Most people appreciate the occasional public holiday, waiting in tense silence until the next break from work arrives in the calendar year. Once that day hits, it’s like a 24-hour party beginning late on the night before and ending… whenever. And that’s only the reaction to a one-day reprieve from the all too familiar daily grind of work. Now, if several public holidays were to fall into line with one another, that would call for an even bigger prolonged celebration. Well… I call it a celebration, however Japan has already decided on a more appropriate name – Golden Week. For me, anything that is golden can’t possibly be bad.
Golden Week is unique in that it is comprised of only four actual national holidays. What makes it so long are the weekends that conveniently fall in between the holidays themselves, thus extending the length into either one week or two amazingly long weekends.
Falling between the end of April and the beginning of May, Golden Week is one of Japan’s three major holiday periods. Its popularity is due to a combination of time, season, and the festivities that it revolves around. One interesting fact that I learnt about Golden Week is that May 4th (a crucial day that connects the 3rd and 5th as holidays) was named a national holiday thanks to a law. This law stipulates that any day separating two national holidays must be deemed a national holiday itself. And so May 4th became what is known today as Greenery Day (having been moved from its original post on April 29th, which currently salutes the late Emperor Showa).
Shopping in a Sea of People
I can still remember my first month in Japan, which just so happened to coincide with Golden Week. The Japanese calendar was still a mystery to me at that time and given the fact that the company I worked for – during my first year in Japan – didn’t allow for national holidays, I didn’t catch on for quite some time. On the very last day of Golden Week, three years ago, I was roaming about with the intent to buy something. I finally had a day off and was just in time to catch up on the shopping frenzies with all the other eager bargain hunters swarming the Umeda area. It was May 5th and a lot of children were in the crowds, a fact that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time. My original intention had been to venture into the local fashion by replacing most of my Fall/Winter wardrobe – that I’d brought with me – with something a little less drab looking. The wildly patterned flair shirts were a little loud for my tastes but I figured that change is good. So, taking my very first paycheck (correction – petty cash after my previous interest in dining out during the first few weeks) with me, I headed for the boutiques.
Oddly enough, I soon grew tired of the boutiques because there were too many things to look at, making choosing from them virtually impossible. The department stores were out, primarily as a result of the sheer terror I felt upon seeing so many people crammed into one space, fighting for the same product. Women and sales equal = vicious!
So, with nowhere else to go and needing some fresh air, I decided to stalk along the back streets. If for no other reason, I would at least be able to stretch my legs and get an unobstructed view of the merchandise minus the rivalry of other crazed shoppers Much to my relief, the back streets were far tamer than the main shopping areas. I could freely walk about without tripping over anyone’s feet.
I’d barely gone halfway down the street when something colorful caught my eye. Blue. Red. I think I noticed movement. But in my sleepy state I barely registered the interesting item before I’d already passed it. Usually, if this sort of problem were to arise, I would be forced to continue down the street and re-analyze the whatever-it-was on my return trip. I couldn’t just abruptly stop in the middle of the street for the sake of one little flash of color. What if I turned around and realized that the thing in question was either a window display or an overpriced handkerchief? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing? To do a double-take for a handkerchief?!
What was `THAT`?
But no, I was too curious to back out now. I needed to know what `it` was. I’d only seen one and I’d hate for it to disappear if I let it out of my sight in order to complete my walk to the end of the street. Regret is a shopper’s greatest weakness.
I turned back, nearly colliding with a passerby in the process, and hurried back to the store where I’d seen the flapping blue and red. As luck would have it, what I’d seen was both interesting and cheap. On a plastic stick hung two carp fish, one red and the other blue. They were made from some sort of nylon-like fabric and since their mouths were left gaping open, the breeze carried through their hollow bodies, rotating them to and fro. For 500 yen, I was not going to pass up the opportunity to decorate my barren one-room apartment with some color. Nor could I say no to fish, especially ones that were possessed by the wind. Having made a decision, I picked the stick up and headed over to the cash register… where I was met by a lady who regarded me rather suspiciously before ringing up my purchase. She stuck the ornament into a transparent plastic bag and handed it to me. Then I was off.
Down the street I went, catching the attention of adults and children alike. Some of the younger children would stare at the bag since its contents were clearly visible from any perspective. A small boy pointed at a fish tail protruding from the bag as he was led along by his mother. I couldn’t understand what was so interesting, or strange, about what I had just purchased.
