The Odessa Journal: Ukraine’s crossroads of culture

“Isn’t Ukraine dangerous??” a friend of mine recently asked me.

Japan: Hachioji Geisha

Even if you have never visited Japan, you must be familiar with Japan’s geisha culture. With their distinctive white face, red lips and elaborately decorated hairstyle, the geisha remain an enduring symbol of Japan. The word geisha means performance person.  The geisha are the entertainers of Japan and their existence can be traced back to the 1600s (Edo period).  To become a geisha, it takes years of training. Geisha typically begin their training as early as sixteen years of age and are called maiko (geisha in training). The maiko receive extensive coaching in singing, dancing and playing traditional Japanese instruments as well as the use of proper customs and social skills.

It was estimated that Japan had over 80,000 geisha at one time, today that number has dwindled down to 1,000 – 2,000.  The geisha can primarily be found in Japan’s cultural capital of Kyoto.  They continue to work in traditional teahouses as they have always done, entertaining and charming their clientele with their highly cultivated skills. But you do not have to travel to Kyoto to see the geisha.  Hachioji, in western Tokyo, also has its own geisha culture.

Hachioji City is often overlooked by many people living in central Tokyo, but it is more densely populated than central London and has a vibrant city center.  Easily accessible by the central JR Chuo Line from Tokyo or Shinjuku stations, the city is renowned for its traditional Japanese festival, the Hachioji Matsuri (八王子まつり).

The three-day festival is held in the beginning of August and includes a parade of mikoshi (portable shrines) and nineteen dashi (floats), music and dance performances and over three hundred food and gift stands. It is the largest festival in Hachioji.  The festival also features performances by Hachioji’s geisha.

The geisha culture at its peak had 200-300 geisha working in over 30 restaurants in Hachioji, which was a busy transportation route to Edo (Tokyo). Today, there are less than 20 geisha working in the city. The geisha house in Hachioji is known as Yukinoe okiya, where 54-year-old geisha, Megumi is the okaasan (mother).

The geisha also participate in a series of geisha parades held in September.  The women, dressed in their traditional kimonos, dance and play music as they weave through the streets just north of Hachioji Station.  The parades are usually held between 6:00 to 9:00 PM and last 30 minutes.

So whether you are interested in learning more about the geisha culture or if you want to experience a traditional Japanese summer festival, take a quick trip to Hachioji.  Hachioji Station is just 51 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Chuo Line.

Web page:


Hachioji Matsuri








Megumisan helping a young geisha get ready



JAPAN: Drinking Culture


It is common knowledge that alcohol is an important and accepted part of Japanese culture which extends to everything from social and business drinking to religious rites and traditional customs. The drinking age is 20 and public drinking and intoxication are not considered illegal in Japan. If anything, alcohol helps the Japanese to relax and serves as a social lubricant for essential bonding in an otherwise strictly regimented and lonely society.

Oftentimes, dining and drinking with your coworkers are an unspoken requirement in some companies. Many Japanese feel that after work parties are an important way to enhance relationships. It can be useful to understand who your coworkers are, their typical mindset when they are relaxed and outside of the office. In a typical Japanese company every aspect of the employee’s work is regulated. Everyone is seated right at the start of the day, lunch is strictly one hour from twelve noon sharp and talking with your colleagues is considered “shigo (private talk)” which should be kept to a minimum. Since there is not much room for establishing good or personal relationships at work, activities outside of office become necessary.




Bosses, “Joshi,” and senior team members,“Senpai,” invite the team, “Buka,” or junior staff, “Kohai,” to a quick dinner or a drink (which is never quick nor just one drink). The invitation is often with good intentions, to give them a chance to talk in case they had issues at work. Even if the conversation is not interesting, most of the Buka and Kohai just deal with it as it usually means a free drink or meal at a place they could not afford on their own.

A common saying in Japan is, “if you want to work your way up the corporate ladder you have to drink.” This was how many older generation workers established relationships and considered this the normal way of doing business. However, corporate life and culture have changed a lot in the last decade or so. The work environment is more flexible and accommodates the needs of individuals according to their lifestyle and stage of life. Career changes are more common and easier. If one corporate culture is not a fit, moving on is an option and there is less emphasis on building relationships that need to last a lifetime.

