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わびさび Japanese Aesthetics

わびさび Japanese Aesthetics

Walking into the famous castle of Versailles, you see large marble pillars, crystal chandeliers, and grand paintings on ever inch of walls and ceilings. On the other hand, when you go to the Japanese 銀閣寺(ぎんかくじ・ginkakuji・silver pavilion), you see 障子(しょうじ・shouj・sliding paper doors), 畳(たたみ・tatami ). Simple and unadorned compared to the ornate European high class architectures, the amazing thing about this Japanese aesthetic is that it is timeless. Most houses today have a 和室(わしつ・washitsu・Japanese room), usually with 障子 and 畳 floors. These were things that were considered beautiful and pleasing to live in hundreds of years ago, and are still appreciated today, while stone pillars and murals just are not prevalent in the modern era.

わびさび Japanese Aesthetics L:the interior of Togudo (銀閣寺), R:a modern 和室. Compare the two, pretty similar, right?

Wabi Sabi, the basics and etymology
When you study Japanese aesthetics, you will come across two key terms:わび(wabi) and さび(sabi). わび is the beauty in simplicity, while さび is the beauty in age. わび is said to have derived from the word 侘しい(わびしい・wabishii・lonely/poor). This relates to the old Japanese ideal of self-imposed poverty; where people believed that spiritual freedom was achieved through liberating the self from material desire. This lead to the aesthetic preference of simple, unadorned objects as opposed to showy decorated ones. さび has two meanings, one of which is similar to 侘しい and 錆(sabi・rust). さび is the beauty in use, and the age and wear accumulated through time. The closest English translation to the notion of beauty in rust (or age) would be “patina”like that of the statue of Liberty. 

Application of わび・さび
Irregularity and imperfection is often associated with Japanese aesthetic preference. These conditions in combination. These conditions in combination to わび・さび brings out the unique sense of beauty, that is truly unique to Japanese culture. Mind you, this is not saying that わび・さび beauty is the dominant and only sense of beauty in Japan today. I am merely presenting these as a aesthetic preference that originated in Japan and is different when compared to the rest of the world. In わび・さび standards, art should be practical. It should not just be ornate, but have a function. Also, if there is a function, then it must be used. And through use, beauty accumulates (さび). Take a look at the above example of a bowl (picture). It is uneven and cracked, perhaps considered poor craftsmanship in European standards. However, as a わび tea practitioner, the imperfections are what makes objects beautiful. With perfection, comes death; because there is nothing left for the mind to imagine. 

わびさび Japanese Aesthetics Hagi-style tea bowl 


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
侘・寂 わび・さび wabi・sabi wabi・sabi
和室 わしつ washitsu Japanese room
障子 しょうじ shouj sliding paper doors
たたみ tatami  tatami 
銀閣寺 ぎんかくじ ginkakuji silver pavilion

諺 proverbs

諺 proverbs

It's impressive in any language when a non-native speaker is able to use 諺 (ことわざ・kotowaza・proverbs) correctly. Some would say that it is the highest indication of fluency. Sure, it would be nice to get rid of accents, but fluency isn't about being accent-free. 諺 play on cultural norms and shared concepts, and you can lean a lot about the country through them. Using them correctly would suggest that the speaker understands these concepts and is able to express them at the right time in the right context. Besides, 諺 are much more interesting to study than a long list of vocab words.

諺 proverbs Some カルタ cards. See Administrator's Notes for more information.

Japanese 諺
These 諺 are quite representative of Japanese culture and they don't have immediate English translations.

  • 出る杭はうたれる (でる くいは うたれる・deru kui wa utareru): this literally translates to "a peg that sticks out will be hammered", meaning that a person who is different or "sticks out" will be hammered down by society. This statement encourages conformity, a concept that is prevalent in Japanese culture.
  • 三日坊主 (みっかぼうず・mikka bouzu): literally, "three day monk". 三日坊主 is somebody who can not stick to a task (ex. Dieting), either because they get bored quickly or give up easily.
  • 能ある鷹は爪を隠す (のうあるたかはつめをかくす・nou aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu). This one is long, but it translates to "a smart hawk hides its claws". A knowledgeable or skilled person should keep their abilities to themselves, and not brag about what they can do.
諺 proverbs An example of an illustration you could make to make your own カルタ for the 諺, 出る杭はうたれる.

