A proud Picasso moment




A couple of weeks ago, a Japanese friend invited me and the kids to a carp painting event at Asian Trade Centre at Osaka port.

What is ‘Carp painting’ you might wonder (or not!). Well, the Japanese are not known for their animal rights, but luckily carp painting is not an activity where you make a real carp look like the face of a Russian porn star. Instead, in late April and early May, the Japanese paint fabric or paper windsocks (which are in the shape of a fish), known as koinobori (or carp streamer) and hang them up outside their homes or in public places for Children’s Day. See photos above and below.

Children’s Day is a public holiday at the end of Golden week – a glorious run of several public holidays in a row in early May, which is one of the few leisure time-related highlights of the year for Japanese salarymen and women who have very little holiday relative to their European counterparts.

Children’s Day is also knows as ‘Boys’ Day’. There is also an annual ‘Girls’ Day’ celebrated in March but this (a) is not referred to as Children’s Day and (b) is not a public holiday, which to me implies that girls are not as important as boys (or even that girls are not children!). This kind of gender inequality would probably create an unprecedented outcry from feminists and maybe also from non-feminists (perhaps hoping for an extra public holiday) in more gender-equal countries. But not in Japan.

Furthermore, I think it is notable that the symbol for Boys’ Day is the carp. My Japanese friends told me that it represents strength, perseverance and ultimately success in the difficult task they have in swimming upstream (but do carps swim upstream? -I thought it was salmons!). In any case, carps represent energy, power and spirited character.

What about Girls’ Day? Well, the tradition on Girls Day is to send dolls down the river to the sea in order to take bad spirits away with them. What this has got to do with girls, I don’t know. But Girls’ day doesn’t appear to have an association with perseverance, strength and success in the same way that Boys’ Day does. And as a mother of a girl and a boy, I kind of have a problem with this distinction.

Anyway, regardless of my overall disagreement with the concepts associated with Boys’ and Girls’ days, we went along to the carp painting event (I am not a hard core feminist who would necessarily boycott children’s cultural events based on their dubious gender equality but do like to make a point here and there – as you may have gathered!).

The event was well organised and like so many children’s events in Japan it was free!


All children were given a fabric carp, crayons, pencils and paint and freedom to express their creative side.

This is great because neither my husband nor I are artistic or creative, neither of us can draw and neither of us enjoy drawing or any type of arts and crafts stuff. In fact, neither of my sisters, my parents nor any of my grandparents are/were good drawers. I believe this is also the case for my husband’s sisters, parents and grandparents, but to avoid any awkward moments with the in-laws should they read this blog post I will not make any assertive statements regarding their drawing abilities here. But I think I am right in assuming that genetically our children are extremely far removed from Picasso’s or van Gogh’s creative genes.


And because my husband and I, I suppose the word is: dislike arts and crafts, sometimes I feel that our children’s pastime activities revolve too much around things like sports, chess, Lego, jigsaw puzzles, reading, card games or board games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Articulate and lack activities in which empty toilet rolls or used ice lolly sticks are skilfully re-formed into Godzillas or robots. Luckily, the kids’ school and many of their au pairs have been more keen to create new uses for used toilet papers and lolly sticks than my husband and I.

At the carp painting event, I tried to help my 4-year old daughter a little bit with her carp, but I noticed that she actually did a better job without me. When it comes to drawing, I suppose I’m actually a bit of a Picasso – only without the intention to depict an ear on someone’s forehead. So, I concentrated on pouring some extra paint in their little paint bowls, alerting the staff when the first side of the carp was painted (so that they could take it away and dry the paint with a blow dryer so that the bottom side of the carp could also be painted) and wiping paint off of my children’s hands, cheeks, hair and clothes.


When the carps were ready, the child had to write their name, age and the ‘title’ of their creation on a piece of paper. Somewhat inappropriately my daughter wanted to name her carp as ‘catfish’. Maybe in a modern Western female style, she was sending a passive-aggressive message with her catfish, given that as opposed to the energetic and strong carps, catfish are big mouthed, sluggish beings, whose huge head and heavy bones drag them to the seabed. Now there’s some symbolism for Japanese men to think about.

