Posts Tagged ‘ sho-Chiku-Bai ’

Things About Japan

In front of Heian Shrine. Kyoto. November 2009.

A few updates in text and photos made, September 2011. 

It seems right to start off a New Year with a few basics.  While I believe that many who visit this site live in Japan or have lived or often visited Japan and know much about its culture and history, I think that many others are only at the beginning of their journey into learning about Japanese culture and history, etc.  Or perhaps they know one aspect of Japan rather well, but the rest is a blank slate to them.  So, then, I’m posting a page of facts, trivia and other stuff about Japan that you may or may not find interesting.  Well, here it is.  Enjoy.

うどん/Udon (noodles) Sign. Tokyo. 2007.

+ Japan is an archipelago nation situated off the east coast of the Asian Continent, consisting of four (4) main islands, (from North to South) Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. . . and hundreds, thousands, of smaller islands.  It’s total land mass is roughly the same as California’s.

+ Japan’s population:  around 128 million (a little more than 1/3 that of the United States).

Sept 2011 Update: Morning. My room. 3 Sisters Inn. Aug ’11.

+  This past November (2010) the Chiba Lotte Marines won The Japan Series (beating the Chunichi Dragons, over the course of 7 games).  They love their baseball in Japan.  Japan’s Pacific League roughly corresponds to the U.S. American League (well, they use designated hitters) and its Central League is sometimes compared to the National League.  In Japan if a game is tied after 9 innings they can play up to 3 more innings.  If it’s still tied after 12 innings, the game’s declared a draw and ends. September 2011 Update:  the Yakult Swallows (Tokyo) currently lead the Central League and the Softbank Hawks (Fukuoka) lead the Pacific League.

Orix Buffaloes v. Yakult Swallows. Osaka. May 2010.

+ Japan is the second largest producer of single malt whisky in the world.  Suntory’s whiskey is by far Japan’s largest whiskey company.  One of my client’s plants is next to Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery.  My client doesn’t make whiskey, though.  The Yamazaki Single Malt was the whiskey featured in “Lost in Translation.”

+ Japan’s National Anthem is Kimi ga Yo, which was composed in 1880 by Hiromori Hayashi, and put in its final musical form by a German bandmaster and composer, Franz Eckert.  I think it’s a very pretty tune.  Some in Japan think it sounds overly nationalistic, as it pays homage to the Emperor.  Hatsune Miku is a young girl manga/enetertainment character built around a synthesized voice.  Here’s “her” version of Kimi ga Yo.

+ Japan’s Emperor is Akihito.  Akihito Tenno’s (“Tenno” is Japanese for “Emperor” and looks like this:   天皇 in Japanese) father was Emperor Hirohito, now called Emperor Showa, as Japanese Emperors are given posthumous names to which they are thereafter referred.

+ More Imperial Information: In the modern era Japan’s Emperors have been Emperor Meiji (reign beginning 1868 – d. 1912), Emperor Taisho (reign 1913 – d. 1922), Emperor Showa (reign 1923 – d. 1990), and Emperor Akihito, whose reign begin in 1991, after his father’s passing.  Article I of Japan’s Constitution (which Gen. Douglas MacArthur‘s and the U.S. State Department’s team had a very heavy hand in drafting after World War II) provides that  “The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power,” thus officially de-deifying the Emperor.

* Here’s picture of my Uncle Bill with the then-Crown Prince, now Emperor, Akihito in 1959 at a reception at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.  Uncle Bill was with the U.S. government, stationed in Japan for a few years:

Then-Crown Prince Akihito in Foreground L. Uncle Bill Upper R. May 1959.

+ In front of and just down the street from Heian Shrine in Kyoto is Japan’s largest torii, or sacred gate.  It was constructed in 1929.  It’s 24.2 meters (79.39 feet) high.  The top rail is 33.9 meters (111.2 feet) long.  A photo of the Heian Shrine’s Dai Torii (Great Torii) is just below.  The Shinto Shrine with the most toriis in Japan is located just south of Kyoto at Fushi Inari Taisha (founded in 711 A.D.), where there are between 3,300-3,500 torii under which one can walk (and hundreds or thousands more smaller ones).

City Bus No 5. Between the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art & National Museum of Modern Art.

This is a diagram of a Kyoto City Bus:

+ In Japan three (3) writing systems are used:   hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字).  “Romaji” is used to write Japanese words using the 26 letters of the English alphabet. All — hiragana, katakana and kanji are used, are intertwined in any given Japanese sentence (though katakana, used to phonetically approximate foreign/borrowed words in Japanese, onomatopoeia and as italics, is used less frequently than hiragana and kanji).  The Japanese language has fewer sounds in it than English.  That’s one of the reasons why many Japanese can have a difficult time differentiating between the  r, l, and d sound, because in Japanese these sounds don’t exist in any kind of distinct way as they do in English.  On the other hand, native English speakers can have a tough time distinguishing between a few of the Japanese sounds and sometimes get vowels (like , sounds like the  ay in “stay” and , sounds like the i in “police”) mixed up.  I wrote a story about that. It’s short.  It’s a true story.

