Friday, 19 January 2018

New Year Decorations going up in Smoke

Mochi sticky rice cakes
January 1st to 3rd may be Hatsumōde, or the first shrine visit, for many Japanese but the second visit is often a week or two later to ritualistically burn the new year decorations known as dondo-yaki (どんど焼き). This is a practice to appease and "release" the gods which they have been housing over the new year period. Fuchu City in Western Tokyo is host to what is said to be the biggest of these bonfires, made with bamboo and straw, on the morning of January 14th. After the fire has burned down, participants roast sticky rice cakes (mochi =餅) - a popular new year food - on the embers, supposedly guaranteeing health for the new year. Dates differ between regions, but decorations are often taken down by January 7th and burned on or around January 15th.

So what new year decorations are usually burned? A previous post mentioned one of the most ubiquitous new year decorations, the kadomatsu (門松), a collection of pine, bamboo, and sometimes plum (ume) branches which are typically placed in a male/female pair either side of a door or gate to welcome the ancestral spirits or kami. Sometimes this is simplified to a pine branch or branch (matsu-kazari =松飾り). Pine and bamboo are both said to symbolise longevity and strength/hardiness.

Another common decoration placed on the dondo-yaki bonfire is the shime-kazari (しめ飾り), a wreathe like adornment typically hung on the door (or even on the grill of a car - see picture) featuring some combination of pine, fern, tangerine (mikan), and berries adorned with rice straw rope (shime-nawa =しめ縄). Note also the white jagged zigzag-shaped strips of paper (shide) which were explained in detail in this earlier post. The calligraphy in the picture reads kinga shin'nen (謹賀新年) a formal written form of "Happy New Year."

A final popular new year decoration but one which is eaten rather than burned after the new year break is the kagami-mochi (鏡餅), with kagami meaning mirror (the copper mirrors used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi). The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the bigger one placed on top of the smaller one (representing the past year and the year to come). It is topped with a tangerine (this time featuring a "lucky" leaf); the tangerine is typically referred to as a "daidai" which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (with the repetition of the syllables supposedly pointing to the continuation of generations). Although traditionally home-made, today most people buy one from the supermarket (pictured) which is actually plastic containing a small mochi inside. The picture left lists a number of suggestions as to where to place this decoration, including the toilet and bathroom! It is usually cut and eaten on January 11th, a practice known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き) or opening. Here's hoping 2018 is a fruitful year for all!

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Nengajō New Year Greeting Cards and Otoshidama

New Year's greeting cards - known as nengajō (年賀状) - are something of an institution in Japan and after coming back from the first shrine visit of the year (hatsumōde) on January 1st it's exciting to open one's mailbox and check the pile of cards that have (hopefully) arrived. Even after this date cards continued to arrive in dribs and drabs; the latest date they are supposed to arrive is January 7th. Much like sending Christmas cards in the West, the custom of sending cards to people who have helped you throughout the previous year - or just people you want to keep in touch with - is a key part of the New Year holiday. It's a tricky business though working out who to send cards to - and anticipating who you might receive cards from - and inevitably you'll receive cards from people you didn't send one to: cue a mad rush to find spare cards and get them sent off post-haste! Apparently, 2,599 million cards were issued for 2018 which works out at about 20 cards for each man, woman, and child in Japan!

Like many Japanese, we usually buy blank postcards specially made for ink-jet printing and create our own customised cards: since this year is the year of the dog, our own dog, Jaz (, was featured on the 2018 card (pictured). This is fairly common, and most people add pictures of family and pets as a way of updating friends on what happened during the previous year. Our cards contained the standard new year greeting in red at the top: akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) followed by the ubiquitous but untranslatable Japanese phrase asking for indulgence in the coming year (kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu =今年もよろしくお願いします). For a great explanation on how and what to write on a nengajō see here.

