Matriculation Ceremony

Mayuki, in her uniform, looking up as she waits for Yuriko

Hurry up, Mummy!

There are a number of aspects of Japanese society that seem a little odd from a British perspective. One of them is the fact that Japanese kindergartens have matriculation ceremonies. And uniforms. Today was the matriculation ceremony for Mayuki’s kindergarten, so she had to get dressed up in her uniform for it. I took most of the day off work so that I could attend, but naturally I wore a suit. The question of what Yuriko should wear was a bit more vexed. I thought she should wear a kimono, and basically she wanted to. However, kimonos are more trouble than western-style clothes, so for a while she was undecided. Finally, at the beginning of this week, she decided that she would wear a kimono.

That meant that she needed to choose the precise outfit, and then practise putting it on, because it is a few months since she last wore a kimono. That, in turn, meant that I had to look after Mayuki and get her to bed for a couple of nights this week, so that Yuriko would have time to practise. We really do need to work on a way to get Mayuki to bed earlier, but unfortunately you really can’t force someone to go to sleep, even if you can convince them to stay in bed; it took about half an hour for Mayuki to get to sleep last night after I’d won that battle.

In any case, Yuriko got her practice, and wore a kimono today. That did mean that I was in charge of getting Mayuki into her uniform, because it takes time to put a kimono on, but fortunately kindergarten uniforms are not complicated, and I’m sure Mayuki will be able to do it by herself fairly soon. (It won’t be instant, because the skirt doesn’t just pull on.) We left the flat a couple of minutes later than planned, but we had, of course, planned for delays, so we still managed to catch the bus that takes us almost all the way to the kindergarten.

Unfortunately, on the way to the bus stop Mayuki fell over and grazed her knee, which made her less cheerful than she had been. She wasn’t at all lively on the bus, and it was obvious that she was feeling a bit sleepy. She kept demanding that I carry her, and although she was happy to walk when we got to the kindergarten, led the way to her classroom, and said good morning to her teacher, she wasn’t as happy about leaving us as she usually is. In fact, she was clinging to me and crying when it was time for the parents to go to the gym, ready for the ceremony. I had to hand her over to the teacher and then walk out on her.

Mayuki standing on the playground equipment in front of cherry blossoms.There were a lot of parents with cameras in the gymnasium, so it wasn’t really possible to see Mayuki much during the ceremony. However, I could see that she’d stopped crying, and was basically being cooperative, if not as active as she often is. The ceremony involved greetings from the chairman of the governors, singing the kindergarten song, a speech from the headteacher (“The slides are all your slides, and the picture book are all of yours as well.”), before finishing with an action song. I don’t think Mayuki did the actions, though.

After that, which took about ten minutes, the children left again, to play with their teachers while the headteacher told us a bit more about the kindergarten’s plans to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. One point he made was that the kindergarten was happy to take children who had been evacuated from the northeast, which is good, because finding kindergarten places in Kawasaki is hard. The other points were about how the kindergarten would respond to various levels of radiation, which were eminently sensible. (“If the government is telling everyone in Kawasaki to stay inside, we will close the kindergarten”; yes, that sounds like a good idea. I really don’t think it will come to that.) After that, it was back to the classroom, for some more information from Mayuki’s class teacher. Mayuki got a bit clingy again at that point, and when we went out for the class photo, she didn’t want to leave us to sit on the front row. Fortunately, there was a low platform for the new students to stand on, and the parents were supposed to stand behind them in any case, so she was able to participate in the photograph. She then, rather more enthusiastically, went to play on the jungle gym-type equipment, which gave me a chance to take some photographs of her with the cherry blossoms in the background.

At the matriculation ceremonies for Japanese schools and kindergartens, the school puts up a sign saying that it’s that year’s ceremony, and everyone has a family photograph taken in front of it. We did that, but Mayuki wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about being involved. She was rather more enthusiastic about gatecrashing another family’s photograph, in fact. Getting her to head for the bus required promising her lunch (chips and ketchup) at the local family restaurant, but as soon as we got on the bus, she lay down on my knee and fell asleep. She remained asleep as I carried her from the bus stop to our flat, up the hill, and then woke up, wanting her chips, as soon as we put her in bed.

