The sakura, or cherry blossom, is revered in Japan for its beauty and transience. Hanami is the spring tradition of admiring blossoms—usually cherry, and less frequently, plum. People gather under the blossoms for food, drink and song.
The emergence of the first cherry blossoms is known as kaika. The peak when the most trees are in full bloom is known as mankai.
It is difficult to predict exactly when a cherry blossom tree will bloom, so the Japan Meteorological Corporation releases cherry blossom forecasts. The forecasts try to predict when the blossoms will reach full bloom. (In 2007 the meteorologists got it wrong and issued an official apology: “We have disturbed those who relied on our information.”)
Blooming times vary across Japan—areas with milder winter climates produce earlier blooms. Blooms usually begin in Okinawa in the south. Weather can cause the blossoms to appear earlier or later than average and can lengthen or shorten the blooming period. Blooming typically starts in late March, although some areas may produce blooms as early as January. Sometimes the season extends to May.
This year, Tokyo is predicted to reach peak bloom three days from now, on March 28. Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, is predicted to hit full bloom on May 6; Kyoto on April 4; and Osaka on April 13.
People choose cherry blossom viewing locations for different reasons: some have the oldest trees, others the highest number of blooms, and some are close to historic sites. The proverb, hana yori dango—dumplings rather than flowers—hints that most people are more interested in the festivities than the flowers themselves.
Last year we planted rows of cherry trees at Shizuka Ryokan, and we look forward to holding our own Hanami festival here one day.
Hinamatsuri (雛祭), also known as Doll’s day or Girls’ Day, is celebrated on March 3. On this day, platforms—hinadan—are covered with red material and used to display ornamental dolls. The dolls represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians, in the traditional court dress of the Heian period.
Doll’s Day is known as a girls’ celebration, but this wasn’t always the case. Hinamatsuri was originally for all children, but girls’ love of playing with dolls shaped how the day is celebrated today.
Hinamatsuri originated in the Heian period (794 to 1185), a time in Japanese history when Buddhism, Taoism and other Chinese influences were at their peak. The Kojiki, or ‘An Account of Ancient Matters’, is a collection of myths published during the Heian period about the origins of Japan, and the kami, or spirits. The myths form part of the origin of many spiritual practices such as the purification ritual. The Kojiki tells a story where one of the mythical founders of Japan purifies himself in the river. This became the Shinto purification rite known as harae.
Harae was practiced by the imperial court. The Tale of Genji, a Japanese novel from the Heian period, mentions the third day of the third month as an auspicious time to perform purification rituals by throwing dolls into the river or ocean. The Onin War (1467-1477) spelled an end to harae at the imperial palace, but it was still practiced by the people and was popular at Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto and at Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Osaka. People practiced hina-nagashi, a custom in which straw hina dolls were set afloat on a boat and sent down a river and out to sea, the idea being that they carried away bad spirits.
The earliest record of displaying the dolls in March comes from 1625, when Emperor Go-Mizunoo’s daughter played with dolls. She succeeded her father as Empress Meisho and Hinamatsuri became the official name for the holiday in 1687.
Doll-makers made elaborate dolls for the festival. As the dolls became more expensive, levels were added to the hinadan so that the expensive ones could be placed out of the reach of young children.
Families start to display Hinamatsuri dolls in February and take them down immediately after the festival. Superstition says that leaving the dolls on display past March 4 will result in a late marriage for the daughter.
The attention to detail that is visible in a Hinamatsuri display is impressive. Different regions of Japan place the dolls in different orders from left to right, but the type of dolls displayed on each level are always the same.
The top level always displays the Emperor and the Empress. There might be extra details on this level, such as silk lanterns decorated with cherry blossoms. Hinamatsuri purists would place two vases of artificial peach branches between the two dolls. The traditional Kansai arrangement had the male on the right, while modern Kanto arrangements place him on the left.
The second level holds three court ladies, each holds sake equipment. The lady on the right is the long-handled sake-bearer Nagae no chōshi, the on the left is the backup sake-bearer Kuwae no chōshi, and the lady in the middle is the seated sake bearer Sanpō. Accessories between the ladies include stands with round tabletops for seasonal sweets.
The third level has a musical theme—it holds five male musicians holding instruments including a small drum, a large drum, a hand drum and a flute, and a singer holding a fan. There are ancient Hinamatsuri sets with up to ten musicians, with at least one with female.
Two ministers may be displayed on the fourth level. These may be the Emperor’s bodyguards, or administrators. They are sometimes carrying a bow and arrow. When they represent ministers, the Minister of the Right is depicted as a young person and the Minister of the Left is older. Between the two figures are covered bowl tables as well as diamond-shaped stands bearing hishi mochi, a Japanese sweet made specially for Hinamatsuri. Just below the ministers on the right is a mandarin tree, and on the left, a cherry blossom.