The excitement of nengajō is not yet over though: each card has a special unique number at the bottom (pictured) and January 14th (today!) is chūsenbi (抽選日) or raffle drawing day. The lucky winners will get a New Year's gift or otoshidama (お年玉) a word which typically refers to money given in small envelopes to children by relatives and visitors. You can see the winning prizes and numbers here: did I get anything?

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Festival of Seven Herbs: Seasonal Food in Japan

Japanese tend to strongly connect certain foods with particular seasons - previously I introduced some foods typically eaten in autumn such as sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo) and chestnuts (kuri). In winter, warming root vegetables are very popular such as the large white Oriental radish known as a daikon (大根). This radish is one of the ingredients used in making seven-herb rice porridge/gruel (おかゆ) pictured. The herbs are actually spring plants, the first green of spring that brings colour to the new year table. This is traditionally eaten on The Festival of Seven Herbs or Nanakusa no Sekku (七草の節句) which is celebrated (unsurprisingly) on January 7th. This festival is one of the five traditional seasonal festivals (go-sekku =五節句) that used to be celebrated at the Japanese imperial court mentioned in a previous post.

Supermarkets usually sell the ingredients in a convenient pack (pictured) to save people buying the herbs separately. The packet even has a recipe for making the gruel together with a pictorial description of the seven ingredients listed under their traditional names: hakobera (chickweed), gogyō (cudweed), suzushiro (white radish), seri (Java waterdropwort), suzuna (turnip), nazuna (Shepherd's Purse), and hotokenoza (Nipplewort). See here for a table. There are all sorts of chants and customs associated with preparing and cutting the herbs, but most Japanese today seem to have forgotten these and simply enjoy it as a simple, plain food after the excesses of the new year period as well as a way to wish for health in the coming year. Itadakimasu!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The first Shrine Visit of the Year: Hatsumode

2018 is now upon us, also known as the year of the dog (inu-doshi =戌年). 2018 is also the penultimate year of Heisei in the Japanese calendar - Heisei 30 - since the abdication of the emperor in May 2019 will bring with it a new (as yet unannounced) era. Most Japanese are now back at work but during the holidays - especially the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of January - many made a point of visiting a shrine to make their prayers and wishes for the new year, a practice known as hatsumōde (初詣) made up of the characters for "first" and "make a pilgrimage". Indeed, although most of the shops were shut during this period, trains were crowded with people and two or three hour queues were not uncommon at some of the most popular shrines.

Personally, I like to avoid spending hours queueing with thousands of others at a popular shrine like Meiji Shrine (=Meiji Jingu) in Shibuya (which reportedly sees three million visitors in the first three days of January!) and instead paid a visit to my local neighbourhood shrine (pictured). There's even a bilingual poster explaining how to pray properly at the shrine captured in three easy steps: two bows or ni-hai (二拝), two hand-claps or ni-hakushu (二拍手), and one bow or ippai (一拝). Typically people throw a coin - 5 yen is supposed to bring luck in romance - into the wooden box (saisen-bako =賽銭箱) before these steps. You can also ring the shrine bell to alert the deity to your presence after making your offering. For a more detailed explanation see here.

After praying, if you choose to buy a lucky charm (omamori) or fortune paper (omikuji) from the shrine shop you'll probably be served by a young woman wearing a white top and red hakama trousers with her hair tied back in a decorative clasp. These women are known as miko (巫女) or "shrine maidens" in English and act as assistants to the priest, often part-timers at busy times, though in the past they were powerful shamans. The video below was taken by a friend at the famous Iwashimizu Hachimangū Shrine (石清水八幡宮) in Yawata City, Kyoto Prefecture (京都府八幡市) and shows a traditional shrine maiden's ceremonial dance (miko-mai =巫女舞) or kagura (神楽) on New Year's Day (see here for an official video).