But guess what! A couple of days ago my friend sent me an email to tell me that my daughter’s carp had won a prize! It had been selected as one of the 10 best koinobori amongst all 200, and that the event organizers would home deliver a small prize and award.  I’m sure they had considered age as a handicap, and also marked streamers down if they thought that an eager artistic adult had helped the child with their koinobori, after all some of the koinobori there were spectacular, but I was over the moon that my 4-year old’s slightly abstract carp (or catfish) was acknowledged in this way! See some of the winning koinobori below.



Furthermore, I will take this as a symbol of my daughter persevering, showing strength and succeeding regardless of the fact that, genetically, all odds are against her becoming the next Picasso.



All the 200 koinobori were displayed outside the Trade Centre.





Cherry blossom, day and night




The end of March and the beginning of April is the cherry blossom (i.e. sakura) season in Osaka. It’s the time of the year when it’s easy to have a chat with strangers (or awkward acquaintances), namely about the voluptuous cherry trees – a topic that is on everyone’s lips, and which can be covered with very limited vocabulary. Perfect for a sluggish Japanese learner, like me.

During this season, tourists from all over the world flock to Japan to see the sakura. They infiltrate all the main touristy sakura spots in Osaka (and elsewhere in Japan) for a period of a couple of weeks.

But cherry trees are everywhere in Osaka (and Japan), not just in well-known parks and big Castle grounds. Cherry trees decorate train lines, school yards, supermarket car parks, industrial sites and flyovers, i.e. hardly the most picturesque of places, although one week a year, cherry blossom adds some glamour to these places (see photos below).


Underneath a flyover



Baseball field



School yard


If you don’t want to compete with thousands of other cherry blossom fans and their tripods or iPhones, the above locations would be a safe bet for a non-crowded sakura viewing spot.

I don’t usually choose to share our cherry blossom viewing experience with 10,000 other people at Sakuranomiya (one of the most famous cherry blossom places in Osaka). Then again, I wouldn’t really settle with admiring the trees at a supermarket car park either.

But yesterday morning I felt brave and thought that I would take the kids and go for a quick walk around Osaka Castle, which is one of the most popular places in Osaka for cherry blossom viewing. But when we got to the tube station and saw the huge groups of tourists, we returned home, got our picnic blanket, board games, books, toys and some little snacks like chocolate, mandarins, and nuts to take with us to a nearby Kouzo Gu shrine, which is slightly off the beaten track, but beautiful nevertheless.

When we got there, we took some photos of the sakura (see below) and thought we’d sit down for half an hour to admire the trees, have our snacks, play a game or two of top trumps and/or read a book.









But we struggled to find a space to sit in, partly because it was quite busy and partly because I didn’t know what the etiquette was. For instance, can one just go and sit down anywhere or are some areas off limits. And the blue plastic sheets on the ground? – are they there for one to go and sit on them, or are they the Japanese equivalent to a German’s towel on a poolside sun lounger in Rhodes?


We played it safe and eventually sat down in a small gap between a big group of people and a small plastic Micky Mouse patterned sheet, on which there was a piece of paper that said something in Japanese.

We got our picnic quilt and our snacks out and sat down, but annoyingly, every so often we got a waft of something unpleasant. Hold on!! Was it some drunken cherry blossom viewers earlier smelly deposit that was covered by the Micky Mouse sheet and the note was warning cherry blossom viewers not to sit there unless they wanted to experience the sakura with an aroma somewhat less attractive than the cherry blossoms!? No wonder no-one had chosen to sit in that spot. I felt like everyone was looking at us because us foreign idiots had chosen to sit next to a pile of poo.

Because I didn’t want to come across as not knowing what I was doing, I thought we should just sit there for 15 minutes, eat our snacks and then escape the stench and unfamiliar cultural conventions by heading home.