The fifth level displays three protectors of the Emperor and Empress. They are all having a different experience of being drunk—one is crying, one is angry, and one is laughing. The sixth and seventh levels are less psychologically charged. These levels display a variety of miniature furniture, tools and carriages. The furniture depicts items used in the palace including a chest of drawers, a chest for kimono storage, a sewing kit and utensils for a tea ceremony. The seventh layer displays items used away from the palace such as an ox-drawn carriage and a picnic hamper.
A modern twist
Last year an 81-year-old woman called Masako Wakamiya developed a game app called Hinadan App. The game challenges players to sort all of the hina dolls into their rightful place on a hinadan. You can watch a TED talk of Masako Wakamiya here.
Hinamatsuri at Shizuka Ryokan
The Traditional Japanese breakfast served at Shizuka Ryokan exemplifies Japanese cuisine. Grilled salmon, hijiki seaweed, miso, pickled daikon radish, umeboshi plum and furikake seasoning are regular features around here. Not only are these foods delicious, they are beneficial to health.
The Japanese Diet
Japan consists of 6,852 islands, so it is no surprise that a large part of the Japanese diet is fish. The nutrients and minerals found in pelagic fish—such as tuna, salmon and sardines—include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, phosphorus and selenium. The oily fish found in the Japanese meals served at Shizuka Ryokan is good for the brain and the heart. The Japanese also eat a lot of squid and octopus, foods high in an amino acid called taurine, that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
Most chronic diseases—for example diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s—are marked by high levels of inflammation. Studies show the omega-3 fatty acids present in oily fish reduce inflammation and can even help in cases of mild depression. Fish is rich in selenium, which plays a vital role in immunity, and Vitamin B12, which is great for the brain.
please note: At Shizuka Ryokan we cater for a wide range of dietary requirements, including veganism, vegetarianism, and coeliac disease. Our kitchen staff are trained in the preparation of delicious Japanese food within the parameters of special diets.
Many Japanese foods are fermented—think pickles, sake, miso and soy sauce. During fermentation foods go through a process of lacto-fermentation, in which bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food. Fermentation produces beneficial enzymes, B Vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics. The digestive benefits of fermented foods are well known. Miso, the paste made from fermented soybeans and grains, contains millions of beneficial bacteria, minerals, vitamins B, E and K, and folic acid. One tablespoon of natto contains billions of Bacillus subtilis, a soil bacteria that can survive the high-acid environment of the stomach and go on to colonise the intestine. Scientists are interested in nattokinase, an enzyme formed during natto production, which has been shown to have blood-thinning actions. Also, natto contains high levels of Vitamin K2, which may help prevent osteoporosis.
In Japan, the rate of breast cancer is low. Japanese women consume a high amount of fermented soy foods including miso paste, tempeh and natto. Fermented soy foods are high in isoflavones—compounds that act as phyto-estrogens (plant substances that have a weak oestrogen-like effect in the body). Isoflavones are also known to increase bone density, and thus reduce the risk of osteoporosis. For this reason, a Japanese diet is useful during menopause.
The Japanese eat more seaweed than any other culture. Seaweed is rich in trace minerals that may be low in our everyday diet, such as iodine, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium.
The Japanese drink a lot of green tea. Green tea—especially a type called matcha—is high in polyphenols. Polyphenols are thought to have anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects. Green tea is high in catechins, a type of polyphenol. Catechins can reduce the formation of free radicals in the body, preventing cell damage. Also, Japanese vegetables and herbs such as purple sweet potatoes, pumpkins and shiso contain large amounts of beneficial antioxidants.
Of course, the idea behind a healthy diet is to eat more protective foods and fewer damaging ones. And if you want to live to 100 there are other factors to consider such as: genetics, upbringing, how much exercise you get, how many friends you have, the climate where you live, the standard of healthcare you receive, whether you take onsen and naps and so on. But booking a holiday at Shizuka Ryokan, and eating Japanese food while you are here, is a good place to start!
Around the world, five blue zones—places where people tend to live longer, healthier lives—have been identified: the Italian island of Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; the Greek island of Ikaria, and Okinawa, Japan.
Okinawa, a group of 161 islands in southern Japan, is said to include the largest proportion of people over 100 years of age anywhere in the world (about 33 per 100,000). In Okinawa rates of heart disease and stroke rate are very low, and breast and prostate cancer is extremely rare.