Still, drinking parties, “Nomikai” are still prevalent and seeing the salary men making a beeline to the izakaya, restaurant or nightclub is not uncommon in 2016. The nomikai differs from the traditional year-end drinking parties known as, “Bonenkai (Forget the year party)” which generally involve the entire company.  Nomikai is limited to only one section or department of the workplace. Oftentimes, the nomikai is followed by an after party called, “Nijikai” with “ni” signifying “second” and after it concludes there may be a “Sanjikai,” with “san” signifying “third” party. Now it is easy to see that drinking and bar-hopping can go on all night.




Typical Izakaya Menu




Further, there is an etiquette to follow during these parties where one tries to avoid filling their own glass and instead fills the glasses of the other members in attendance. This is especially true for the Senpai-Kohai relationships where the lower ranked or younger employee will offer to serve his or her superior. The relationship is reciprocal, and the superior will often fill the junior’s empty glass. But keep in mind that people are not pressured to drink alcohol at these parties.  Participants may elect to drink non-alcoholic beverages or leave their glasses full to signify that they are not willing to drink more alcohol.

Beer and sake are the preferred drinks during drinking parties but whisky is also popular and it is not uncommon to find bars keeping their patron’s favorite bottles on the shelf with the party’s name tag dangling from the bottleneck. Women tend to prefer wine or clear spirits such as shochu (a Japanese distilled beverage less than 45% alcohol by volume. It is typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and even brown sugar) or chuhai (shochu highball).

The Japanese love games and drinking games such as “Ikkinomi (Down in one),” are common.  Unfortunately many Japanese are unable to drink too much as they lack the necessary enzyme to break down alcohol.  Despite this, they still insist on playing the games, bar-hopping and typically end up turning a frightening shade of red after consuming too much alcohol and falling asleep in some of the strangest places imaginable. It is all too common to take the late trains and find some sloshed salary man fast asleep across from you.





But don’t misunderstand, Japan is not a nation of alcoholics.  Though alcohol consumption has quadrupled in Japan since 1960, Japan still ranks sixth in the world for beer consumption after China, the U.S., Germany, Brazil and Russia!

When visiting Japan, you may encounter intoxicated people leaving bars late at night on any given day and you may also be lucky to get invited to a drinking party. The Japanese are quite curious about a foreigner’s ability to handle alcohol so don’t be surprised if they pour you a drink after drink. Just understand the culture and always remain polite.  These parties are generally quite enjoyable and as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do!”



JAPAN: Culture (Tsukimono / 憑き物)

Japan possesses a unique culture that dates back thousands of years and to understand it to some degree will only enhance your experiences when you travel to this wonderful country. In previous posts, I had written about some aspects of Japanese culture and now I would like to delve into something that is lesser known in the Western world, the concept of Tsukimono.


In Japan, where there are nearly eight million gods and monsters, it isn’t unlikely to come across tales of a few who take possession of human bodies.  Essentially, that is the definition of Tsukimono, a possessing thing. (Tsuki meaning “possession” and mono meaning “thing.”)

Spirit possession is a long standing, ancient belief in Japan. The oldest form known as Kamiyadori (god possession), stems from the Shinto (also called Kaminomichi) religion, the ethnic religion of the people of Japan dating back to the 8th century.  This involves mediums who are able to draw the power of the god or ancestor spirits and serve as oracles. However, this type of possession is different from the possession of Tsukimono.

Tsukimono are exclusively yokai (ghost) or animal spirits which invade human bodies and the event is “involuntary” on the part of the human being possessed. It is said that the yokai possesses a body out of vengeance whereas the animal spirits take over a body out of greed.  The animal spirit may desire to eat something that it normally cannot obtain, therefore it takes possession of a human body to accomplish this act.

The types of Tsukimono are different depending on what source you consult however the typical list includes:

Kappa-tsuki ( Kappa possession) : Kappas are mischievous water sprites found in Japanese folklore who dwell in lakes, rivers and swampy areas. Tales of the Kappa were used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa were said to lure people into the water and drown them. Kappa are also said to victimize animals, especially horses and cows. These mythical creatures are believed to be innately curious about human beings and perhaps this is the reason why they are believed to possess human bodies.



Gaki-tsuki (Hungry Ghost possession): Gaki are the Japanese spirit of starvation looking for a little sustenance and somewhere warm to stay hence human bodies are inviting.