Saturday, 30 December 2017

New Year's Cleaning: Decluttering the KonMari way

In Britain we have spring cleaning but in Japan the major cleanup takes place at the end of the year in schools, temples, and homes, and is known as ōsoji (大掃除), literally big cleaning. Ōsoji needs to be finished before December 31st, known as ōmisoka (大晦日) in Japan. In the home, this usually consists of cleaning oven hoods, sweeping balconies, washing windows, and dusting everywhere. Once the cleaning has been completed, the house is considered "pure" enough to put up New Year decorations such as kadomatsu (a bamboo/pine decoration) to welcome ancestral spirits or kami. Only then can holiday festivities can be enjoyed with a clear conscience!

A key part of the clean-up is getting rid of unwanted stuff and in this respect "organising consultant" Marie Kondo has been remarkably influential (indeed she was was one of Time's "100 most influential people" in 2015). Her 2011 book Jinsei ga Tokimeku Katatsuke no Maho (人生がときめく片づけの魔法) was a massive bestseller and has been published in over 30 countries. The 2014 English version was followed by a 2016 sequel and a 2017 manga, the former titled "Spark Joy" drawing on the verb tokimeku in the original Japanese which can be variously translated as to throb, flutter, or palpitate​. The basic idea is to take a category-by-category approach (such as clothes or books) and focus on what you want to keep rather than want you want to throw away; anything that "sparks joy" should be kept and given a proper place that is both visible and accessible.

Given the combination of small houses and a consumerist and gift-giving culture, it is no surprise that the KonMari method (こんまり式) has been something of a revelation in Japan. In the neighbourhood, it's very common to see storage containers or "trunk-rooms" which you can rent out to store the stuff that won't fit in your house (pictured). People who can't afford to do this - or who can't bear to throw anything out - simply hoard and in recent years the increase in the issue of so-called "garbage houses" (gomi-yashiki =ゴミ屋敷) where rubbish has been overflowing onto the street has become something of a social problem. Indeed, there are even specialist companies which clear out such houses in cases of the increasingly common case of solitary death (kodoku-shi =孤独死).

This will be the last post for 2017, so let me leave with you a couple of common greetings used around this time of year. If it's still 2017 I can say yoi otoshi o (よいお年を) which means (I hope you) have a good new year (holiday); if you're reading this in 2018 then I will wish you a very happy new year which is akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) - shortened to akeome among friends!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Old Ladies' Harajuku: Red Pants in Sugamo

Everywhere in Tokyo is ridiculously busy at this time of year, with people on a shopping frenzy as if the shops are about to shut forever. When describing a place full of people, Japanese use the term hito-gomi (人込み), a phrase which I misinterpreted as "human rubbish" when I first heard it! One of the busiest and best known places in Tokyo is Harajuku, a fashion mecca and a magnet for youth; less well-known (but equally busy) is Sugamo (巣鴨), known as the Harajuku for Old Ladies (おばあちゃんの原宿), a district for older people centred around the Jizō-dōri (地蔵通り) shōtengai or shopping street (pictured). Given that the Japanese population is rapidly ageing (kōreika =高齢化) Sugamo offers something of a snapshot of what Japan might look like in the years to come. The local MacDonald's for example is famous for its old people friendly menu with traditional Japanese words rather than the usual English loan words: for example, the menu has oimo for poteto (french fries) and toriniku instead of the normal chikin (chicken). 

A very distinctive feature of Sugamo is the number of shops selling red underwear (!), with the flagship store being Maruji (マルジ) pictured. The colour red in Japan, as in much of Asia, symbolises joy, happiness, and good luck as well as long life. For example, anyone turning 60 in Japan (known as kanreki =還暦) is traditionally presented with a red jacket again symbolising longevity. Consequently, senior citizens flock to Sugamo to stock up on red pants with the hope of a long life! Inside Maruji itself, red pants are divided into the 12 animal zodiac signs of the Chinese zodiac (eto =干支) so you can choose a pair that matches your birth year (pictured below)!

