Tag Archives: 福袋

Shop til you drop

new year decoration1Christmas is a largely commercial affair in Japan. Of course, there are plenty of decorations put up, and that starts in November, but I don’t expect it is truly celebrated by anyone except the 1% of the population which is Christian. However, I would say that people enjoy it, in the same way they enjoy Valentine’s Day or Hallowe’en. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year, and through some very clever marketing many Japanese people are convinced that a bucket of fried chicken from KFC and strawberry shortcake from the local convenience store are the perfect dinner on the 25th. Japanese people generally don’t exchange Christmas presents, and by the morning of the 26th all the decorations are gone, soon to be replaced with the traditional Shinto New Year decorations. For anyone newly-arrived in Japan, this sudden absence of all things Christmassy can be a shock, especially for someone feeling a little homesick and still getting used to the idea that December 25th is just another working day.

For Japanese people, the big celebration is New Year (正月). As shops shut down just before the end of the year, they put up New Year signs on their doors and kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations) on either side of the entrance.

new year shop entranceTraditionally, shops and other businesses didn’t open on the first three days (or sometimes more) of the new year, but every year more and more is open even on January 1st. As I did last year, I spent some time on New Year’s Day walking a 7 lucky gods pilgrimage, and was surprised at how much was open. Who wants to go to McDonald’s on New Year’s Day? The answer is, a surprising number of people. I enjoyed starting the year walking to shrines and temples, and this year walked with a friend, which was far more fun than doing it alone. She said her prayers at each stop, which made me slow down a little, and not just check off each one along the way and move on to the next one. It reminded me of what the route really was for. Last year I started earlier and so didn’t see so many people, but this year we waited in line several times.  Since I had already blogged about it I decided to do something different and posted on Facebook as I arrived at each temple or shrine, but if you would like to read about it, here is the link to last year’s post:


Having spent January 1st in a very traditional way, I spent the afternoon of January 2nd in a way more recognisable to my students as a New Year tradition: the sales. January (or these days, end-of-December) sales are not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. In many countries one of the first things people want to do after Christmas is go to the shops to return or exchange gifts and spend money or gift tokens they have been given.  As I already mentioned, Japanese people don’t exchange Christmas gifts, but anyone under twenty can look forward to receiving otoshidama (お年玉) at New Year. These are small envelopes containing money; gifts from parents, grandparents and other relatives. Many young people save all they are given, the reckless few spend it all, but often there is a compromise; they save some and they spend some.

Shops re-open on January 2nd or a little later and are hoping that some of this New Year money is coming their way. For high school girls, there are two places which are a kind of mecca on any day of the year; Takeshita Dori (竹下通り) in Harajuku, and the 109 building in Shibuya. Yesterday I went shopping with someone visiting Tokyo, and we decided to go to the mothership, Shibuya 109. Before I went, someone told me they thought I was crazy even thinking about going there on January 2nd, but we were on a shopping mission, and nowhere else would do.

109 salesYesterday was the first day of the ‘7 days bargain’ and in the early afternoon it was absolutely packed. The noise levels were excruciating and there were personnel everywhere guiding people along, particularly near the escalators. There are eight floors, and each one is a collection of different shops. The escalators form the centre of the building, so the best way to see everything is to go up the escalator, then walk all the way round to see what you can find. Every shop was selling lucky bags or fukubukuro (福袋), sealed bags containing a variety of items. These bags are not cheap, most of the ones I saw yesterday started at ¥10,000, but you know that the value of the contents is more than that, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. At places like the Apple store you might get an iPad or a Macbook, and so some really determined people will camp out the night before (or maybe even longer) to ensure that they get their hands on such a bargain.

Back to the 109 building. Not only was every shop selling lucky bags, but there was at least one person, usually a young woman, shouting to attract attention. The crowds, the loud music, the screeching . . . you have no idea. We went up an escalator, round the floor, up the next escalator, round the next floor . . . we were on a mission for footwear, and so I can tell you that there are very few shops selling only shoes and boots. I think we found three. There was one on the first floor, one around the third or fourth floor, and one right at the top on the eighth.

It was an experience. The feeling of having all my senses bombarded was amazing, the only other time I have felt that was when someone took me into a pachinko parlour years ago, but this was even more extreme because of the crowds. Having successfully found something to buy, we headed straight down the escalators and emerged, gasping for air, into the afternoon sunshine. The Shibuya 109 building. Not for the faint-hearted.