But while we were sitting there, one person from the big group next to us walked over and gave us a plastic container with 10 chicken wings, two jumbo rice crackers in between which was a fried egg, barbeque sauce and mayonnaise (typical Japanese outdoor food), bags of sweets for the kids and a can of beer for me. They probably thought that our cherry blossom viewing grub of mandarins and chocolate was embarrassingly puny and they  wanted to correct the situation. I tried to protest and explain that we’ve already eaten, but the group wouldn’t have it. We sheepishly returned the favour and gave them a half eaten (Finnish) chocolate bar as a token of our appreciation.

Having unwittingly acquired all that food meant that we couldn’t escape the stinky situation quite as quickly as I wanted.

But then an elderly couple walked over and removed the Micky Mouse sheet to reveal…well, nothing but the ground. There was no poo on the ground next to us (the stench must have been dog poo in the green area behind us) and it dawned on me that the old couple had reserved a picnic spot with their sheet like Germans would do in Rhodes. The reason why no-one sat where we were sitting was not because of poo, but because no-one else had dared to park their picnic blanket on the Micky Mouse sheet’s owners’ turf! And the reason why we got some funny looks was because the people around us where shocked by the cheek of us calmly taking over some poor elderly couple’s cherry viewing spot.

Of course, being Japanese, no-one said anything but they probably came up with a few carefully selected names in their mind for the foreigners who didn’t respect the picnic sheet tactic. At that point, we could but pretend that we were oblivious to the cultural faux pas that we had just committed and carry on eating our chicken wings.

The elderly couple squeezed their picnic blanket next to ours. It was so close that it appeared as if we were part of their group. Even some of their friends who arrived and saw us exclaimed something along the lines of ‘Hey, international cherry blossom viewing!’ only to realize that yes, we were ‘international’ but not viewing the blossoms with them.

Anyway, we stayed for another hour or so nibbling on the food, having a little chat with the big group and a few other cherry blossom viewers and then headed home with contact details of some new friends. I assume had we stayed for a little longer, we would have made friends even with the, eventually merry, Micky Mouse group.

In cherry viewing style, many of the groups probably stayed under the cherry trees until the evening or even until the night, drinking, eating, chatting and enjoying the cherry blossoms in the moonlight.

Before we left, I took some photos of the sakura in the night-time. The quality is poor but I hope you nevertheless manage to get a feel for the absolutely amazing beauty cherry trees create, day and night.




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photo 2







Japanese Christmas is all about KFC and Christmas lights



There seem to be two main things (in addition to Santa Claus and presents) that the Japanese associate with Christmas. These are KFC (yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the fast food chain) and Christmas lights.

Apparently due to a highly successful marketing campaign in the 1970s, a typical Christmas eve/ Christmas day meal in Japan is a chicken bucket from KFC. For a Westerner like me, who practically never goes to KFC, this Japanese tradition is just bizarre. To be honest, I am glad that we will (again) spend Christmas in England so that we do not need to adopt this unappetising peculiarity of Japan in the name of cultural assimilation.

However, similarly to the pro-Christmas-Roast-writer of this blog, the Japanese love their extravagant Christmas light displays/shows, often provided by the council or local businesses (free of charge!). There are currently, I believe, around 20 of these around Osaka and so far we’ve seen three of them.

So that you can also experience a little snippet of Osaka’s Christmas lights, I recorded a clip of a light show that they are currently showing in Nakanoshima park in Osaka city centre. We went there last night and I really enjoyed it with its multiple themes ranging from Japanese theatre to underwater scenes and amusement parks. I hope you’ll enjoy it too. I also hope that you won’t mind the clip ending somewhat unexpectedly. This can be explained by the fact that my visits to the gym to build my biceps and other upper body muscles have recently been minimal. When you combine that with five minutes of holding a mobile phone up video recording a light show with a huge handbag (if you are a mother of a diabetic child you know what I mean) hanging off one’s bicep… After about three minutes I felt like, instead of a handbag, there was a grand piano hanging of my arm.

In any case, I hope the clip below will get you into the Christmas spirit regardless of whether you watch it with a bucket of KFC or not.



Sakura – Cherry Blossom

 photo 4-1


Japan is famous for its cherry blossom or Sakura, which usually takes place at the end of March and early April. The forecast for this years’ best Sakura day (i.e. the full bloom) in Osaka was the 2nd April, this Thursday. My plan was that on Thursday I would take the children and go and have a picnic under a cherry tree at Osaka Castle. My husband being currently in England means that he will experience this year’s Sakura only by reading this blog post.

