, five, seven, twenty, sixty, seventy-seven, eighty-eight, and ninety-nine. Any birthday after that is special. Children celebrate their third, fifth and seventh birthdays by participating in a festival called ‘Shichi-Go-San’, meaning seven, five and three. A twentieth birthday is when a person becomes an adult in Japan, and can vote and drink alcohol (legally).
One’s sixtieth birthday is reached after five 12-year cycles in the Chinese zodiac, and is thus seen as a festive event. The seventy-seventh, eighty-eighth and ninety-ninth birthdays are seen as momentous occasions based on the Chinese characters for those ages, and are celebrated in fine style. The Chinese character for one hundred is quite similar to the character for ‘white’, and is thus called a White Birthday. Ironically, most people have white hair (or no hair as the case may be) if they are alive to enjoy that particular honor. Personally, it’s not something I hope to be around for, in all honesty. But that’s just me!
Anyway, I hope you are having a marvelous month, whether it be winter or summer in your part of the world, and I wish you all the very best.