English-Japanese Idioms
There are also 諺 that are shared among different languages and countries, some are almost identical and there are also some that have the same meaning but use different words or situations. 

  • 一石二鳥 (いっせきにちょう・isseki nichou): literally reads "one stone two birds", and as you may be able to guess, the English version is "to kill two birds with one stone". 
  • 知らぬが仏 (しらぬがほとけ・shiranu ga hotoke): this one is a bit tricky but the literal translation is "not knowing is Buddha", and the English equivalent would be "ignorance is bliss". 
  • 蛙の子は蛙 (かえるのこはかえる・kaeru no ko wa kaeru): means "the child of a frog is a frog", similar in meaning to "like father, like son".

Modern 諺
赤信号, 皆で渡れば怖くない (あかしんごう みんなで わたれば 怖くない・akashingou minna de watare ba kowakunai): this 諺 was first used by a famous Japanese comedian/celebrity and has gained enough popularity to be considered a modern 諺. It literally reads: "a red light is not scary if everyone crosses together". It means that an illegal or culturally unacceptable act is accepted or not scary to do if many people do it together - a very Japanese concept indeed. 


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
ことわざ kotowaza proverbs
カルタ かるた karuta Japanese card game

迷信 Japanese Superstition

迷信 Japanese Superstition

It's March and people are going green for St. Patrick's day - the color green, four leaf clovers, and a pot of gold. Aside from the symbols of St. Patrick's day, how many good luck omens from your culture can you think of? What about bad ones? Japan, like many other countries, has its own set of 迷信 (めいしん・meishin・jinx/superstition). Here are just a few to help you rack up the 運(うん・un・luck) this month.

迷信 Japanese Superstition Both are cats, yet one's good luck and one's bad luck.

Starting with a set of 不運(ふうん・fuun・bad luck) omens for you to avoid: 

  • 口笛(くちぶえ・kuchibue・whistling) at night  If you 口笛 at night, snakes and thieves will come to your house. This is a great way to keep your kids quiet at night... or at least keep them from whistling. 
  • 北枕(きたまくら・kita makura・”north pillow”)  Look in your bedroom and see which way you point your head when you sleep. If you're pointed 北(きた・kita・north), you may want to consider rearranging your furniture. In Japan, the dead are laid pointing north during the wake. 
  • Sleeping right after eating  Don't do it, because you'll turn into a cow. This is probably to discourage laziness, but I don't care what the reason is. That's just too funny. 
  • 黒猫(くろねこ・kuroneko・black cat)  You're probably familiar with this one already - there are many 迷信 that are shared among cultures, and this one came to Japan from the west.

Now moving on to the 幸運(こううん・kouun・good luck) omens. These aren't necessarily things you can control, but you may notice them in your daily life.  

  • 茶柱 (ちゃばしら・chabashira・"tea pillar")
    If your 茶柱 floats vertically in your tea, this is a sign of good luck. 茶柱 literally means tea pillar but the term refers to tea leaves. The leaves that stand, like in the image below are often long and skinny, like small pillars. 
  • 招き猫(まねきねこ・maneki neko・beckoning cat)
    If you've been to a Japanese restaurant, you may have noticed a ceramic cat sitting on its hind legs with one paw up (image left). This is a 招き猫. Besides the black cat crossing the road, cats are generally good luck in Japan. This particular 招き猫 is said to bring in money to businesses, especially restaurants. 
  • クモ (くも・kumo・spider) 
    Arachnophobic? Don't be, for at least part of the day. If you see a クモ in the morning, it's good luck, and you should not kill it. On the other hand, if you see it at night, it’s bad luck. 
  • 四葉のクローバー(よつばのくろーばー・yotsuba no kuro-ba-・four leaf clover) 
    Bringing the topic back to St. Patrick’s day, the 四葉のクローバーis also good luck in Japan. 
迷信 Japanese Superstition An example of 茶柱 standing upright. I see this often in the Jasmine tea at my local dim-sum restaurant. 