Morning along San-jo, Kyoto. August 2011.

+ Over the past 6 or so months Japan and China have been vying for the title of “World’s Second Largest Economy,” after the United States.  I was recently interviewed about the Japanese economy and business culture, trends and challenges.

+  On average every Japanese person consumes 34.1 pounds of chicken each year.  That’s 15.5 kilograms/year.  This is over 60% more than is consumed annually per person in China, but less than 1/4 of the chicken scarfed down by Kuwaitis each year.

From Dai Kichi Yakitori. Shirakawa St. Kyoto. Nov 2009.

+ JAXA is Japan’s NASA.  One of its recent premier projects (in which it leads the world) is “IKAROS,” a solar sail.  A solar sail “converts sunlight as a propulsion by means of a large membrane while a Solar ‘Power’ Sail gets electricity from thin film solar cells on the membrane in addition to acceleration by solar radiation.”

+  In Japan porcelain production started in the early 1600’s in Arita, Japan (on the Southern Island of Kyushu).  Kanagae Sanpei, from Korea, is generally credited as the founder of Japanese porcelain-making.  There are many different kinds and styles of Japanese porcelain, virtually all tracing back to those first kilns in Arita.  Imari, Kutani, Kakiemon, and Hirado, are just a few of the more famous types and styles of porcelain.  And within each of these classifications there are a multitude of classes based on era, kiln and artist.  I used to be in the porcelain / antiquities business.  I wrote a story about that, too.  Here it is.

+ Japan’s Innovation Network Corp (a public-private concern)  plans to invest US$1.6 Billion “in overseas environment-friendly projects involving Japanese companies.” (cite).   Note:Japan uses only one-ninth as much energy as China to create one unit of GDP.  It uses one-third as much energy as the United States to produce that same economic unit.” (cite).

Even on a Cloudy Day Kyoto’s a Beautiful Town.

+ The average annual snowfall for Sapporo, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, is about 5 meters (15 feet).  Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics.  The most incredible, mesmerizing, beautiful, mind-blowing, filmic commercials I’ve ever seen is for Sapporo Beer.  <-  Really.  Watch it.  My favorite Japanese beer, though, is Kirin.

Takoyaki Vendor. Nara. May 2010.

+ Takoyaki ( たこ焼き or  たこやき )  — see photo above — is octopus fritters.  Very tasty.  Very cheap.  Comfort food.

+ Life expectancy in Japan is over 86 for women and almost 80 for men.  In the U.S. it’s 81.4 and about 75.5, respectively.

+ The best vodka bar in Tokyo is called “The Bloody Doll.”

At Shoren-in Temple (present site dates from the 12th Century). Nov 2009.

+ In Japan the Pine (松), Bamboo (竹) & Plum (梅) trees — 「松竹梅」— are called (in translation) the “Three Friends of Winter.”

+ After a couple of interim moves (out of Nara to another site or two) Kyoto, formerly Heian-kyo (平安京), became the Emperor Kammu’s home in 794 The Emperor moved his capital out of Nara (so the story goes) to escape political and religious intrigues, priestly busybodies.  Kyoto remained the capital until 1868, when the Imperial court moved to Tokyo (Tokyo became the official new capital of Japan 2 years later) as part of the Meiji Restoration.  Kyoto’s Japan’s “Cultural Capital” and the locals will never let you forget that.  Kyoto’s home to more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and several hundred Shinto (Japan’s native religion) Shrines.

Shinkansen (新幹線), aka “Bullet Train” to Tokyo. 2007.

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Sho Chiku Bai (松竹梅)

The Three Friends of Winter


Sho (松) – Pine

Chiku (竹) – Bamboo

Bai (梅) – Plum


Sho-Chiku-Bai is an ancient and auspicious Japanese motif  (actually pronounced using their Japanized Chinese pronunciations as this was, not surprisingly, originally a Chinese construct),  finding its way into kimono design, sumi-e (monochrome painting), porcelain, sake brands and a thousand other Japanese products, works of art, ads and commodities.  By invoking Sho-Chiku-Bai the painter or designer sums-up and distills-down a host of feelings, emotions and attitudes for the viewer, reader, wearer or drinker.

These three “Friends of Winter” essentially provide an allegory for weathering hard times through their various attributes.  A pine tree’s roots are tenacious and will borrow deep, or, as need be, find their way to hold-fast on even the craggiest, rock-strewn outcropping.  They endure, no matter the circumstances.  Bamboo finds its strength in knowing how to give and bend without breaking when even the strongest winds blow.  In Japan the plum tree is the first to bud and blossom in the late winter, even when its limbs may remain snow-laden:  the plum gives us hope, showing us that spring and new opportunities for beauty and joy are just around the corner.  Strength and tenacity, the ability to bend but not break when adversity swirls around us, the promise of hope even when coldness won’t release its grasp on us.  The Three Friends of Winter, Sho-Chiku-Bai — 松竹梅 —  our three friends of winter.

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One of the 3 Friends. Snow lays heavy on a pine, but the roots run deep. Asago, Japan. Early 1991.