Tengu-tsuki (Tengu possession): Tengu is a dangerous spirit thought to dwell in mountains and forests. They were depicted with a beak in early drawings which later gave way to a more humanized depiction having an unnaturally long nose. Tengu are believed to be troublesome opponents of Buddhism, who mislead the pious with false images of the Buddha, carry off monks only to drop them in remote places, possess women in an attempt to seduce holy men, rob temples and endow those who worship them with unholy power. They often disguise themselves as priests or nuns.


Neko-tsuki (Cat possession): In the West, cats were often believed to be familiars of human witches. They were said to possess the ability to sense the presence of spirits before humans noticed them. In Japan, cats have long been well regarded, often epitomized by the Maneki Neko, a good luck talisman in the shape of a cat found in shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors and other businesses throughout the country. But cats according to the Shinto belief can also be kami (spirits or phenomena that are worshipped).  In Shinto, kami began as the mysterious forces of nature associated primarily with permanent features in the landscape such as mountains, rivers, trees, and rocks.  Many folk tales evolved around these holy places, often referring to animal possession chiefly involving foxes, badgers, dogs and cats. Although the kami can be considered deities, they are not necessarily considered omnipotent or omniscient, and like the Greek Gods, they had flawed personalities and were quite capable of ignoble acts. Therefore, it is important to please the kami as they can either grant blessings or curses to a person. Possession by a tsukimono occurs in cases where a person is cursed.





Other animal possesions include:  Hebi-tsuki (Snake possession); Tanuki-tsuki (Japanese raccoon possession); Uma-tsuki (Horse possession); Inu-tsuki (Dog possession); Kitsune-tsuki (Fox possession).




The effects of the possession vary widely as well. In most possessions the victim takes on the attributes of the yokai or animal. For instance, if a victim is possessed by a tanuki, it is said that they voraciously overeat until their belly swells up like a tanuki, causing death unless exorcized.  In the case of  an uma possession, people become ill-mannered, huffing at everything and sticking their face into their food to eat like a horse. Those plagued with kappa-tsuki become overwhelmed with the need to be in water and develop an appetite for cucumbers.


Possession by tsukimono was frequently used as an explanatory concept and a cultural device as the cause of disease and misfortune. Generally, the only way to free someone from a tsukimono was through an exorcist. Wandering Shugendo priests called Yamabushi were often engaged for this purpose.

So there you have it, a look at the darker side of Japanese culture and a possible explanation as to why Japanese people believe so strongly in the power of the omamori (amulets, charms and  talismans commonly sold at religious sites and dedicated to particular Shinto deities as well as Buddhist figures, that are said to provide various forms of luck or protection).


JAPAN: Culture (Japan’s Pachinko Addiction)

Traveling through Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet train) and gazing out at the scenery, I couldn’t help but notice how widespread pachinko parlors were in Japan.






Pachinko is a type of mechanical game resembling a vertical pinball machine that originated in Japan.  The player gets a number of balls by inserting cash or cards directly into the machine. The balls are then shot into the machine by pulling a lever once for each launch from a ball tray. The balls then fall vertically through an array of pins, levers, cups, traps and various obstacles until they reach the bottom of the machine screen. The player has a chance to get more balls to play with if one of the launched balls hit a certain place during the fall through the pachinko machine. The object of the game is to capture as many balls as possible thus remaining in the game longer and increasing your winning odds.


Sankyo mechanical pachinko machine


Modern Sankyo pachinko machine


The arcades and the machines have evolved over the years where the machines now resemble video slot machines and the parlors are more like casinos. For some, pachinko is a recreational arcade game and for many it is a form of gambling. Gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, therefore the balls are exchanged for prizes such as t-shirts, pens, cigarette lighters, perfume, cosmetics, candy or coupons to a nearby grocery store at the pachinko parlor. However, you can also elect to take a voucher which in turn can be exchanged for cash at “exchange centers” distinctly separate from the parlor.


Exchange Center

At any given time, you can wonder into a pachinko parlor and find players of all ages and backgrounds transfixed on their machines which pack the narrow aisles. It is estimated that one-quarter of Japan’s over-18 population of approximately 100 million plays pachinko at least occasionally and up to 30 million people play pachinko regularly.



In 1999 the pachinko industry was worth a staggering 30 trillion yen, more than the Japanese motor industry! Further, the current recession doesn’t seem to be affecting pachinko’s prospects. Pachinko is unquestionably Japan’s number one leisure activity.