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
迷信 めいしん meishin jinx/superstition
うん un luck
不運 ふうん fuun bad luck
幸運 こううん kouun good luck

月見 Moon Viewing

月見 Moon Viewing

Ever gone out on a night with a 満月(まんげつ・mangetsu・full moon) to just sit and observe how gorgeous it was? Well, 月見(つきみ・tsukimi・literally "moon" "look") is a traditional Japanese event where people do just that.

月見 Moon Viewing 満月, ススキ and 団子, commonly associated with 月見

月見 is a fall tradition that is said to have derived from China. It is celebrated on August 15 and September 13 of the lunar calendar (September 12 and October 12 2011, respectively). Commonly, people display specific seasonal food and plants, most commonly 団子(だんご・dango・rice dumpling, a bit like mochi) and ススキ(すすき・susuki・Japanese Pampas). 

Though evidence is unclear, historians believe that this event was a way for people to thank the harvest season. 月見 is one of the less commonly celebrated traditional events, though some regions of Japan celebrate it more commonly than others.

Japanese Halloween
Recently, the western Halloween theme is becoming more prevalent in marketing sweets during October. But people do not celebrate it by wearing costumes or going door to door for candy.  

However, in neighborhoods that celebrate 月見 commonly, there is an event called "お月見どろぼう" (o tsukimi どろぼう・dorobou・thief), where families leave 団子 on their porch and children of the neighborhood go around collecting them. It is said that the more どろぼう that come to your house, the better your luck will be.

月見団子 Recipe
Why not spend your weekend leading to September 12th making some 団子 and then on the day of, climb up and relax on your roof to enjoy お月見?  


Mochiko 100g, Jyoshinko (rice flour) as needed/about 50g, Kinugoshi tofu 1 pack, Sugar 10g or as needed, Katakuriko (starch) 


  • Mix mochiko, tofu, and sugar in a bowl
  • Mix in jyoshinko until dough can be rolled into balls
  • Roll dough into small bite-sized balls
  • Boil dumplings in hot water until it rises to the surface of the water
  • Cool in ice water
  • Roll in katakuriko to stop it form sticking

You can eat it plain, put matcha powder or brown sugar syrup on it to eat the 団子. You can also wrap this dough around red bean paste (be sure to seal it properly), or make other variations on the recipe to make many different Japanese sweets. 

月見 Moon Viewing 月見団子


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
月見 つきみ tsukimi moon gazing festival
満月 まんげつ mangetsu full moon
団子 だんご dango sweet rice dumpling

七五三 753

七五三 753

七五三 (しちごさん・shichigosan・literally "7,5,3") is a tradition celebrating children. It is held on November 15th for 3 & 5 year-old boys and 3 & 7 year old girls. On 七五三, the appropriately aged children dress up in traditional formal attire and families will go to 神社 (じんじゃ・jinja・Shinto shrine) and お寺(おてら・otera・Buddhist temple).

七五三 753 Families heading to 神社 and お寺 to celebrate 七五三

November is the end of the harvest season and the 15th of every month was said to be the day that demons do not come out (therefore, good luck). Long ago, when children commonly died shortly after birth, it was a very good sign if a child lived to the age of 7. Until then, a child's life was said to be "floating." Therefore, 七五三 was a day for families to be able to relax and finally be able to truly wish for their children’s growth since their life was now "grounded."

What happens on 七五三?
There is a whole range of ways to celebrate 七五三 and traditions vary depending on the region that you live in. It tends to be a standard for children to be dressed up in a 着物 (きもの・kimono) or other formal traditional outfits. Families will then go to a local 神社 or お寺 where the children are purified and families can wish for the child’s health and future growth. 