Hello 2013

DSCN0525Happy New Year! When I went out this morning the sky was blue and the sun was shining; one of those bright, crisp Tokyo days that make winter here far easier than the grey days of the UK. It was only about 7am, but there were a few people about, and the trains and buses were running on the weekend / holiday timetable. While most people will be off work until January 3rd, there will be a lot of visiting relatives and shrines so we need to be able to get about.

Even so, I was surprised to see so many people out so early. When I transferred onto the Yamanote Line (the overground loop line around Tokyo) it seemed that there were 3 kinds of people; ones with suitcases maybe going skiing or to visit relatives outside Tokyo, ones on their way to a shrine or to visit people in Tokyo (no suitcases!) and the bleary-eyed, bundled-up people who looked like they’d been out all night and were only just on their way home. Now, before you start to think that these are people who have been partying all night, that is not what I mean. At midnight Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times (because there are 108 kinds of sins) and sometimes people in Tokyo travel down to Kamakura or maybe out to Narita-san in Chiba, or another temple they like, and see the New Year in there. I think if you get there early enough you can sign up to ring the bell for one of those 108 times. Anyway, there can be quite a crush at the temples, shrines and stations, and so it can take time to get home.

The shrines and temples of Japan will be busy paces over the next few days, while people observe Hatsumode (初詣). This is the first shrine visit of the year, which most people will try to do over the next 3 days since they are not at work, but I believe can be done in the first eight days of the new year. It is strictly the first (Shinto) shrine visit, but some people will visit a Buddhist temple instead. The most popular shrine in Tokyo is Meiji Jingu (明治神宮), which I wrote about before (https://tokyopurplegirl.com/2012/12/05/peace-in-the-heart-of-tokyo/) and which millions will visit over the next few days; in Chiba Narita-san is popular, and in Kawasaki the place to be is Kawasaki Daishi, which I went to one year and can confirm it is indeed extremely crowded. As well as praying, it’s customary to buy a new lucky charm or amulet and get a piece of paper with your fortune written on it. If you like what you get (there are different levels of luck) you take it home with you; if you don’t, you tie it to the branch of a tree in the shrine precincts and leave it there, probably getting another one at another shrine and so on until you get one that suits; a kind of holy fortune-shopping, I suppose.

Another shrine-related activity for New Year is a Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage. Every part of Tokyo has at least one; Shinagawa has 2. I’m going to do one in Meguro on Saturday and will blog about it then, but on my way home I met a couple (he was Japanese, she was American) in the middle of the local pilgrimage, trying to find their way to the next shrine on the map. They had stopped 3 passing youths but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I stopped to help too. She rolled her eyes and said ‘he doesn’t know how to read a map’ (a failing with which I sympathise completely). Luckily, I didn’t need to read the map, I just needed to see that they were doing the pilgrimage and on their way to the shrine near my local supermarket, so I was able to give directions.

I didn’t see many shops open (except for convenience stores), but my local flower shop was open. There is a very large hospital just across the road, and maybe they thought people visiting relatives in hospital would stop to buy flowers, but that doesn’t explain the vast array of plants also on sale, since that is a most inappropriate gift for someone in hospital; you wouldn’t want them to take root there like the plant has done in its pot.

The local wagashiya (和菓子屋) or Japanese confectionary store was closed, of course, but already had fukubukuro (福袋) or lucky bags displayed in the window:

lucky bagsMost stores will be selling them over the holiday period; you buy a bag of unspecified goodies (in this case for ¥1,260, which is £9 or $14.50) and take your chances. Even clothes shops sell them; you buy according to size but know nothing else. The contents are worth more than the price you pay (otherwise they would be very unlucky bags indeed) but some can be expensive; ¥10,000 is not unusual, and that would be over £70 or $115.

While Christmas has become a new Japanese tradition, what all Japanese children and young people were looking forward to today was the otoshidama (お年玉); small envelopes with money inside. Along with New Year cards there is a dazzling variety of designs available in December. I bought these (for research only!):

otoshidamaSince we are now in the Year of the Snake (at least according to Japan, China will wait for the Lunar New Year, this year falling on February 10th), you can see there is a rather appealing snake on top of Mt. Fuji. Japanese people are traditionally avid savers, and this is a habit learnt early in life. The money received in these envelopes will ideally be saved; in reality I think by their teenage years a more realistic goal would be to save half and spend half (on lucky bags)!

I hope the Year of the Snake will be a good one for all of us; I wish you peace, joy and love in the year ahead.