Every winter in New England's coastal areas it seems people feel compelled to rush into the icy ocean waters for a short swim. Well, I guess people are the same everywhere because in mid-December is Gifu's so-called "Purification Ceremony Festival," or as some like to call it, the naked festival, when a throng of little-clothed men go for a chilly dip.
Though a long-time resident of New England before heading to Japan, I prefer to skip such frigid affairs and stick to the warmth of too many layers of wool and down. But for those who want to see the cold reality of the festival in Gifu, then head there on Dec. 14 to Katsuragake Shrine as a bunch of guys wearing only loincloths dive into the Nagara River, not once, but three times, at 3 p.m., 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
After that, why not take a dip of your own inside the prefecture's Nagara River Hot Springs at the bottom of Mount Kinka. Now that's more like it.
Access: Take the Gifu bus (the C55 River Side Mall or the C36 Morera Gifu buses) from JR Gifu station to the Ikenoue stop.
Katsuo no tataki on the cheap from a grocery store. Photo © A.D. Smith
I guess it's better late than never, but the folks at UNESCO have finally dished out some good news for Japan: Traditional Japanese cuisine -- called washoku in Japanese -- has made the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has made official what many have known for ages: Japanese food is some of the best, most refined, in the world.
Here's a list of my favorite dishes and sides for the masses -- aside from sushi and sashimi -- that I recommend trying when you visit:
1. Katsuo no tataki: Seared, but raw bonito fish, a favorite in Kochi prefecture on Shikoku island.
2. Udon: Thick wheat noodles with a bit of chewiness, a favorite of Kagawa.
3. Rice: Yes, you haven't had rice until you've had Japanese short-grain rice. They say good sushi is all about the rice.
4. Okonomiyaki: People call this a kind of pancake, but it's not. It's shredded cabbage in fried doughy batter, with seafood or meat. It's kind of a traditional fast-food.
5. Nabe: A hearty hot pot dish with seafood, tofu, vegetables and other goodies.
6. Natto: Fermented soybeans. This dish even causes division in Japan among those who love and hate the beans. Some say they stink. I disagree.
7. Onigiri: Rice balls. Get them at convenience stores and savor the crispy seaweed wrapped around rice that's stuffed with a tasty pickled plum, bit of fish, or other filling.
8. Soba: Buckwheat noodles, especially popular in the northern areas of Japan.
9. Daifuku: Traditional gooey rice cakes with sweet red been paste inside.
The cashiers at grocery stores are wearing Santa hats, fake snowmen are decorating homes (a few, anyway) and Christmas lights are starting to twinkle around town. Yes, it's December in Japan and people are ordering up their Christmas cakes (that seems to be the result of someone's excellent marketing abilities). But the holiday is just one of the many things going on this month. Here's the line-up so far:
All-Japan Karate Championship, Dec. 7-8
Get your kicks, literally, at the All-Japan Karate Championship at the Tokyo Budokan Hall on Dec. 7-8.
Access and Address: Kudanshita Station on the Tokyo Metro Tozaisen line. Cost: 2,000 yen, or about $20, for both days.
Kyoto's Prayers for Better Sewing, Dec. 8
Sometimes putting this calendar together is like looking for a needle in a haystack; it's hard to find the right events. But this one just poked right out at me: It's a memorial service for needles at Kyoto's Kokuzo Horin Temple. Basically, you go there with your sewing needle to pray for better sewing skills and happiness for your family. Yes, there will be sake there -- but is it really a good idea to mix needles and alcohol? The event is from 1 to 2 p.m.
Access: Take the Kyoto City Bus #28 to Arashiyama Koen; Phone: 075-861-0069.
Osaka's Light Festival, Dec. 15-25
Osaka will literally light up with its winter Festival of Light that will decorate Osaka City Hall to Nakanoshima Park and Kensaki with vibrant yellow, white, pink and blue illuminations.
Access: Go to Yodoyabashi station, Kitahama station, Naniwabashi station or Oebashi station.
Sale Fest in Tokyo, Dec. 15
The Setagaya Boro-ichi fair is about to keep up its 430 years of tradition in Tokyo this Dec. 15 and 16 and Jan. 15 and 16. About 700 vendors will sell yummies, trinkets, toys, plants, antiques, clothing and more.
Access and Address: Click here.
Tokyo's Hagoita Fair, Dec. 17-19
Have you been naughty or nice? If you've been bad, stay away from this one: Several vendors selling ornamental wooden paddles get together at the Hagoita Fair at Sensoji Temple in Tokyo's Asakusa area. OK, no one will really be getting spanked, but the paddles -- often decorated with celebrities' mugs and kabuki performers -- are for kids to play with to whack away evil.
Address: Sensoji Temple, 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku.
Baby Metal Rocks Tokyo, Dec. 21
Japan has been criticized for lagging in job opportunities for women. But, apparently the gap has been closed when it comes to women in rock. See how the band Baby Metal is an equal-opportunity destroyer of every last bit of your eardrums with their screeching electric guitars, pounding drums, and confusion-inducing lyrics. The thrashers play Tokyo's Makuhari Messe International Convention Complex on Dec. 21 at 3 p.m. Tickets: 5,800 yen, or about $58.
Access: Click here for directions; 2-1, Nakase, Mihama-ku, Chiba, 261-0023; Phone: 43-296-0001.
Osaka's International House Friendship Party, Dec. 22
Connect with others in Osaka at this get-together at the Osaka International House.
Access: Take the subway to Shitenojimae Yuhigaoka station or Tanimachi 9-chome station. Costs 3,000 yen for adults and 2,000 yen for kids.
The world-famous Tsukiji Market
, where tuna is traded for big yen, will close its tours during the New Year's vacation time. The Tuna Auction Observation Area is closed
Dec. 2 to Jan. 18.