Researchers studied the people of Okinawa’s diet for 25 years to figure out if it was good genetics or diet that accounted for their health. Experiments showed that when people from Okinawa grew up in another country or abandoned the traditional diet they developed the same chronic disease risks as everyone else1. So, it is worth asking: what is the traditional Okinawan diet? Each day Okinawan elders eat seven serves of fruit and vegetables, seven serves of grain and two serves of soy. They also eat fish several times a week and their consumption of dairy and meat is minimal. Their mantra hara hachi bu means eat until you are 8/10ths full.
1 Since the Okinawa study, the life expectancy of men in Okinawa has plummeted from No. 1 in the world to No. 26. Older Okinawans who are eating the traditional diet still rank No. 1, but the younger generation are turning to Big Macs.
Did you forget to buy your lovely lady some flowers last Valentine’s Day? Shizuka Ryokan forgives you; you were probably just following Japanese tradition.
In Japan men don’t have to worry about shopping for jewellery or flowers in February because Valentine’s Day is celebrated differently there; for the Japanese, Valentine’s is a day when women shower men with chocolates.
There are two types of chocolates. Giri-choco (義理チョコ, ‘courtesy chocolate’) is intended for friends, colleagues, bosses, and close male friends. Giri translates as ‘obligation’, and has no romantic connotation. On the other hand, honmei-choco (本命チョコ, ‘chocolate of love’) is given to a boyfriend, lover, or husband. Japanese women often hand make the honmei-choco in the belief that shop-bought chocolate doesn’t cut it when it comes to true love.
White Day (ホワイトデー) is celebrated one month later on March 14. On White Day the men who received chocolates on February 14 are expected to return the favour threefold (sanbai gaeshi (三倍返し, ‘triple the return’) by giving gifts. Traditional White Day gifts include cookies, jewellery, white chocolate, white lingerie, and… marshmallows!
How did this White Day tradition happen? Well, in 1977, a candy company in Fukuoka declared March 14 Marshmallow Day (マシュマロデー Mashumaro Dē). This evolved into White Day in 1978 when the National Confectionary Industry Association came up with a genius marketing ploy: an ‘answer day’ to Valentine’s. The slogan was: ‘Answer her love on White Day.’
White Day spread to South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau and China. (Interestingly in South Korea Chupa Chup lollypops are the most popular White Day candy). These days, men give both white and dark chocolate, as well as cookies, jewellery, white lingerie, flowers and marshmallows.
Last week Nestlé Japan Ltd. launched the Sublime Ruby Kitkat, a naturally pink chocolate, created by pâtissier Yasumasa Takagi. The Sublime Ruby Kitkat was created after Swiss cacao processor Barry Callebaut invented ‘ruby’ chocolate late last year. Ruby chocolate is the first new natural colour, following dark, milk, and white, for chocolate since white chocolate was invented in the 1930s. The new ruby chocolate is being marketed as the ideal romantic gift in the lead up to Valentine’s Day.
You might be asking: What about gay relationships? It seems that some couples have a tradition where one person gives chocolates on Valentine’s Day and the other returns the favour on White Day. And if you are single don’t fret: In South Korea there is a day for that. Black Day on April 14 is a day where people who didn’t receive any marshmallows can eat a steaming bowl of jjajyangmyeon, or ‘black noodles’.
Shizuka Ryokan serves a traditional omakase banquet dinner every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday. This year Valentine’s Day falls on a Wednesday so we are opening the kitchen on February 14 to celebrate. Visit here to book your stay.
You might be in for a treat—your visit to Shizuka Ryokan might coincide with a local farmers’ market. Farmers’ markets enable personal connections between growers and consumers. By cutting out the middlemen, local growers receive more food dollars and shoppers receive fresh, in season produce which supports the local community. To learn more visit the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association.
Here is a plan: start the day at Shizuka with a traditional Japanese breakfast then go to a farmers’ market, buy some delicious local cheese, wine and bread and have yourself a picnic. The following is a list of farmers’ markets near Shizuka:
1st SATURDAY OF THE MONTH
Daylesford Farmers Market
Daylesford Primary School, Vincent Street
9am – 1pm
Woodend Farmers Market
High Street Woodend
9am – 1pm
1st SUNDAY OF THE MONTH
Castlemaine Farmers Market
Mostyn St, Castlemaine
9am – 1pm
2nd SATURDAY OF THE MONTH
Ballan Farmers Market
96 Inglis St, Ballan
9am – 1pm
Kyneton Farmers Market
St Pauls Park, Piper St, Kyneton
8am – 1pm
2nd SUNDAY OF THE MONTH
Clunes Farmers Market
Collins Place & Fraser St
9am – 2pm
3rd SATURDAY OF THE MONTH
Trentham Farmers Market
Trentham Town Square, Trentham
9am – 1pm