In any case, lunch was nice, and she ate some sweetcorn as well as the chips and ketchup, and we opened her cards from her grandparents. So, although I didn’t really get any work done today (I had one lesson in the evening), we did have a very nice family day.

The Importance of Motivation

Mayuki standing in front of her Hina dolls display, wearing the kimono tunic that came with them.First, the picture doesn’t have much to do with the content of this blog, but Mayuki looks very cute in it, so I’ll put it on this blog as well. If you look carefully at the middle shelf, between the two dolls on the left, you can see all four shells from the display; Yuriko managed to put the broken one back together, so all our earthquake damage has been repaired. The dolls have all been put away now, ready for next year.

What I actually want to write about is really normal and everyday. I want to compare Friday morning with yesterday morning. On Friday, Mayuki had to get ready to go out to day care, but she wasn’t at all keen to go. In the end, I had to put her socks on her, and actually pick her up and hand her over to Yuriko to be carried out of the flat. According to Yuriko, she cheered up on the way to day care, but getting her out required full effort from both of us.

On the other hand, yesterday they had to leave just a little bit later, to get to Mayuki’s music classes. The first thing she said when she got up was “Today is music class, right?”, so she was obviously keen to go. When I said “You have to go soon, can you get ready?” she was playing with a toy restaurant set, making up meals on the tray, but she said “Yes, I’ll just tidy this up first”. And then, she did. She put all the pieces back in the box, put the box away, and then, when I reminded her that she needed socks, got some out of the closet and put them on, before going to the hall and getting her shoes on. Initially, she didn’t want to wear her coat, but when she got outside I heard her say “It is a bit cold out here, isn’t it”, so I think she may have put her coat on before she got to the bicycle.

I suppose that it’s not at all surprising that, at three, it’s rather easier to get her out of the house for something she really wants to go to.


Shichi-Go-San,or Shichigosan, which means “Seven-Five-Three”, is the name for the traditional Japanese ceremonies performed to mark the maturation of young children. The name comes from the ages at which the ceremonies are performed: three years old for both boys and girls, again at five years for boys, and at seven years for girls. The origins of the ceremony go back about a thousand years, when each stage referred to one change from children’s clothes to adults’. At three, parents stopped shaving the child’s head and let the hair grow, while at five boys first wore hakama, the trouser skirts like the ones I’m wearing in the pictures. At seven, girls started wearing adult kimono, with a proper belt rather than a single cord. These ceremonies are still very occasionally performed in something close to their original form, but this seems to be limited to families that have traditions going back that far.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I, all in kimono, arrive at the shrine

It was a long walk, but we're here now

These days, the ceremony takes the form of everyone getting dressed up and going to a shrine (usually) or temple for a blessing. The star of the show almost always wears Japanese dress, and it’s not at all uncommon for the mother to do so as well. It is, however, very unusual for the father to do so, so a lot of people stopped to look as we walked from our flat to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin for the ceremony. In this form, the ceremonies date back at least three centuries, as they are described in very similar terms in the Onna Chōhōki, a book written in 1692. These days, it is becoming more common for parents to just have a photograph taken with their child, and not actually bother with the shrine visit. It’s even less common for the whole extended family to attend, but I think it’s a good idea. However, in November the major shrines are still very busy with small children having their Shichi-Go-San, so if you want to see a lot of really cute Japanese children in traditional dress, it’s a good time to visit a shrine. The timing of the ceremony, incidentally, is said to derive from the date on which it was performed for the son of one of the Tokugawa shoguns, so holding it in November does not have as long a history as the ceremony itself.

The ages at which the ceremony is performed were traditionally measured Japanese style, in which you count every calendar year in which you have been alive. So, if you are born at four minutes to midnight on December 31st, you are two before you are five minutes old. However, the advice from the shrines, and the people who rent out the kimonos (no, you don’t buy them), is that, for the first one, you should probably wait for the full age. For a child born late in the year you might do it just before the third birthday, but two-and-a-bit is too young. This was certainly true in our case; a year ago Mayuki would not really have been able to cope with the ceremony, but this year she did very well.

