February is not just about Valentine's day...
February is, mainly, about ...ehm...spring. It starts with the third day of the month, known in Japan as setsubun. According to the Buddhist and Shinto tradition, this day marks the beginning of spring by the lunar calendar, and it ought to be celebrated. Also, plum trees start blooming in February, giving people that good feeling about the nice season soon to arrive.
Finally, and most importantly, the main thing is undoubtedly the Chinese new year which falls between the end of January and the end of February depending on the lunar calendar.
It is not as much of a big thing for the Japanese as it is for the Chinese, since Japan follows the Gregorian calendar instead of the lunar one, but luckily for us the Chinese community here in Japan is big and in full celebration mode, so we are influenced by the festive atmosphere.
But what does the Chinese new year have to do with spring? Well, simply, the literal translation from Chinese is "spring festival".
Usually people clean the house before the new year, and decorate it with symbols of good luck.
The color red is used a lot, for envelopes containing gift money, to clothes, to lanterns and so on. It is considered a very lucky color because a thousands year tradition has it that the Nian, a monster that was believed to come to the villages around the beginning of spring to eat children, was scared by that color. Another thing the evil spirit was afraid of was loud noise, and that is why, together with red color, the Chinese use firecrackers nowadays in order to keep bad luck away. Celebrations begin before the day of new year and continue for about two weeks, with lion dances, parades, fireworks, gift exchanges and visits to family and relatives.
The biggest Chinatown in Japan (maybe even in Asia, and one of the biggest in the world) is Yokohama's Chinatown. It is only 30 minutes away from Tokyo center, covers an area of about 10 blocks, and surely will impress visitors with its atmosphere. It is located between the former foreign settlements hill of Motomachi and Kannai, well signaled by the four tall gates at both ends of the two main crossing roads. The closest station to Chinatown is Ishikawachoo on the JR Keihin-tohoku line. Once you follow the sign to the exit to Chinatown you will be immediately greeted by yet another Chinese gate right by the station. Surely it won't go unnoticed...
Although Chinatown tends to be more a touristic spot than an entertainment area, with the bulk of visitors heading there during the day, restaurants are a good reason to linger a bit longer around its many colorful and traditionally decorated streets.
There are two temples in Chinatown, one is the Mazu temple, and the other is Kwan Tai temple. I particularly like the Mazu temple, because it has an unusual shape of an hexagon and it is very very, but very colorful. The gate to Kwan Tai temple is also unique, featuring many rainbow colored dragons sitting around the curvy roofs.
During the new year celebration, Chinatown is even more lively and colorful. Red paper lanterns are hung along all streets and around temples, bamboo is also used a lot to decorate the entrances of the two temples where worshippers buy incense and pray.
From February 8th, the first day of the new year, events and celebrations follow each other for the next couple of weeks, including paper lanterns display. Highly recommended is to see one of the lion-dragon dances and parades along the streets of Chinatown: the dragon is a lucky animal, maybe the luckiest of all, and it visits all businesses for bringing good luck to the owners. It also happens to "bite" children who are watching the parade, to bless them.
Head to Yokohama's Chinatown in these days if you are looking for something special! There is an events calendar you can check to pick what's of interest for you, below:
Happy year of the Monkey!