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Here are a few examples (dozens and dozens of examples could be shown, mind you) of how the Sho-Chiku-Bai motif is incorporated into various media and products:

*  A Sho-Chiku-Bai rubber stamp, for sale by “Art Neko” (Art Kitty).

*  Art:

Suzuki Shuitsu (1822-1889)- bamboo, plum and pine (needles). Rimpa school.


*  Sho-Chiku-Bai sake (one of hundreds of  松竹梅  sakes):


A short vid of a couple of Imari plates (late Meiji Period) in my modest collection where if you look for them, you can see the stylized Three Friends in the center of each plate:


“Happy New Year” = Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu

2013 UPDATE:  The YEAR of the SNAKE!


Click Here for 2012 YEAR of the DRAGON info, background & trivia!


Coming up:  2011.  The year of The Rabbit!


The Resolute Rabbit


Happy New Year . . .


Ah*ke*ma*shi*te    Oh*meh*de*toh    Goh*za*i*mas


2 0 1 0 :     Y e a r   o f   t h e   T i g e r

Tiger. Kamine Zoo. Hitachi, Japan. April 2008.

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2010 is the Year of the Tiger, according to the ancient Chinese calendar (which runs in 12-year cycles).  2009 has been the year of the Bull, or Water Buffalo (plodding along, never giving up, persevering).  2011 will be the Year of the Rabbit (my year, thankyouverymuch).  But 2010 is for the Tiger:  active, self-assured and ready to strike at opportunities.  More on the Chinese/Japanese calendar below.  Here’s a nice, 2 min 10 sec video from Japan (titled): Year of the Tiger.  New Year’s Card.  How to Paint a Simple Tiger.”

Here’s a Happy New Year 2010 vid from Alien Eye, a Tokyo-based boutique marketing firm.  What I like about this 1 min 47 sec vid is that it pretty much captures “a day in the life” of anyone strolling the streets of Japan … ;o).

Stay tuned for updates on this page over the next several days and week.  Please consider joining others in signing-up (right-hand side of this page) so you’ll be notified by email of updates here on Japanese New Year Traditions, the Chinese/East Asian Zodiac, and other end-of-the-year/beginning-of-2010 information and esoterica.

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Japan has used the Gregorian Calendar since 1873,  5 years into the Meiji Restoration, but being a nation with close cultural, geographic and historical ties to and influences from China, the 12-year cycle Chinese calendar continues to hold great sway and influence in most Japanese hearts, at least from a standpoint of tradition and sentimentality.  Most Japanese New Year’s Cards  — Nengajo — (having gone into the mail by the millions and millions over the past few days in order that they be delivered on January 1st!) will feature a tiger motif.  Here’s an example:

Found at this website

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Otoshidama ( お年玉 )  is the Japanese custom (also in China and elsewhere in East Asia) where adults give children New Year’s envelopes containing money (bills only).  Japanese bills come in ¥1,000 (somewhat rare) ¥2,000, ¥5,000 and ¥10,000 increments, so children (depending on their age and relationship to the adult giver) can expect anywhere from ¥1,000-¥10,000 (around $11.00 to $110.00 given today’s exchange rate).  Envelopes are colorful and cartoony and cute.

Here’s how Kit-Kat (yes, that Kit-Kat) has gotten in on the otoshidama trade, combining a box of chocolate with an otoshidama envelope, suitable and intended for mailing from grandma to grandson/granddaughter  —  with, of course, a Year of the Tiger motif:


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お正月 O-Shogatsu

Shogatsu (or O-Shogatsu) are the amalgam of customs and celebrations that mark and are intertwined with celebrating the New Year in Japan.  Special foods eaten, temples visited, decorations made and gifts given all begin at 12:00 midnight on January 1, and continue for the next three (3) days.

Houses are cleaned and decorated in the days preceding O-Shogatsu.  Families walk or ride together (many at midnight, January 1) to their neighborhood Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines, businesses shut down, and Shonenkai (New Year’s Parties/Feasts) flourish.  Among the decorations are the front doors of homes and businesses, often sporting with pine (松 matsu, symbolizing deep-rooted strength), bamboo (竹  chiku, symbolizing the ability to bend with but overcome the winds of adversity) and plum fronds (梅  bai, symbolizing hope – plum being the first tree to blossom in the spring, with buds often bursting forth even through the late February snows).


In about three (3) hours (I write at about 8:30 a.m. U.S. Central Time), no less than 17 monks will take up the ropes attached to the log that strikes and rings great bell at Chion-in Temple in Kyoto and will swing that log into the 74 ton bell  108 times to ring-out the negative passions (greed, hate, envy…) of those who hear it and cleanse all for a fresh start for 2010.   It’s a tradition that’s gone on year after year for hundreds of years at Chion-in, which was established in the early 12th Century by a disciple of Hōnen, priest and founder of the Jodo (“Pure Land”) sect of Buddhism.  “The colossal main gate, the Sanmon, was built in 1619 and is the largest surviving structure of its kind in Japan.”  Here’s a rough vid I made of an, uh, event I ran into as I walked by the Chion-in Main Gate (Sanmon) about 45 days ago (also featured in another Front Page piece just below):

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