As you can see from the pictures, Mayuki is wearing a sort of jacket over her kimono. This is standard for three-year-old girls, because they can’t wear a proper kimono with an obi. Instead, the kimono just ties shut, and the jacket hides the fact that there is no obi, as well as being in a contrasting colour. This makes it much easier and quicker to dress the child, which is a good thing. She’d sat in the chair for an hour having her hair done, so I think her patience might have been running out, and getting me, Yuriko, and Yuriko’s mother all dressed in our kimonos took quite long enough.

Mayuki and I filling in the forms at the shrine

I can write my name, too!

Once you arrive at the shrine, you have to fill in a form giving your address and the child’s name, along with his or her age. In our case, at Shirahata-san, this is largely redundant, because they know who we are, but if you’re one of thirty groups being done at once at a big shrine, it’s quite essential. The names and addresses are incorporated into the norito, the prayer to the kami, so that the kami knows who the priest is talking about. When Mayuki saw me filling in the form, she wanted to do it as well, so we gave her one, and she carefully filled it in. Obviously, she can’t really write yet, but she was filling it in with small letter-like bits, in the spaces, rather than scribbling all over it. This required great concentration.

The Shinto priest, in his vestments, beating the taikoThere are several advantages to doing the ceremony at a local shrine, one of which is not having to take a three-year-old long distances in a kimono. Another, and to my mind more important, one is that at most local shrines the priests will do one family at a time, rather than half a dozen at once. Of course, if you do it a local shrine you attend frequently, they might even give you permission to have photographs taken during the ceremony, which is a little unusual. As I mentioned before, we didn’t do this ourselves; we hired one of Yuriko’s friends, who is a professional photographer, instead.

The ceremony starts with the priest banging a taiko, a Japanese drum, to draw the kami’s attention and announce that the ceremony is starting. This generally happens while all the attendees are finding their seats. For this ceremony, Mayuki sat in the centre, with me to her right and Yuriko to her left, and then my parents on my side and Yuriko’s on hers.

The priest waving the harae-gushi to purify us

Even Mayuki bowed her head

After the drum, and a greeting from the priest, the next element is the purification, or harae. First, the priest recites the harae norito while kneeling in front of the harae-gushi, or ÅŒnusa, which is also called a purification wand. This normally consists of a large number of strips of white paper on a wooden handle. When he has completed the norito, he performs the normal two bow-two clap-one bow ceremony, then takes the harae-gushi and waves it first over the inner shrine, then over the offerings, and then finally over the people gathered for the ceremony. While you are being purified, you are supposed to bow your heads, and even Mayuki did it.

Next, the priest goes deeper into the haiden, or worship hall, and kneels to recite the main norito. At a Shichi-Go-San, this is a prayer of thanks for the child’s safe development so far, and a request that she will continue to be healthy, and grow up strong, happy, and prosperous. On this sort of occasion there are standard noritos, and by the end of November the priests must be very good at reciting them. They probably even do it in their sleep.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I kneeling on the platform in the worship hall of the shrineFinally, the child, with her parents, goes to pay her respects to the kami. The three of us climbed up onto the platform in the worship hall, and knelt on a mat, in the centre, facing in towards the honden, or sanctuary. The priest then explained what to do: “First, bow twice to say hello to the kami. Then, clap your hands twice to get his attention. Finally, bow once more to say thank you.” Mayuki has been to the shrine quite a few times, and we do the same thing in front of the kamidana (household shrine) when we do “thank you things”, so she had no problem following the directions, and then going back to her seat.

It’s very important to note that we did not enter the honden, the sanctuary, to perform the ceremony. In the photograph above, you can see a mirror, and behind that two lanterns in front of a bamboo curtain, with another two lanterns behind the curtain. The sanctuary is behind the curtain, beyond the lanterns. The priest might enter it once per year to clean it, but otherwise no-one ever goes in. This has occasionally led to surprising historical discoveries in older shrines.

Almost all of our family, in front of the shrineAfter the ceremony, Mayuki was given a pack of traditional candy, which is much like a stick of rock, and given a choice of o-mamori, or amulet. There were amulets in three colours, all with Hello Kitty on, and Mayuki decided that she liked the blue one. Then the priest gave us the traditional bottle of sake and packet of bonito flakes, and the whole thing was over. Afterwards, the shrine family let us take a lot of photographs in the worship hall, the garden behind the shrine, and, finally, in the shrine precincts, in front of the shrine. Since I can’t put all of them up, I’ve chosen one of the family group ones taken in front of the shrine.

