Transcreating Tokyo, part 20 – When two seasons crash into each other

Takeo Funabiki zooms in on the last two months of the Japanese year
Tori no Ichi festivals | Time Out Tokyo
By Time Out Tokyo Editors |

November and December are not a natural season, but a human season. If you go by temperatures, these two months correspond to early winter, but they’re more accurately defined by the feeling and atmosphere that suggest the year is about to come to an end.

Once January arrives, it feels like time flies all the way up to March, but the passing of time is felt especially acutely at the end of the year. To put it technically, this is because two types of time – ‘linear time’ and ‘cyclical time’ – crash into each other.

While linear time passes endlessly, never turning back or around, it’s helpless in the face of the new year, when things start all over again. This is particularly clear in Japanese, with ‘month 12’ (December) giving over to ‘month 1’ (January), not ‘month 13’. But before that happens, people look back and recount the current year. Unless that’s properly done, the cyclical character of time loses its meaning.

Rooster days

It’s all rather complicated, but let’s leave that bit for now and look at seasonal events in Tokyo during this time of the year. First up is the Tori no Ichi market and festival, which takes place in November. It’s celebrated on days of the rooster, one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, so it comes around every 12 days in this month.

Most years see two days of the rooster, but some have three – including 2017, with November 6, 18 and 30. Old folks’ wisdom says that fires are particularly prevalent in years with three Tori no Ichi dates (not that there’s any evidence to back this up). But returning to the point, having three such days makes the end of the year feel even more hectic than usual.

Some of the most famous Tori no Ichi markets are hosted by Asakusa’s Otori Shrine and Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku. Making your way through the crowds, you’ll notice dealers hawking colourful, decorative rakes known as kumade. You might have seen such rakes hung up near the ceiling at sushi restaurants – businesspeople rely on them for good luck and monetary fortune.

You can find more details online, but what you do need to know is that the crowding continues until late at night, food stalls are set up, and even those who just came to watch often end up buying miniature palm-sized kumade to take home. The fun part is when someone haggles successfully and the sellers start clapping rhythmically to celebrate the deal. That soundscape is sure to raise your spirits in the cold evening air.

Around 30 years ago, during the bubble era, TV stations used to cover Tori no Ichi live and – perhaps by chance, perhaps by design – a famous stock speculator would turn up, buy a kumade for ¥500,000 and be welcomed by an endless chorus of claps. That guy lost big later, though…

Shrine markets galore

Another similar, market-type festival worth a mention is the Hagoita-Ichi at Sensoji. Despite my family never caring much for traditional customs, when a girl was born to any of my relatives, my mother would buy the baby a hagoita (ornamental paddle) as a present. My two daughters also received theirs. When I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a paddle that couldn’t be used for its original purpose – the badminton-like hanetsuki game played by Edo-era children – so I had no interest in hagoita.

In my later years, I’d follow my students to the Hagoita-Ichi in Asakusa and found it not quite as buzzy as the Tori no Ichi. In fact, we visited at the end of the last day, so there were very few people browsing the remaining paddles. Some kimono-clad women were picking out theirs in the faint glow of a street light – a scene that felt like something out of the pre-war era.

Such market festivals were originally held irregularly on shrine and temple grounds to attract crowds. Among these, the last one of the year, the Toshi no Ichi, comes at the very end of the annual cycle and was popular among everyone from the rich to the poor, all of whom would go to buy essentials to use during the upcoming year.

In Setagaya, where I was raised, the local market is known as Boroichi – a less than honourable name that literally means ‘shabby market’. Edo-era urbanites would attend it to buy secondhand clothing, but my first visit was around the time when I first entered elementary school. Following my sister, I was surprised by the hustle and bustle and laughed at the jokes of some street stall vendor until I could barely move. Such year-end memories make you all warm and fuzzy inside.

Thinking of more examples, one notices that a market atmosphere takes over most of Tokyo during this time of the year, with people doing their New Year’s shopping at Tsukiji or the Ameyoko arcade – not to mention the obligatory Christmas sales. If ‘month 13’ followed months 11 and 12, it would be hard to understand such a sudden impulse to shop. It has to be the feeling that something is about to end that motivates people to hurry up and spend money.

Thoughts of darker days

With winter setting in and the days slowly getting longer, natural phenomena obviously work behind the scenes – natural seasons dictate human seasons, after all. The human response to the growing cold and darkness is to fill one’s body with vigour, so it is perhaps instructive to think of this season as one where human and natural phenomena blend seamlessly into one.

‘Hot tofu

glimmer in the darkness

of an ending life’

In addition to slipping in a reference to hot tofu, this masterpiece of a (loosely translated) haiku by the poet Mantaro Kubota is most remarkable due to its treatment of both cyclical time and the ‘end of life’, a fearsome, final symbol of the spring that may never return.

Still, that moment when one tries to lift up a bit of white hot tofu with one’s chopsticks, in the faint light of a tea room or small tatami dwelling, is when one can perceive the end, eternity, in what or whom one has spent an entire year together with. He, she or it seems so real, but actually exists only in one’s memories.


Takeo Funabiki
Cultural anthropologist 
1948, born in Tokyo 
1972, BA, University of Tokyo, Faculty of Liberal Arts 
1982, PhD in anthropology, Cambridge University, Graduate School of Social Anthropology
1983, University of Tokyo, College of Arts and Sciences, lecturer
1994, Professor
1996, University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, professor
2012, retired from the Graduate School, Professor Emeritus 

Field work conducted in Hawaii, Tahiti, Japan (Yamagata Shonaiheiya), East Asia (China, Korea) and Melanesia/Polynesia (Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea). Professional interests include 1) mechanism of mutual interference of human culture and nature, 2) the representations of ritual and theatre, and 3) changes in culture and society that occur during the course of modernisation.

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