At a later point in the day, I met up with a Japanese acquaintance who stared at my fish-on-a-stick. I asked why they had caused such a commotion… at which point I was informed that: 1. Today was known as [Kodomo no Hi] or Children’s Day. 2. [Tango no Sekku] or the Boy’s Festival was celebrated on this day. 3. The carp streamers were intended to be purchased by parents that wished their sons to have good health and future success.
Now that I understood the significance of May 3rd, I realized why I had been drawing attention from both children and adults. Most likely the children recognized the fish as a positive symbol of some sort. As for the adults… I wouldn’t like to speculate too much on them but I’m sure that some of them were probably wondering where my `son` was.
Table for 12!
With the mystery of the fish solved, I headed to an Izakaya (Japanese Bar) with some friends. I had assumed that with all the festivities, most of the crowds would be in the family restaurants with their children. However, this was not the case as we regarded the pretty busy area surrounding the front door of the establishment we wished to enter. My friend assured me that it didn’t matter where we went tonight, everywhere would be relatively the same. Keeping that in mind, we loitered around the door chatting for about forty minutes before it came our turn to be seated.
Once inside the Izakaya, we were led to a noisy corner where the two adjoining tables were already well into their alcohol and conversations. The food looked and smelled great, taking my mind off of our large group cramming into such a small area. The people beside me were so close they might as well have been sitting on my lap because I had no arm space whatsoever. Nothing could be done about the table due to the overcrowding so we did our best to keep our elbows down.
There weren’t any children inside the Izakaya – not that there should be considering that it is a bar after all – but it was instead filled with young adults and older men. Service was more delayed than usual but when the food and drinks did come, we enjoyed sharing both at our cozy little table while chatting just as loudly as the other tables were.
Some of my friends were brand new, having been introduced through mutual acquaintances. One other friend I had met in Canada and kept in touch with even after she had returned to Japan. She had stayed in Canada for a year to study English and work a bit, promising to give me a tour if I ever visited Japan. Now that I was in Japan, she was only too eager to show me everything that her country had to offer. The rest of the group were co-workers that I barely knew outside of the workplace. They seemed a lot less restrained when gulping down a bottle of beer in one hand and going on a mad rampage through the takoyaki (grilled octopus balls) plate with the other.
We traded stories about our experiences thus far in Japan and tried to outdo each other with intrigues of horror. For example, one friend told me that she had come within an inch of hitting the panic button (the little red button in the bathroom stall of just about every public washroom. Ladies washroom! I have no idea what is in the Men’s!) instead of the proper button for flushing the toilet. The only thing that had stopped her was the fact that the button had been red and looked strangely out of place. Not being able to read a word of Japanese, she had gambled on the more innocently painted white button.
Another co-worker had nearly set his tatami mats on fire when he’d dropped a lit cigarette. A newer co-worker – much along the same lines – had gotten in trouble for trying to start a fire/barbecue on his balcony. Recently, he’d just been educated on the hazards of strong winds, fires, and the drying laundry hanging out on neighboring balconies. All three tended to make one heck of a problem for both the neighbor owning the laundry, and the fire department. Back in Canada, barbecuing on the balcony of one’s apartment (for lack of a backyard) was not so rare, nor so dangerous. Seeing as how balconies in North America are used for displaying patio furniture for sitting on (I have personally never seen any laundry hanging out there) adjusting to the concept of Japanese balconies is a learning process. The greater distance between one Canadian balcony and another also contributes to the safety factor.
When it came my turn to share an embarrassing tale, I had to apologize because I couldn’t think of any. After a bit of teasing and prying from a persistent friend, I placed my carp flag onto the table. Most of my foreign co-workers regarded the item with either confusion or a lack of interest… until my Japanese friend spoke up.
“Why do you have a `koi no bori`?” She asked with a twinge of concern in her voice.
“Because they’re cute,” I answered, emphasizing the word `cute`.
“But you don’t have any children,” she insisted.
At the mention of children, the rest of my friends took the bait, closing in like a feeding frenzy of sharks. To be fair, I shared my story, making sure to plead ignorance on the origin of the carp fish before going into the details of how I’d been attracting curious stares since purchasing them.
When my co-worker asked me what I planned on doing with the fish, I responded without hesitation. “I’m going to hang them on my wall.”
My Japanese friend blinked in amazement.
“And,” I continued before she could object, “if anyone asks, I’ll just say that I’m bringing good luck to the children by helping them celebrate.”
The rest of my friends laughed and quickly moved onto another topic, but not before my new Australian friend whispered, “where did you buy it? I want one too!”