By this time, Mayuki was getting tired, and we went on taking photographs for a little bit too long, so that she started complaining and crying, and fell asleep on my shoulder on the way home. As I said at the beginning, she participated in the ceremony very well, and had very nearly enough endurance to cope with all the photographs we wanted to take. That would not have been the case a year ago, so we made the right choice for the timing. We might, however, do the next one on the traditional Japanese age.

Mayuki’s Birthday

Mayuki has now had her third birthday, and the first one I think she really appreciated. Obviously, actually getting born is unlikely to be a pleasant experience for the child, and the child doesn’t even get the elation that compensates the mother. I’m not sure that Mayuki noticed her first birthday at all; she really had to be encouraged to look at the presents, and quickly lost interest. Her second birthday was much the same. This time, however, she did her birthday properly.

Mayuki playing with her dolls' house.Her present from my mother (and Ray) and Yuriko’s parents was a large, wooden dolls’ house, which came with wooden furniture and two wooden dolls. None of this plastic rubbish for Mayuki. Of course, wooden toys are durable, as well as feeling nice to play with, so there were definite practical considerations involved. There were also completely emotional considerations; Yuriko really wanted Mayuki to have a dolls’ house like this, possibly because Yuriko never had one.

Fortunately, Mayuki also loved it. We set it up in the evening after she went to sleep, so it was there in the morning. She quickly found it, and, as the picture shows, started playing with it in her pyjamas, completely forgetting about having her morning milk. She kept playing with it for the next few hours, and still plays with it a lot now, although the various wooden lamps are as likely to be the family as the dolls are. Still, that’s the benefit that these sorts of toys have for development: they encourage her imagination. The fact that she will happily play with the house by herself is just an extra benefit for us.

In the evening, we gave her the present from us: a wooden Thomas the Tank Engine train set. People seem to suspect that my enthusiasm was as much behind this as Yuriko’s was behind the dolls’ house, but it really isn’t. I was never into train sets, and I’m still not. No, this is the present that Mayuki pretended to get and play with while playing with me a few weeks before her birthday.

Fortunately, she was just as enthusiastic about playing with the real thing, spending hours pushing the trains round the track with me. We got her two trains: Thomas, and Hiro, a Japanese train introduced in the newer animated episodes, so I would push one round while she did the other, taking turns to go in front. She took the train set with her when she went with Yuriko to visit her grandparents in Nagoya soon after her birthday, and played with it a lot there. It’s not been unpacked yet, so maybe we’ll do that tonight.

Mayuki with her birthday cake

Mayuki looks at photographs of herself. You can see Thomas and Hiro on the table.

Then we had the birthday dinner. This was less of a roaring success, although it certainly wasn’t a failure. The main problem was that Mayuki refused to eat the food that Yuriko prepared, preferring to play with her toys, and didn’t even eat any of her cake, only one of the strawberries off the top. (Mayuki isn’t that into sweets and chocolate in general, in fact.) Still, that aside, Mayuki did participate in singing Happy Birthday to herself, and blew the candles out, getting two with the first blow and the last with her second attempt. Maybe next year Mayuki will be properly into the celebratory meal aspects as well.

Mayuki didn’t really want to go to bed, but that’s fairly normal. She was reassured when we told her that the toys would still be there in the morning, and she did play with the train set again as soon as she woke up. In fact, she got up and went to play quietly with it, so that I didn’t immediately realise that she was awake.

So, her birthday was a success. Now that she’s three, we’re looking at kindergartens, because the Japanese school year starts in April, so it’s nearly time to apply. Maybe next year she’ll be able to have her friends from kindergarten round for a birthday party.

Mayuki Miscellanea

Recently, I’ve been deliberately spending more time with Mayuki, playing with her for at least an hour every day. For some reason, that seems to leave me less time to do other things, a situation I don’t really understand. Surely as a reward for being a good father, the very nature of reality should warp and grant me more time.