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas in Japan: Romance, Chicken, Cakes, and Gifts

Christmas in Japan is, on the surface, not a great deal different to that back in England in terms of the gaudy decorations, beautiful illuminations, and non-stop Christmas music in the shops. Many Japanese will put up a Christmas tree and/or lights, a wreath, and Santa ornaments. The main difference though is that December 25th is just an ordinary working day for most - the big holiday and family gathering time is New Year (Shōgatsu =正月). If anything, Christmas itself is more a time for couples; Christmas Eve (simply called ivu/ibu =イヴ in Japanese) especially has a strong romantic image - apparently created by the young women's magazine an-an - and making a reservation at a restaurant is next to impossible.

In terms of food, Christmas in Japan means two things: chicken (not turkey!) and cakes. The former is chiefly due to a smart advertising campaign by Kentucky in the 1970s whose slogan was "Kentucky for Christmas" (クリスマスにはケンタッキー). Today, you need to book weeks in advance if you don't want to spend hours queueing for fried chicken. Christmas is also the only time you can typically buy a whole roast chicken in the supermarket - though most people plump for the legs or thigh (pictured).

As for cakes, Christmas cake is not the rich brandy-soaked fruit cake with marzipan and icing popular in the UK but a sponge cake usually with chocolate or stawberries. The basement of department stores - where the grocery section is found - is usually unbelievably busy with crowds jostling to secure the best cake before they sell out (which they never do).

In one word Christmas in Japan is quintessentially about consumerism - your wallet can become light very quickly just buying a few Christmas goodies (perhaps Japan is not so different after all!). Gift-giving is big in Japan and year-end gifts known as oseibo (お歳暮) - for those you became indebted to (osewa ni natta hito) during the year - are big business. I spotted this "Merry Christmas" gift corner in a local department store today including \10,000 (£66/$88) melons, \5,000 dried persimmons (hoshigaki), and \4,000 strawberries (pictured). One of the nice things about gift-giving in Japan though is the way gifts are opened very carefully and slowly, taking care to keep the gift-wrapping neat and intact, and thereby showing respect to the gift-giver. Much respect too to all those who have followed the blog since it was born back in March: a big merī kurisumasu (メリークリスマス) - usually abbreviated to merikuri - to you all!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Osamu Dazai and Suicide in Japan

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) is one of Japan's most revered writers with the semi-autobiographical Ningen Shikkaku (人間失格)- No Longer Human - a modern-day classic that remains one of the all-time best-selling works of fiction in Japan (see here for a short review). The story is about a young man's isolation and alienation from society - his failure to identify with or understand other human beings - and describes a spiral of self-destruction that results in a failed suicide attempt. The author too made a number of suicide attempts, beginning at age twenty and ending just before his 39th birthday when he drowned himself together with his lover in the rain-swollen Tamagawa River. He is buried at Zenrin Temple (禅林寺) in Mitaka, Tokyo; when I visited there was still incense burning in front of the grave (pictured), no doubt one of his many fans paying their respects. Note also the fresh flowers, including some white chrysanthemum (shiragiku =白菊)a flower of condolence in Japan.

Japan has the reputation of having a high suicide rate, an image reinforced by films such as "The Sea of Trees" (追憶の森), starring Ken Watanabe, about Japan's infamous "suicide forest" (Aokigahara=青木ヶ原) at the base of Mount Fuji. Certainly, in every day life, it is not uncommon for a train to be delayed due to a "human accident" or jinshin-jiko (人身事故) which is often a euphemism for someone jumping in front of a train (tobikomi). However, in recent years the number of suicides have actually fallen quite significantly with 21,897 deaths in 2016, a drop of more than 12,000 compared to the 2003 peak (MHLW White Paper here). WHO data for 2015 year ranks Japan at 18th in the world with 19.7 suicides per 100,000 (15.4 or 26th when adjusted for differences in age distribution). Nevertheless, suicide rates in Japan are high compared to other industrialised countries (almost double that of Britain for example) and youth suicides have been on the rise; Japan is the only G7 country in which suicide is the leading cause of death for 15-34 year-olds.
Lifeline Poster at a train station