The plan changed today (Tuesday) when I saw the weather forecast. The forecast predicted heavy rain for tomorrow. Because the cherry blossom like rain as much as the swimmers in Amity Island like sharks, we had to change our plan. You see, if it rains tomorrow, the Sakura season is over even before it reaches the full bloom on the 2nd April as the raindrops wash the delicate petals to the ground.

Yes, Sakura is precious that way. It only blooms for about a week and the first rain puts a stop to it for another year. Some people think that such short-lived beauty is not worth it – that sakura it is a bit like stuffing your face with caviar, truffles and champagne for one week of the year and only having porridge and water the remaining 51 weeks of the year. I won’t tell you what to think but when you get to the photos of the sakura below, I hope you agree that porridge and water is not that bad 51 weeks a year if you get one week of sakura.

Anyway, in a state of panic I left work early today to visit Kouzu Gu Shrine, a temple close to our apartment. Along the way, I popped in at home to see if the children were there, so that I could take them with me, but they weren’t – our au pair had taken them elsewhere to see the sakura (presumably, also in a state of panic).

I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t take my children with me, but I can’t deny that when I left my apartment without the kids and headed towards the shrine on my own I felt like Nina Simone when she sings I’m Feeling Good. Not having the kids with me meant that I could enjoy the sakura without any incidents of nosebleeds, bumps on heads or anyone associated with me attempting to climb the cherry trees or whining (a) ‘Can we go home already? or (b) ‘Can we play big bad T-rexes?’ So yeah, I got over not having my kids there pretty quickly. If you have children (and even if you didn’t) you probably know what I am talking about – even if your intentions are good, doing an activity that doesn’t really interest children is usually as enjoyable as brushing your teeth with your dog’s toothbrush (it doesn’t kill you but you can’t say it was the best experience you’ve had).

When I got to the shrine, I was like 007 eyeballing a Bond girl’s bosom. It was beautiful! See photos above and below.


photo 2-5

photo 2-1


photo 5


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photo 1-1


The only thing that ruined the tranquility a bit for me was the fact that there were quite a few stalls outside the shrine area in which they sold toys, live little fish, and had old-fashioned fairground games. Presumably these were there for the benefit of the children whose parents had taken them along (and also for the benefit of the parents). There were also food stalls, which were catering for the people viewing the cherry blossom.




Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is a popular sakura activity. Families, friends and work colleagues get together and make a beeline towards their favourite cherry blossom spot with picnic food and a little tipple – or actually not just a little tipple, more like a Niagara Falls of a tipple.


photo 1-5



I was there admiring the trees, and taking photos on my own, without any food or drink, when I hear ‘Herro!’ ‘Herro!’ A group of elderly drunken Japanese hanami goers sitting on the ground signal for me to join their party. And I joined them! Before you think I am crazy, I should perhaps say a couple of words of defence. First, I used to live in Brighton, where joining random people’s parties is nothing unheard of. Second, this happened around 6 o’clock in the evening, in daylight. Third, there were a couple of hundred people around us. So, I reckoned I would be safe and to be honest I was a little lonely there on my own.

I was offered beer, sushi, sausages, jellied meat, and other foods. The group was very friendly, and tried their hardest to speak English. I was friendly, tried their food, had a glass of the beer that they offered, and tried my hardest to speak Japanese. It was actually the first time ever for me to really try using Japanese (outside my Japanese classes, that is). And we had a nice (rudimentary) chat about work, Finland, Japan and of course the sakura. It somehow felt easier to talk to a group of giggling 60-year olds who had had way too much alcohol for one hanami session, than try to use Japanese at my work. I think for the benefit of my Japanese language skills, from hereafter I will have to seek the company of drunken groups of Japanese pensioners.



In any case, I loved the sakura. I loved the group of Japanese cherry blossom viewers, and I loved going back home to my children after having had a couple of hours of my own sakura time.


photo 2-3