Anyway, we spend quite a lot of time playing in the tatami room, either playing with a ball, or building things with the wooden blocks, or pretending to do things. We pretend to go to the park, and pretend to go on slides and swings while sitting on the floor. We pretend to go shopping, watching out for cars and only crossing the road when the signal is green. We pretend to eat various kinds of food, from curry rice to chocolate.

And then there are the slightly stranger ones. We pretend to watch videos. That involves pressing the button, and then sitting next to each other while saying what’s happening. We pretend to read a picture book. I tell the story from one of her books, and Mayuki tells me to turn the pages at the appropriate places, or fills in the bits of the story. Or we pretend to play with a ball.

These are strange because we can easily do all of them for real. The books and videos are in the next room. The ball was even in the same room, but we were still playing with a pretend ball. Mayuki quite clearly understands the difference between pretend and real, at least in these cases, and is quite deliberately choosing to pretend. I have to confess that I don’t quite understand why.

Further evidence that she knows the difference between pretend and real is that when, yesterday, I suggested that we go to the park, she knew right away that I meant a real park, and got ready to go out. On the way, we passed the 14th apartment block in the complex, which has a big “14” up on the side.

“Look, Daddy!”, Mayuki said (in Japanese). “It’s great! It’s really tall! There are lots of homes in it! Look! [breaking into English] Four! One!”

So, she was reading the numbers in the wrong order, but still, I was very impressed. I knew she knew “4”, but I didn’t realise she knew “1” as well. I wonder whether she knows all of the single digits. She’s also worked out that the writing on picture book pages is the words that we read, and sometimes points at the words while we’re reading them to her. I don’t think she can read letters yet, but I suppose she might still surprise me. Maybe by the time she’s three, she’ll be reading books by herself.

And I’ll get some time back to do the same.


Today, the three of us went to KODOMONOKUNI. I’m not sure why they put the name in all caps, but that’s how it appears on their site. It’s a large activity park, primarily aimed at children (the name means “Children’s Country”), with an emphasis on a pseudo-natural environment, rather than on rides and such. It was the first time we’d been, even though it’s fairly close to us. There’s one change of train, onto a line with three stops that goes to the park, and even when we just missed a train, it only took about an hour door to door.

Mayuki goes to score

She has dual British and Japanese nationality. Which team needs her more?

At the park, Mayuki quickly got into the swing of things. First, she went to play with some hula-hoops, which were provided by the park. She was quite good at rolling them along the ground, but actually spinning them round herself was harder, though she did try. When she got bored of that, she went running up a grassy slope, and when she got to a flat area she demanded the ball, and we played football for a while. (Appropriate, I guess.)

From that area, we could see a miniature railway, and so, after playing with soap bubbles for a bit, Mayuki decided she wanted to go on that. Before we could line up, however, she spotted the slides, so we went on there first. They were quite big, and she insisted on going on with me because, as she explained to Yuriko, “It’s a bit scary, so I’ll go on with Daddy”. After a couple of slides, she was ready to go on the train, so we bought our tickets and got on.

Sometimes, I don’t fit in full-size Japanese trains. I certainly didn’t really fit in this one. However, Mayuki really enjoyed it, so much so that she wanted to go round again. This time, I sent her round with Yuriko, while I took pictures, and Mayuki enjoyed it so much that she wanted to go round again. We tried to convince her that it was time for lunch, and finally took her away screaming. Fortunately, she calmed down quite quickly, and ate some lunch. She refused to eat the ice cream that Yuriko bought afterwards, though, because it was in a cup, not a cone, and so didn’t look right.

Next, it was time to draw all over the road in chalk. The children are allowed to do this on the entrance road to the park, and Mayuki had lots of fun, and got chalk all over her hands. Fortunately, there was also somewhere to wash it off. This being Japan, the outdoor sinks all had soap dispensers. With soap in.

Anyway, at this point we’d been to maybe one tenth of the park, next to the entrance, and Yuriko wanted to see a bit more. However, along the way Mayuki decided that she wanted to play football again, so that’s what we did. While we were playing, Yuriko noticed two Thomas the Tank Engine models. (One was Thomas, the other was Percy.) As soon as we pointed these out to Mayuki, she stopped playing football and went over to see what they were.