The seriousness of the situation was brought home when nine dismembered bodies were found at an apartment in Zama City last month, all young people (including three high-school girls) who had expressed suicidal thoughts on social media and had subsequently been lured to the killer's apartment. The incident underlined the inadequacy of support and prevention programmes for suicide in Japan despite a 2016 revision of the Basic Law on Suicide Prevention. Telephone lifelines (inochi no denwa =命の電話) in particular are woefully under-funded and under-staffed; it can take up to 20 attempts to get through to a Japanese lifeline. For the English speaker (of whatever nationality) in Japan, there is an alternative: TELL (Tokyo English Lifeline) is Japan's only English-speaking lifeline and also offers a online chat at weekends. For more on suicide in Japan and what can be done, see the remarkable documentary "Saving 10,000" available here. "Sometimes all you need to save somebody’s life," concludes the film-maker, "is to take the time to listen."

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Loved but Lonely Elephants: Animal Welfare in Japan

In a previous post, I introduced Kichijoji, consistently voted the place most people want to live (sunde-mitai machi =住んでみたい街)in Tokyo. One of the biggest draws is the beautiful Inokashira Park with its boating lake (pictured), dog-friendly restaurants, and beautiful foliage. It is also only a short walk to the famous Ghibli Musueum (advance bookings only!). Inside the park is the popular Inokashira Park Zoo (shizen bunka-en = 自然文化園) which houses mainly smaller animals like monkeys, raccoons, squirrels, birds, and even freshwater fish. Until recently though the star attraction was Hanako, an Asiatic elephant, who was the first elephant (=象) to come to Japan after WWII. Hanako arrived at Ueno Zoo in 1949 as a gift from Thailand and moved to Inokashira in 1954. 

Hanako died in May 2016 aged 69, the oldest elephant in Japan. In May 2017, a statue was unveiled in front of Kichijoji Station, the cost of which was covered entirely by donations, including from Thailand. Japanese discussions surrounding Hanako focus on how much she was "loved" (hitobito ni ai saremashita =人々に愛されました). However, non-Japanese have taken a rather different view, focusing on the conditions of her captivity and her mental state. In fact, in 2015, an English-language blog about Hanako written by a Canadian resident describing the bare concrete enclosure and lack of companionship triggered an Internet petition that collected almost half-a-million signatures urging that she be moved to a sanctuary in Thailand. This discrepancy between Japanese and non-Japanese discourses on Hanako highlights how under-developed the concept of animal welfare or animal rights is in Japan. For example, the closest thing to the RSPCA in Japan is the JSPCA which is translated as Dōbutsu Aigo Kyōkai (動物愛護協会) again containing the kanji for love (愛) coupled with that for protect (護) which together mean protection or "tender care." National Geographic  and other English sites have noted that elephants continue to live in isolation at more than a dozen zoos in Japan but this is something that receives almost zero attention in the Japanese media.

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As a footnote, it is interesting to note that Hanako was named after a famous elephant of the same name who had to be put down during WWII food shortages. The only elephants to survive the war were located in Nagoya and after the war a special train known as the "elephant train" (zō ressha =象列車) was set up to take children from all over Japan to visit the elephants to lift up their spirits (the children's not the elephants'!). This was turned into a book (pictured), which has become a children's classic, and even a song and today is a popular play at kindergartens and elementary schools which use the story as a way to teach children about the war and emphasise the importance of peace.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Maple, Momiji, and Sweet Bean-paste Buns

As mentioned in an earlier post, this time of year is foliage or leaf viewing season, known as kōyō (紅葉) in Japanese. Kōyō is more or less synonymous with the Japanese maple (Acer japonicum)​ known as momiji in Japanese - indeed the kanji kōyō (紅葉)can also be read momiji, as in momiji-gari (紅葉狩り)or autumn leaf viewing/collecting. Although called the maple in English, the Japanese distinguish the larger maple leaf (kaede =楓)familiar as a symbol of Canada from the smaller and slightly differently shaped momiji.

