If you are like most of our readers, you love both Japanese culture and cats. So do you know the Kagoneko blog? If not, you’re in for a treat today!

Kagoneko is a long-running photo blog about a very squinty-eyed cat named Shiro and his four feline friends in rural Kagoshima. Mostly it involves pictures of them with stuff balanced on their heads or paws and it is amazing, not just because the pictures are incredibly cute but because it provides a unique insight into Japanese culture and daily life.

Here are 10 of our favorite examples.

1. Setsubun

Setsubun is a holiday that falls on February 3, considered the last day before the start of spring in the traditional calendar. Kind of like spring cleaning in the West, the holiday is a time to clear the house, not of dust, but of bad spirits! Like Shiro here, one family member sports a mask representing an oni or devil, while the other members chuck handfuls of dried beans at them to drive them out of the home, shouting oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (Bad luck out! Good luck in!).

On top of Chibi’s head is a masu, a wooden box traditionally used to measure rice, but now more well-known as a sake drinking implement. You can buy masu filled with beans at any supermarket ahead of setsubun, and it makes for a handy container when you are running around in bean-chucking mode. Once all that fun is over, you are supposed to pick up and eat the same number of beans as your age for good health in the coming year, but I think that tradition was probably started by moms tired of cleaning up the mess!

2. Cup ramen


As we mentioned last week, the Japanese are very proud of having invented cup noodles. Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods, invented the just-add-water meal back in 1958. In this photo, Shiro and Chatora are sporting Chicken Ramen containers, which was the first instant noodle brand and still a popular one in Japan.

3. Dried persimmons


Persimmons are a popular fall treat in Japan, though some varieties are so astringent they aren’t suitable to eat even when ripe. They don’t go to waste, though. These mouth-puckering persimmons are transformed into sweet delights called hoshigaki, a portmanteau of the words for dried (hoshi) and persimmon (kaki).

Basically, the persimmons are picked before they are ripe, peeled and then hung to dry outdoors for three to six weeks. Even in Tokyo, you can find persimmons hanging on verandas and out of windows during the season. The outside of the fruit gets covered with naturally crystallized sugar while the inside turns to a gooey, sweet mess. Delicious!

If you would like to make a batch of hoshigaki yourself, here is an excellent explanation in English from Kyoto Foodie.

▼Nobody touches Shiro’s hoshigaki.


4. Paper balloons (kamifuusen)


Just like the name suggests, kamifuusen (kami=paper, fuusen=balloon) are balloons made from sturdy waxed paper. One end has a hole you can blow into to inflate the balloon, and unlike rubber ones, you can collapse and re-inflate a kamifuusen many times. The most popular activity for these toys is a game of keepy uppy, where you try to keep the balloon airborne for as long as possible.

All kinds of cute designs and even animal shapes are available these days, but you can pick up a simple kamifuusen at the 100 yen store for a fun and cheap kids souvenir when you visit Japan!

5. Girls’ Day (Hinamatsuri)


Hinamatsuri, variously translated as Girls’ Day or Dolls’ Day, falls on March 3. It’s a day to celebrate female children and to pray for their health in the coming year. The major tradition surrounding hinamatsuri is the presentation of hina dolls, seen above in very basic form on top of Shiro’s head.

The hina dolls represent the imperial court and a traditional display includes not just the emperor and empress, but seven levels with a whole host of ladies in waiting, musicians, ministers and samurai, each with a specific meaning and attendant iconography.

▼ And some places just go bonkers.

Image: Soica2001 / Wikicommons

6. New Year’s Wreath (shimekazari)


Although Japan is now pretty big into Christmas, after December 25, the Santas and reindeer go away and the traditional new year decorations come out, including a wreath called the shimekazari that is supposed to keep out bad spirits and invite auspicious Shinto gods called toshigami inside. You’ll see various designs, all incorporating some basic symbolic elements. The wreaths are made from a rice straw rope and white paper strips called shide that mark the border of a purified space. Pine fronds represent longevity, plum blossoms steadfastness and small oranges the continuation of the family line. Fish and lobster are also common elements, but surprisingly not in Shiro’s choice of wreath!

7. Temari ball


Like the kamifuusen, a temari (literally “hand ball”) is a traditional toy in Japan, though they originally come from China. In the old days, temari were made from scraps of kimono and given to children on New Year’s Day. Inside the tightly wound scraps, a mother would include a bit of paper on which she had written a wish for her child.

These days, plastic and rubber versions have largely supplanted temari as actual toys, but artistic decorative versions are enjoying a resurgence.

▼ Decorative temari

800px-Japanese_folk_art;_Temari;手鞠Image: Conveyor belt sushi / Wikicommons

8. Naturally freeze-dried tofu (shimidofu)


Like hoshigaki, shimidofu uses nature to preserve an otherwise perishable food. Slices of tofu are hung outside, where cold winds naturally freeze dry them. It’s also sometimes called koyadofu, after the monks who invented the process.

Adding some hot water softens the tofu up again when you are ready to use it for cooking.

  9. Carp streamers (koinobori)


Koinobori are part of the decorations for Children’s Day, celebrated on May 5. Traditionally, these carp streamers represented the males in a household with male children. The top carp would be black, representing the father, with a red carp below for the eldest son, then blue, green, purple and orange carp for younger sons. However, when the government changed the May 5 holiday from Boys’ Day to Children’s Day, the symbolism of the carp similarly expanded. Now the second carp is said to represent the mother and sometimes appears in pink, and daughters can be given a carp as well. Hooray for evolving gender norms!

10. Bamboo leaf boats (sasabune)


Japan, the country that brought us origami, unsurprisingly loves to fold stuff. That love extends to bamboo leaves, which are a surprisingly versatile medium for cheap all-natural toys, including this traditional toy boat called sasabune. The waxy texture of the leaves works pretty well as waterproofing, so these simple boats actually float. Children’s impulses being pretty universal, I probably don’t have to tell you that racing your friend’s boat down the river is a popular use.

Want to try it yourself? Instructions here.

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Images Kagoneko, except where noted