They turned out to be dodgems, 200 yen a turn. There were already some children on Thomas when we got there, so Mayuki went on Percy, with Yuriko. When that ride finished, Thomas was empty, so she had a ride on that one as well. Two rides were not enough, so she got back on Thomas, and said “Daddy, pay the money! If you don’t, it doesn’t go!” (in Japanese). However, I was firm in my resolve, and she eventually gave in and got off, going with us a bit further into the park.

Mayuki about to splash

I can make a big splash!

There, we found a water-play area. The full swimming pool doesn’t open until the middle of next month, but the paddling pool was open, and had quite a few children in it. Mayuki was very keen to play in the water with them, but it was a bit too deep for her to go in by herself, so Yuriko rolled up her trousers to escort her.

Mayuki quite likes playing in the water. She splashed around, walked through the water, and then didn’t want to get out. Unfortunately, she had no choice, because the park was about to close. She’d been playing for about four hours, which was apparently enough; she fell asleep on my shoulder while we were getting on to the second train, and then stayed asleep for a couple of hours, only waking up for dinner.

Because the park is really quite close to us, we might go back. You can buy a weekday pass, good for a year, for the price of five admissions; we had free tickets today, courtesy of a friend of Yuriko’s, but I will seriously think about getting the weekday pass; I could go with Mayuki on Mondays, and I should be able to get up to five visits over a year. You can also buy a one-year free pass for 10,000 yen (about 17 admissions), but that also gets you into the summer pool and winter ice rink free. I suspect Mayuki will be a bit too small to get enough use from that this year, but if we go to the other bits a lot I’ll have to think about it for next year. It looks like she could get a lot of good use out of the park as a whole.


Yuriko’s just about finished redecorating the flat, and I’ve just redecorated my blog. I hope you like the new look; I think it’s quite clean and easy to use.

We’ve all got colds to varying degrees at the moment. Mayuki’s is making her sick quite a lot, but although we’ve taken her to the doctor, they say it’s just a cold. Given that she’s very definitely not ill while she’s not actually throwing up, I think that is quite plausible. Yuriko’s got a sore throat and is losing her voice, and I’m just a bit under the weather.

That’s a large part of the reason why I’ve not been updating the blog. Another reason is that I’m trying to get caught up on work. I made some progress today, but, of course, not quite as much as I hoped. Ah well, there’s always tomorrow.

Cherry Blossoms

The cherry blossoms are out in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the weather is really not very good. It’s raining this morning, and the forecast is for it to continue doing so for much of the day. Yesterday was grey, and rather cold. Nevertheless, we went out to see the cherry blossoms.

Mayuki squashing my face in front of blossoming cherry trees

Pay attention, Daddy!

We went to our local graveyard. This may sound a little odd, and Yuriko also thought it was a bit strange, but the graveyard is very big, and has a lot of cherry trees. It’s also a bit hidden, in that you have to go up little roads behind houses to get to it, which means that, despite its location, it’s not as popular as you might think. There were still a lot of people there, but it wasn’t heaving, and while part of that could well have been the weather, I think the main locations in Tokyo would have been packed.

We didn’t have time to go round the whole area, but we did see that there are areas where you can have barbecues, and there were a lot of families having picnics. If your family is from this area, it could be a fun day out for the whole family, including the dead members. In any case, now that we know where it is, it’s likely to be our main cherry blossom spot in future years. At the very least, we’re likely to go there once.

After that, we went to Art Fair Tokyo. This is where Yuriko worked before Mayuki was born, and she’s gone back to work there part-time at the moment, so she had those reasons to go. She also wanted to see the art, and has dreams of being able to buy something at the fair. I’d like to save up so that she can, but the budget won’t permit at the moment. Anyway, my main job was looking after Mayuki, so that Yuriko could look around. I took her round the fair, of course, and she was fascinated by one of the exhibits.

It was an animation of a girl walking up a down escalator. She was climbing at the same speed as the escalator was descending, so the image didn’t change much, but Mayuki was fascinated. She watched it for over ten minutes, even complaining when we tried to take her away.

There’s still a lot to do to get ready to move, and that’s putting pressure on the blog. Maybe there’ll be more time for updates once we have moved.