Just as people track the cherry blossom front (sakura zensen =桜前線) as it moves north, the foliage front (kōyō zensen =紅葉前線)can also be tracked as it moves south, starting in Hokkaido around September. The best time (higoro =見頃) to view the leaves changing colour is said to be 20 to 25 days after first announced, so from October in Hokkaido. One of the best places to view the foliage is undeniably the temples and shrines of Kyoto, such as Kiyomizu Temple, which are dominated by the red momiji with very few yellow ginkgo/gingko trees. See here for a list of the top-ten spots for kōyō in Japan. Around Tokyo, Mount Takao is a beautiful spot to view the leaves but can get very crowded.

If you want to avoid the crowds and cold, you can enjoy momiji in the comfort of your own home - in the form of Momiji-Manjū (もみじ饅頭) - a steamed bun originating in Hiroshima containing sweet bean paste shaped like a Japanese maple leaf (pictured below). Perfect with a cup of hot green tea and a mikan (satsuma mandarin orange) as you keep warm under your kotatsu (low heated table)!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Building a new Olympic Stadium - and Building up National Debt

Right next to Meiji Jingu Gaien (明治神宮外苑), where crowds are currently flocking to check out the beautiful yellowing ginkgo trees, is the National Stadium - or part of it at least. The National Stadium (Kokuritsu Kyōgijō=国立競技場) was originally built in 1958 for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics but, following the announcement that Tokyo had won the 2020 Olympics, plans were made to build a new, bigger stadium to be the main venue for the games. Demolition of the old stadium was completed in May 2015 but the original plans were scrapped only two months late amid a public outcry over skyrocketing costs. New, cheaper bids were invited and construction belatedly began in December 2016. As the picture below shows, work is well under way and the new stadium is scheduled to be ready by November 2019 - unfortunately too late for the Rugby World Cup by a couple of months.
 The controversy over costs - the original stadium, even after refinements, was going to cost some 300 billion million yen (three times the cost of the Olympic Stadium in London) - highlights the public's unease over wasteful public spending. On the other hand, there seems to be little popular concern over Japan's spiralling national debt. The figures are staggering: Japan has the highest ratio of debt to GDP by far at 234.7% (way above Greece in 2nd place). The result is that Japan uses an unbelievable half of all tax revenues to service its debt. This may seem odd given Japan's reputation as a "nation of savers" but it is actually Japan's savers - the people buying government bonds - who have basically funded the nation's huge debt. The worry is that with Japan's household savings rate dropping into negative territory in 2014 for the first time since 1955, coupled with a plummeting population and lack of a migration policy, Japan's national debt is unsustainable. The Olympics is only likely to exacerbate the problem.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Changing Colour of the Leaves, Ginkgo Trees, and Poisonous Nuts

Though not in the same league as cherry-blossom viewing (hanami), at this time of year many Japanese go to see the autumnal leaves beginning to change colour, what is known as kōyō (紅葉). Although this literally means "crimson" or "deep red" leaves, it does in fact refer to any kind of colour change - including yellow. One of the first trees to change are the ginkgo or gingko trees which have already started to display their autumnal yellow. Apparently the English name ginkgo/gingko is a mis-spelling of the Japanese gin-kyō (銀杏)literally meaning "silver apricot." The Japanese don't pronounce the tree this way though - it is pronounced ichō though the kanji is the same. To add to the confusion, the yellow fruit of the tree - that is ginkgo/gingko nuts - also use the same kanji compound which in this case is pronounced gin-nan.

One of the best spots for viewing the ichō trees in Tokyo is the Meiji Jingu Gaien (明治神宮外苑) area. The 300-metre-long Gaien Ginkgo Avenue (いちょう並木) is lined with 146 ginkgo/gingko trees and at this time of the year is crowded with both locals and tourists. The foliage has started to turn yellow a week earlier than usual and usually lasts through early December. During this time (November 17th to December 3rd) a festival is held with 44 food and drink stalls which has attracted some 1.8 million visitors  in recent years. Visitors are enraptured by the sight of the tall pointed pear-shaped trees forming a "golden tunnel" leading up to the domed Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (聖徳記念絵画館).