Children receive 千歳飴 (ちとせあめ・chitose ame・literally "thousand year candy") and many families will go to the neighborhood photo studio and get family and children portraits taken. 

In some regions, such as the Chiba prefecture, 七五三 is celebrated grandly at large venues, almost like a wedding.

As mentioned before, children commonly receive 千歳飴 on 七五三. They are sticks of long and skinny candy, and they usually come in large rectangular bags with handles that look almost like signs when small children carry them. 千歳飴 are fairly simple to make, but most families will opt to buy them, as the large bags do, in a way, complete the 七五三 image. 千歳飴 are long and skinny to represent the parents' hope and wish for their children to have a long life. The literal translation for 千歳飴 is "thousand year candy," to represent this hope. 

七五三 753 千歳飴


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
七五三 しちごさん shichigosan festival celebrating 3, 5, and 7 year old children
着物 きもの kimono kimono
千歳飴 ちとせあめ chitose ame 七五三candy

Traditional Games: カルタ Karuta

Traditional Games: カルタ Karuta

Perhaps you’ve seen the anime ちはやふる (chihayafuru). For those of you who haven't, the characters in this anime play a traditional Japanese game called かるた (karuta). The name comes from the Portuguese word for cards, "carta". The game is played in a group of three of larger. There are two decks of cards. One deck's cards are read aloud by a designated reader, and each of those cards has a pairing card in the other deck that can have words and/or pictures. The point of the game is for the players to get the matching card to the card being read.

Traditional Games: カルタ Karuta A very old pair of かるた cards. The one on the right contains a full poem (for the reader to read), while only the last phrase of the poem is written on the card on the left.

Perhaps you’ve seen the anime ちはやふる (chihayafuru). For those of you who haven't, the characters in this anime play a traditional Japanese game called かるた (karuta).

The name comes from the Portuguese word for cards, "carta". The game is played in a group of three of larger. There are two decks of cards. One deck's cards are read aloud by a designated reader, and each of those cards has a pairing card in the other deck that can have words and/or pictures. The point of the game is for the players to get the matching card to the card being read.

Although かるた can be played with a set of cards on any topic, the traditional cards have the poems from 百人一首 (ひゃくにんいっしゅ・hyakunin isshu), which is a compilation of poems from famous poets and scholars between the Heian (794~1192) and Kamakura (1185-1333) eras. The style of poetry is called 短歌 (たんか・tanka). It is somewhat similar to the more famous and well-known 俳句 (はいく・haiku), which is composed of a set of 5-7-5 syllable verses. 短歌 is different in that it is a little bit longer; it follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern. 百人一周 books can be found at pretty much any book store in Japan. Although it's not common to learn all of them now, Japanese people from older generations probably had to memorize a lot of them in school.

Going back to the 百人一首 as a かるた, the 読み札 (よみふだ・yomifuda・literally "read card") have the full 短歌 on them. The 取り札 (とりふだ・torifuda・literally "get card"), on the other hand, only have the last two seven-syllabled lines. The 取り札 are spread out on the floor and, because the 読み札 starts at the beginning of the 短歌, it gives you a huge advantage to have the whole thing memorized. As soon as the beginning of the 短歌 is read, you have to think of what the ending is and then find that card on the floor in front of you.

Traditional Games: カルタ Karuta かるた match

I want to play!
It may not be much fun to learn all 100 短歌 and play competitive かるた, but if you're hanging out with a bunch of friends with nothing to do, かるた are fairly easy to make and can be a fun game to play. Pick any topic you want. You can practice your Japanese by doing them with vocab cards (read the vocab, match with picture of object/motion/etc.). You can do it with movie quotes (読み札) and the movie covers (取り札). Get creative. Or be uncreative and just have duplicates of each card. It can just be a search and grab game looking for whatever card has the exact same thing written on it as what is being read.


