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setsubun party!


In my continual efforts to incorporate the best parts of Japanese culture into my life (and a love for consuming wasabi) I decided to bring the Japanese holiday called 節分 (setsubun) to the Midwest.

Setsubun celebrates the coming of Spring, and occurs at the beginning of February (the 3rd this year, though apparently the date varies slightly from year to year). Spring starting in February in Midwestern America is a ridiculous thought, but you can kind of just treat it like Groundhog Day as Spring-welcoming-and-preparation-and-all-that.

Setsubun celebration involves two key components:
1) Sushi. Make sushi rolls, don’t cut them (for good luck), and eat them in silence facing the lucky direction for the current year (west-south-west this year)
2) Bean throwing. Throw beans out your door to get rid of the demons, throw them inside the door to bring luck in. Shout the appropriate things in Japanese (“out with demons, in with luck!”)

Though I planned to have a setsubun party for a while, I didn’t get around to making a Facebook event and inviting people until a couple days before, by which point Dave had already planned a gettogether for the same evening – the first installation in a series of music-by-the-decade parties, starting with the 50s (for unknown reasons). The only reasonable solution was to combine the two into a 50s-themed setsubun celebration.

Here’s how it went down…

Key setsubun ingredients (Pocky is definitely an age-old setsubun tradition)

I cut up ingredients as people showed up and started staring at the random things on the table and/or sock hopping it up. Later, I became the makizushi instructor:


While waiting for their turn at making makizushi, the other guests participated wholeheartedly in the sock-hop that was going on…

Rob lookin smooth

Jake and Mia swingin’ and twistin’

Nathan is quite competitive sushi-maker

Sushi assembled, we all stood ready facing west-south-west

This, my friends, is setsubun

After we inhaled our sushi, it was time to throw beans. Nathan was kind enough to be our demon for the night, and the target of our bean-throwing.


Several synchronous “Oni wa soto” and “Fuku wa uchi” yellings later, all demons and bad luck were banished from the apartment. Good work, team, golly gee whiz!

However, what wasn’t banished yet from the apartment was about three thousand grains of rice and beans all over the floor. Note to everyone considering a setsubun party: cleanup is a forced to be reckoned with.


Seijin-shiki Part 2: Crowds in Kobe, or, Nice Guys
Don’t Wear Hakama


…Noriko and I were all dolled up, seijin-shiki-style, and met up at the Hotel Okura in Kobe where Noriko had been dressed, and take some nice photos, courtesy of ojiichan’s nice camera and photography skillz, plus extra help from host mom and obaachan.

Noriko & Mo

Met up with Noriko’s friend Sayuri and her family. Good to see them for the first time in several years too.


Sayuri’s family, seijin-girls, and ojiichan, obaachan, and host mom on the right

Next stop: photography in the conveniently-placed Japanese garden right behind the hotel. It was not very cold, but you can tell it’s winter because there would probably be more leaves on the trees otherwise…?


And here’s the photo that makes me feel like a tall-ass gaijin:


It probably doesn’t show in these photos, but we were all feeling extremely rushed and stressed out (except for ojiichan, who insisted on taking hundreds of photos from all different angles, and then later remarked to Noriko that she’s kinda running late!)

But the actual seijin-shiki event was going to start soon…

So Noriko and I packed our giant obi-enhanced selves into the car with host mom, ojiichan, and obaachan, headed for Kobe’s Home’s Stadium, where the ceremony was held. Met up with Kana and another friend from high school, Nijika:


Nijika, Kana, Noriko

As we approached the stadium, we were surrounded by every single other 20-year old in Kobe. That’s a freaking lot of people.


In front of Home’s Stadium


Quite a crowd in front of the convenience store. Traffic: disrupted

On seijin day, girls wear furisode and guys typically wear suits. Some guys, however, choose to wear something more traditional and go with the male version of a hakama, like what I’m wearing. However, as Noriko pointed out, those are usually the kinda guys who are really 調子乗る, or think they’re bad-boys and can pull anything off. As a result, nice-boys specifically avoid being seen in hakama on this day because they don’t want people to think they’re trying to look badass.