The first pachinko machines appeared in the 1920s as a children’s game called “Korinto Gemu.”  It wasn’t until the 1930s that they emerged as an adult pastime in Nagoya. During WWII, all of the pachinko parlors in Japan were shut down but re-opened in the late 1940s and the industry has been growing strong ever since.

In the early days, Nishijin and Sankyo were the main manufacturers of pachinko machines.  Today, the Heiwa Corporation, established in Kiryu, Gunma in 1949 is the world’s largest privately owned manufacturer of pachinko and pachislot machines.

So does Japan have a massive gambling habit?  Why not visit a pachinko parlor during your next trip and make that determination for yourself! Also, keep in mind that the Japanese prefer to call it gaming rather than gambling!



Advertising the opening of a new pachinko center

Japan: Traditions (Chochin/ 提灯)

In the third installment of Japanese traditions, I’d like to introduce you to one of three forms of traditional lighting in Japan called “chochin” (提灯). It is perhaps the oldest form of lighting, with records dating back to 1085 and perhaps the most popular in terms of being used for matsuri and events. The traditional chochin is made from paper or silk stretched over a split bamboo frame that is wound in a spiral. The lamp is collapsible and is hung from a hook at the top. Its main purpose is outside illumination and you will find them strung together and hung outside Shinto shrines. You will also find chochin hung in front of restaurant buildings all over Japan. The akachochin (red lantern) typically signifies an izakaya (a traditional Japanese drinking establishment.) It was originally used in the Yoshiwara district (red light district) to light the way of visitors but today it has lost that association.

Chochin hanging from the pleasure boat on Sumida River



Another form of folding lantern called Odawara chochin appeared in Japan during the Edo Period (1600-1868) and was used by travelers to light their path during the night. Later, the Bura chochin, round in shape and resembling a tea container became popular among travelers. They were hung from the end of a short brass rod which the samurai used as a weapon for self-defense.

Bura chochin

Bura chochin

Today, you can find chochin made from plastic and illuminated by a light bulb sold in souvenir shops both in Japan and abroad. The chochin is recognized worldwide as an icon of Japan and has been elevated to a symbol of celebration in modern Japanese society. As a matter of fact, every year from October 4th-6th, Nihonmatsu in Fukushima Prefecture hosts the Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri (Festival). The festival dates back to over 360 years ago and consists of 3,000 chochin illuminated and paraded around the city on taiko drum floats.

Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri

The omamori, the noren and the chochin are all a part of the time-honored culture of Japan. We are very fortunate that these traditions still live on today in modern Japan, enabling visitors to experience its history and customs. Whether you are visiting Japan for the first time or if this is several of many visits to this magnificent country, now you are armed with the knowledge and information to help you understand and appreciate some of what you see during your travels.


Japan: Traditions (Noren / 暖簾 )

In an earlier blog post I mentioned that it is always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the traditions and conducts of the country you are planning to visit. It has been my past experience that having an understanding of the customs allows you to immerse yourself deeper into the culture and enjoy your trip even more.

Since I tend to write quite a bit about traveling to Japan, I thought it would be good to introduce you to yet another Japanese tradition, noren (暖簾). You will notice noren throughout your travels in Japan and perhaps may become a little curious about its significance.

Noren are the traditional fabric curtains hung in doorways, windows and in between rooms. The use of noren dates back to the Jomon Period (12,000 BC to 300 BC) where they were used to protect temples and residences from external elements like dust, rain and sunlight. They also provided a sense of privacy. Eventually, noren’s use evolved to where they were used indoors as room dividers and as advertisement pieces by businesses. The traditional noren were cobalt blue with a white design inscribed on them.

Today, noren curtains play both a functional and aesthetic role and come in many different materials, sizes, colors and patterns. You will commonly find them hung in homes, shops and restaurants. You will also find them in commercial bathhouses (sento) and onsens, used to clearly mark men’s and women’s entrances. Hung in the front entrance of a business, the noren signals that the shop is open for business. At the end of the day, the curtain is taken down signifying that the business is closed. Further, since the noren hung across front entrances of businesses often features the shop name or logo, the word noren has evolved to refer to the company’s brand value. In other words, the term noren is often used in accounting to describe the goodwill of a company after an acquisition.

So there you have it – noren represents yet another facet of the unique culture of Japan. Oftentimes, visitors to the country bring them back as souvenirs hence spreading the traditions of Japan.