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
カルタ かるた karuta traditional Japanese speed card game
百人一首 ひゃくにんいっしゅ hyakunin isshu hyakunin isshu
短歌 たんか tannka tannka



During my last trip to Japan, I picked up a planner. As I was flipping through December, I noticed there was a little red mark on the 23rd that said 天皇(てんのう・tennou・emperor) 誕生日(たんじょうび・tanjoubi・birthday). Wait, the 天皇's 誕生日is a national holiday?? I guess you learn something every day. 

So in light of this newly acquired knowledge, this month's newsletter will be about the Japanese 天皇. 

EMPEROR 天皇 The imperial flag with the imperial seal. 

The Current 天皇 and his role
The current Japanese 天皇 is Emperor Akihito. Historically, 天皇 is the monarch of Japan. According to the Japanese Constitution, the 天皇 is the symbol and representative of Japan and its people. 

Since the Japanese government dissolved the empire of Japan after World War Two, the role of the 天皇 has become more and more symbolic. 

But in reality, when you look at Japan's history, the country's been run by many other than the emperor: Shoguns, Damiyo, etc. 

What people thought of 天皇
According to old Japanese myths, the story goes that the Japanese 天皇 are decedents of Isanami and Izanami, Shinto 神 (かみ・kami・god(s)) that created Japan. In that sense, 天皇 are at the highest authority of the Shinto religion. 

In fact, 天皇 was claimed to be 神 until the end of World War II. When the Japanese lost the war, the 天皇 was required to announce on the radio that he was, in fact, human and not 神.

Fun Facts

  • The Imperial Palace is called 皇居 (こうきょ・koukyo), located in Tokyo (in Chiyoda-ku near Tokyo station). It's about one square mile in area and was built on the site of the Edo Castle. 
  • Besides using the A.D. system to count the current year, the Japanese have another system called 年号 (ねんごう・nengou), which is like saying "era". In the past they had been determined by the family in power or historical events, but in recent years they have been determined by the 天皇.
    The last emperor's regime marked the "Showa" period which ended with his death in 1989. The current 天皇 rules in the "Heisei" period, which will end whenever he dies. 
  • The 天皇's birthday becomes a national holiday, which changes, obviously, every time a new 天皇 takes the throne.
EMPEROR 天皇 Stone bridge by the main entrance of the 皇居


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
天皇 てんのう tennou emperor
皇居 こうきょ koukyo imperial palace
かみ kami god
誕生日 たんじょうび tanjoubi birthday



June bride. That was the first word that came to my mind this month. So this months' JOL is a crash course on Japnese 結婚式 (けっこんしき・kekkonnshiki・wedding ceremony). 

結婚式 Japanese style wedding - 神前式 

If you plan on celebrating 母の日 how do you plan to do it? How did you celebrate it as a child? This month, we'll be comparing some of the generic or stereotypical ways 母の日 is celebrated in the US and Japan. 

First of all, no ceremony is required for a 結婚 (けっこん・kekkon・marriage) in Japan - no vows or need to pronounce a couple husband and wife. Instead, a couple must submit a completed marriage form to the local government office. Once accepted, their status is changed in the family registry. 

神前式 (しんぜんしき・shinzen shiki・literally "before god ceremony") is the "traditional" Japanese ceremony based off the Shinto religion. The "traditional" is in quotes because it used to be more common to have the priest come to one's home to do the ceremony but recently, people have it at shrines, hotels or other venues. For a 神前式, the bride and groom wear traditional Japanese kimono and the 新婦 (しんぷ・shinpu・bride) wears all white. She will also often wear traditional Japanese kimono and the 新婦 (しんぷ・shinpu・bride) wears all white. She will also often wear a hood.You may see a 神前式 if you visit a shrine in Japan. A part of this ceremony also includes a "parade" of the 新婦, 新郎 (しんろう・shinrou・groom) family and guests lead by the shrine's priest. 