And as it turned out, most of the guys who showed up in hakama did have that “I wanna be baaaad” edge.


Girls in warm fluffy white shawls


I didn’t have a fluffy white shawl – this was almost worse than not having a kimono ;)


Above-mentioned boys in hakama. Or at least suits and white sneakers.


This hakama guy doesn’t look so bad… wonder what gives


Noriko and Kana in their fuzzy-white-shawls

White hakama boy is kinda awesome


The rare blonde hair and sunglasses look.

I’m not sure where he falls on the spectrum of hakama vs. classy suited boys.


ossans and photographers watch from the bridge.

The main thing going on was just to stand around in this giant crowd of kimono and suit wearing 20-year-olds. The event is held town-by-town, so my friends kept running into people they knew from elementary school, since most people go to nearby schools when they are little, and then farther away for middle/high school.


More photography going on.


Nijika kept finding old classmates


Dude amidst many ladies in kimono and those white furry things.

Eventually, the massive crowd began to make its way slowly into the stadium…


The crowd moves in…


View from the front of the line!


You have to show your invitation to the ceremony at the door (proof you’re a new seijin, I guess).


Eventually found a place to sit


About half the stadium was full

This is the part where this whole ceremony is a bit of a mystery to me. Some dude welcomed us, there were people standing at the bottom of the stadium, but nothing of interest was going on. There was about a 5 minute dance performance, aaaand that was about it. We decided we were bored after about half an hour and left.


On the way out


Finally, across the street from that massive crowd.

Noriko’s mom came to pick the four of us up, and we headed to their apartment in Sannomiya to chill out for a few hours before the high school reunion. I went shopping for a last-minute gift (this was the day before I left Japan). However, in Sannomiya, unlike by the stadium in Kobe, most people were NOT dressed up in kimonos, so I stuck out like no other. The stares were the normal amount of staring (due to my foreign-ness) multiplied by a factor of 1000. I even got verbal response (this is extremely rare). Some kids complimented me (they were about 13), and later I came upon a middle-aged dude who saw me and completely stopped in his tracks. Speechless.

I stared back, and eventually he realized he’d been staring long and intensely enough that some kind of verbal interaction was required. He stammered 似合う (looks good on you) and got out of there.

I came back to the apartment in time to snack, attempt to go to the bathroom in my hakama (not an easy task), get Noriko to put her custom-made nails on me:


And take the most fabulous picture I’ve ever been a part of:


Sad as it was to break up this powwow, it was HIGH SCHOOL REUNION TIME. So once again, we piled into the car and headed for Hotel Okura.

To be continued…


Seijin-shiki Part 1: Gaijin in Hakama


January 11th was 成人式 (seijin-shiki, Coming of Age Day) in Japan – to honor and celebrate everyone who has become an adult (turned 20) in the previous year. This is a holiday and event of epic proportions in Japan – probably the biggest milestone in your life aside from your wedding day.

Girls dress up in full kimonos, get their hair and makeup done, take professional photographs, and go to the ceremony itself – held locally, and packed full of fresh new adults only.

The amount of money, energy, and general stress devoted to this day is astounding.

But it seems roughly equivalent to prom.

I never thought I’d attend my own seijin-shiki. But when emailing my host mom about my Japan trip plans, she mentioned that if I stayed until the 11th I would be able to participate in seijin-shiki, and go to the first high school reunion my class in Japan would have. As an exchange student, I was put in a class with students about a year younger than me. So although I am actually 21 and thus missed my own Coming of Age Day by a year, my Japan trip happened to line up exactly with the seijin-shiki of every single person I know in Japan. Pretty lucky, huh?

But what the hell was I going to wear?!

Girls wear furisode, a kind of kimono with really long sleeves, that their mom or some other relative happens to have lying around – not really an option for me. The popular alternative for kimono-less families is to rent one. This costs upwards of ¥30,000, or $350+. Also, since all the upcoming 20-year-olds know this day is on its way, people reserve their kimonos up to a year in advance. 2 weeks ahead of time is really pushing it for a kimono rental, and even if we found one it would probably cost an arm and a leg.