The leaves of the tree have a distinctive shape which, like the cherry leaf, all Japanese seem to have memorised - the picture right shows railings decorated with the leaf design on the pavement outside my house. The nuts also have a very distinctive and rather awful smell if they are crushed underfoot so they are often gathered before this happens and eaten, usually roasted in a frying pan or boiled. They are particularly common in chawan-mushi (茶碗蒸し) - a kind of savoury steamed egg custard. This was one of the dishes I notice was served up to President Trump on his recent visit to Japan - but with matsutake mushrooms rather than the nuts. Maybe Abe was being cautious - gin-nan nuts are reportedly poisonous if one eats too many!

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Drinking Habits in Japan: the Rise and fall of Beaujolais Nouveau

Around this time of the year - the third Thursday in November to be precise - Japan goes mad for the new batch of Beaujolais Nouveau, with lots of promotions in supermarkets (pictured below). This year imports are expected to reach almost six million bottles, double the US figures. Just north of Omotesando I spotted an outdoor drinking spot which had specially been set up so people could start drinking at 12:01 on Friday morning. Since last year, one gimmick promoted by various onsen (hot springs) has been to pour the red stuff into the communal bath (see video here)! In recent years though, despite the best efforts of the companies and businesses concerned, Japanese have begun to lose interest in the red Gamay wine. This year looks to be the fifth consecutive year that sales and imports have fallen. The peak was in 2004. Part of the reason has ironically been the growing availability of good cheap wines which has resulted in the pricey Beaujolais Nouveau no longer being seen as particularly special - or tasty - any more.
Shōchū-haibōru or chū-hai alco-pops
So what do the Japanese drink? Well, the first thing to note is that "sake" (酒) in Japanese denotes alcohol in general - the "rice-wine" we refer to as "sake" in English is called nihon-shu (日本酒) in Japan. Although well-known in the West it is actually less popular than shōchū (焼酎), a spirit originally from Kyushu distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice which is also drunk straight like nihon-shu. In particular, shōchū-haibōru (highball), better known as chū-hai - a sweet "alco-pop" type shōchū cocktail - has become very popular in recent years, especially amongst young women (confusingly categorised under "liqueur" in the pie-charts below). Nevertheless, the most popular tipple remains beer (ビール), though in recent years sales have plummeted, despite the appearance of cheaper "beer-like" drinks such as happōshu (発泡酒)(low-malt beer) and zero-malt dai-san bīru (third-category beer). The pie charts below show the shift in alcohol sales between 1989 and 2015 based on this year's National Tax Agency report (available here).
Two pie charts showing the change in consumer alcohol tastes over a 25-year period

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The drinking age in Japan is 20 in Japan but few establishments bother asking for IDs. In fact, people in their twenties drink very little in Japan; however, alcohol consumption jumps dramatically once Japanese reach their thirties. The drinking peak for men is in their sixties and for women in their forties; at these ages 58% of males and 25% of females are regular drinkers - meaning they drink three or more times a week. Moreover, drinking in public is widely tolerated, anything from a can of beer on the train to a jar of "one-cup" cheap sake drunk outside the convenience store. Being drunk in public is widely tolerated too, and plenty of places have nomihodai all-you-can-drink menus (usually with a two-hour time limit) not to mention all the beer vending machines. As a result, the sight of drunken office workers weaving around, falling over, and even vomiting in alleyways is not uncommon, especially on Friday and Saturday nights - as well as bonenkai (忘年会) end-of-year (literally "forget-the-year") party season. The nice thing though is the almost complete absence of violence - unlike in Britain where town-centres become something of a war-zone at pub closing time.