But キリスト教式 (きりすときょうしき・kirisutokyou shiki・christian-style ceremony) is probably more popular in modern Japan. The interesting thing though is that many of the couples aren't Christian. Also, remember that in Japan, you don't actually need a priest of judge preside during the ceremony. But people still want them for the complete stereotypical chapel-style 結婚式 feel. So what you get are foreign actors (usually white male) reading vows. 

Fusion 結婚式 
For the indecisive, you can have a 結婚式 with both 神前式 and キリスト教式 aspects. There are many venues (ie. Hotels) that can accommodate both styles of 結婚式 and the reception. In this case, the 新郎・新婦 will change several times usually during the reception. These gown changes are called お色直し (おいろなおし・oironaoshi). Wedding dresses tend to be more expensive in Japan so many people will choose to rent. Also, with the お色直し, since there are often two or three it's rare for the 新婦 to actually own all of the dresses.

結婚式 The gowns can get quite flamboyant for the お色直し.


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
結婚  けっこん kekkon marriage
結婚式 けっこんしき kekkonnshiki wedding ceremony
新婦 しんぷ shinpu bride
新郎 しんろう shinrou groom



Japan is said to be one of the most secular countries (in practice) in the world. But traditionally, there has been a wide spread of 仏教 (ぶっきょう・bukkyou・ Buddhism) and 神道 (しんとう・shintou・ Shintoism). Temples and shrines are a popular tourist destination in Japan - just like how churches are in Europe. This month, we’ll look into 神社 (じんじゃ・jinjya・ Shinto shrine) as 神道 it is the indigenous religion on Japan.  

神社 The beginning of the Thousand 鳥居 leading to Fushimi Inari Taisha 

How to distinguish a 神社 
So what is the difference between somewhere like Kitano-Tenmangu and Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto? Well, Kitano-Tenmangu is a 神社 and Kiyomizu-dera is お寺 (おてら・otera・ Buddhist Temple). Very simply put, 神社 is like a home for the 神道 gods, while an お寺 is a place for monks to practice and train their 仏教 beliefs.One of the first visual difference you’ll see is that a 神社 has a distinctive entrance gate called 鳥居 (とりい・torii) You’ll likely recognize it if you see it. Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto is especially famous for their 鳥居. Called the “Thousand 鳥居, “ it’s a tunnel of gates leading to the 神社. There are too many to know the exact number, but it’s said there could be up to 10,000 鳥居 and the number is still growing. If you’re up for the 2hour long hike to get to the 神社, Fushimi Inari Taisha’s entrance tunnel is great for photos. 

What to do at a 神社  
This time of year, many of the Japanese people going to 神社 do so for school and academic related reasons. Winter through Spring is the time when students prepare for the new school year with entrance/graduation exams. Though Japan is though to be secular, people still have the superstitious habit of going to 神社 for 神頼み (かみだのみ・kamidanomi), which literally means to ask the gods a favor. 

People do this by one or a combination of things like, visiting the 神社, filling out an 絵馬 (えま・ema・a wooden plank for writing a wish/prayer), buying お守り (おまもり・omamori・ an amulet/ Japanese good luck charm), etc. 

神社 絵馬 hung at a shrine 

絵馬 are usually filled out hung on a designated wall at the 神社. They most commonly have pictures of a horse pictures of a horse (long time ago, people used to donate their horses for 神頼み, but some shrines will have different animals. When you go to a 神社 you will likely see an array of お守り being sold, each for different wishes (ie, getting rich, travel safety, healthy birth of a child, academic improvement, etc.) Many people buy their own お守り, but there is also a saying that they work best when they are gifted by somebody who cares about the recipient, so many people buy them as presents. 


Kanji Hiragana Romaji English
神道  しんとう shintou Shintoism
神社 じんじゃ jinjya Shinto shrine
鳥居 とりい torii entrance gate to a shrine
神頼み かみだのみ kamidanomi asking the gods a favor
お守り おまもり omamori Japanese good luck charm

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