However, when I showed up to Yuka’s house on my first day in Japan, we started talking about the festival and what I would wear. It turns out Yuka’s mom purchased a hakama she found on sale a while back, for her two daughters’ future college graduation ceremonies (hakama are worn at graduation, apparently). She said I could borrow it, if I was cool with showing up in a hakama instead of a kimono.


We discussed briefly whether the hakama would be too weird and that I’d stick out, but guess what — I’m already a gaijin, so I already stick out. Plus, I’m not actually the correct age for seijin-shiki (since I’m no longer 20), so effectively I am more like a graduate of this whole seijin business anyway. Also, the hakama was purple. Totally fabulous!

So I took the hakama with me when I moved from Yuka’s house to my previous host family.

Now the only problem is, who’s gonna dress me up in said hakama on January 11?

Most girls go to a salon to get their hair and makeup done and kimono put on. This, like the kimono rental itself, gets pricey. Noriko, my host sister, was getting hers done at the hotel where the high school reunion would be held, and she was getting her professional pictures taken there too. But again, most salons were totally booked at this point, and asking a week beforehand whether a salon had an opening at 10 am on seijin day was laughable.

My host mom, however, used her host mom superpowers and called up a bunch of local places. A little old shop by the name of Midori-san had an opening! And they would do my hair, makeup, and dress me up for the reasonable price of ¥10,000 (just over $100). And I’m not kidding, this is a good deal. Also, Midori-san was not fazed by the idea of putting on a hakama instead of a kimono.

The day before seijin-shiki, right after I got my haircut, host mom took me to Midori-san to do a sort of pre-seijin-shiki consultation. We brought the hakama and all the relevant hair accessories. The lady at Midori-san who would be dressing me checked to make sure we had all the necessary pieces, and talk about when I would come by tomorrow. She did the obligatory “oh it’s so cool you know Japanese and are here and can go to seijin-shiki” conversation with me, and remarked about how nice the hakama was with host mom. At some point, Midori-san kinda looked at me and was like “your eyebrows. We need to fix them.”

“Um okay then, go for it,” I said.

At this point, host mom was alarmed that I was so quick to entrust the shape of my eyebrows to this lady I’d met less than 10 minutes before, and I think she didn’t quite know whether I understood what was going on. But actually, I was fully aware of what was going on, and told host mom it was cool. She had to go pick up obaachan from badminton practice, and she left me alone with the lady who was after my eyebrows.

I was expecting some waxing or plucking or something… instead, she whipped out a razor and started scraping away at the tops and bottoms of my eyebrows. It was mildly terrifying, but I said nothing, rolled with it, and 10 minutes later came out with eyebrows that were for once, a reasonable thickness.

Host mom showed up with obaachan and seemed a little too shocked that my eyebrows turned out okay. Obaachan approved too, and we went on our way.

The next day, I showed up at 10 am to get dressed up and dolled up for the big day. Noriko was off at the hotel getting dressed, and host mom managed to schedule this day so that everyone’s appointments lined up perfectly.

I brought hairstyle photos I’d copied from a kimono-hairstyle magazine I’d seen at Noriko’s pre-seijin-shiki consultation (does this thing have a name??) the week before. Make-up, then hair, then sticking a bunch of hair ornaments in hair plus an unhealthy amount of hairspray, then hakama time. The result of an hour’s worth of beautifying work (photo taken in Midori-san’s shop).


Here’s the obasan responsible for my hair, hakama, and eyebrows

The girl who did my makeup

And detailed hair shots (taken later, at the reunion):

From the back

Right side – about 3 hair ornaments are visible

Left side – the other 2 ornaments visible

Alright, now I was dressed and ready for action. The day had only begun. Festivals and reunions to attend, and I had to meet up with Noriko. I handed Midori-san a crispy ¥10,000 bill, said my arigatous, and jumped into the car (very gracefully and ladylike, of course) with host mom, ojiichan and obaachan, and headed towards the hotel in Kobe to meet Noriko, who was just about to emerge from her similar (but more extensive) beautification process, a beautiful, breathing-and-walking-impaired-by-kimono, butterfly.

To be continued…