Lego Adventures with my Daughter


Earlier this year, I posted about my daugther’s legos and the stories she makes. My daughter and I play with Legos almost daily, and the stories and characters have changed over time. I own some Star Wars legos, and Pirates of the Carribean legos, plus a few others. She likes to mix my legos with her Lego Friends series and make a big Lego “village”.

For example, one of the girl legos is the “Queen” and “President”:

Lego President

She doesn’t really understand the difference between “queen” and “president”, so she thinks they are the same. Also, she changes presidents often. My Lego Star Wars storm-troopers are the helpers (they’re good, not evil). Here, the current president is enjoying a salad. Her two babies are in the front of the photo.

Also, here’s the former president eating dinner with her husband:

Legos Dining

The husband is my Lego figure, but she likes to make my Lego characters (usually male) marry her legos. She made the house and everything herself. They have a baby too. You can see it in the blue box on the left.

In another story, there is a Lego garbage collector (something I bought from the Lego Movie), who has a crush on one of the lego girls, but is too shy to say anything. These are the kinds of stories she likes to make. :)

Further, she will have large community events too. Here, the Queen/President organized a concert for the town:


For some reason, the Lego Friends series has been controversial among some people, but at least in my daughter’s case she has been able to make it work. For her, she enjoys being a girl, but also enjoys being a leader too and having “girl” Legos be friends with “boy” Legos.

I think adults can learn a lot from children, instead of arguing with one another.

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Meiji Shrine Fortune-Poem


My wife and I like to visit Meiji Shrine in Tokyo often. Last year, my wife was having Yakudoshi right now (maeyaku, yakudoshi, atoyaku), so she went there to get purified and avoid potential calamity. I like going just because it’s a very nice Shinto shrine.

Normally, when you visit Shinto Shrines in Japan1 you can get your fortune for the year told. This is called omikuji and I’ve posted about it before.

However, Meiji Shrine is somewhat unusual because the fortunes you receive are not really fortunes. This is the “fortune” I received:


This is actually a poem written by Empress Shoken (shōken kōtaigō 昭憲皇太后) who was the wife of Emperor Meiji. In fact all the omikuji fortunes are written by either the Emperor or Empress.

The shrine’s website explains why: Before the war (WWII?), Meiji Shrine only sold ofuda, the sacred tablets used in Shinto. They did not have omikuji at all. However, after the war, the shrine wanted to provide more religious teachings, and decided to make a unique form of omikuji that would distinguish them from mundane temples and shrines. A professor of religious studies from the Shinto-based Kokugakuin University named Miyaji Naokazu came up with the idea to get rid of omikuji based on good or bad fortunes, and provide something with deeper meaning.

The Emperor and Empress wrote tens of thousands of poems each, but the shrine selected 15 poems each that were felt to have deeper meaning and these became the omikuji used today. Additionally, because there are more foreign visitors than before, there are now omikuji available in English too. These are from 20 poems selected, 10 from the Emperor and 10 from the Empress.

As for the poem I got, here it is:

人知れず Hito shirezu
思ふこころの Omou kokoro no
よしあしも Yoshi ashi mo
照し分くらむ Terashi wakaran
天地のかみ Tenchi no kami

I looked it up in Japanese (no translations in English, as far as I know), and it seems to be about how humans cannot know what is in each other’s hearts. We think these are private thoughts. However the heavenly gods know.

I might be wrong though. If anyone has information, please feel free to share.

Anyhow, I think it’s a cool idea to use poetry, not fortunes, for the omikuji at Meiji Shrine. If you go sometime, definitely spend the money on omikuji. Based on personal experience, some temples or shrines seem to “rig” their omikuji, so that people rarely have bad luck, or often have really good fortunes. The Meiji Shrine’s approach seems more genuine, which I think is cool. :)

1 I think Buddhist temples sometimes do this, depending on the sect. Shingon, esoteric Buddhism, is particularly eclectic, so you can see it there, for example.

Posted in Japan, Japanese, Literature, Travel | Leave a comment

Understanding Ofuda


Today is a double-post again. It’s the New Year and many people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan (and overseas), and often buy something called ofuda (お札). Formally, they are called shinsatsu (神札), but people almost always call them ofuda. Ofuda are typically long, flat tablets made of paper, wood, or a little of both.

Here is a simple ofuda I bought a few years ago at Yushima Tenmangu:

Do It Yourself Kamidana

Sometimes you see more unusual shapes, like this one from the famous Ise Grand Shrine (ise jingū 伊勢神宮). A friend gave us this one recently:

Ise Shrine Ofuda

This one is a folded piece of white paper with an inscription inside. Plus there is a small thin stick wrapped in a white ribbon.

Like omamori (small charms you can purchase at a temple/shrine), ofuda are said to contain the essence of the Shinto/Buddhist deity in question. In Shinto, it is believed that a kami can divide and multiply ad infinitum.

In a Buddhist context, deities can project themselves wherever they are needed.1 So, the ofuda represents a projection of that deity. Ofuda seem most common at Shingon-sect (真言宗) temples based on limited personal experience. You seldom find them in certain other Buddhist sects such as Jodo Shinshu.

Ofuda are much larger than omamori typically. Also, unlike omamori, they are often used as a centerpiece for a home Shinto shrine or kamidana. This is not required. Often, when people buy ofuda, they just put them on display in the house, but for the devout, you can use it as a devotional object in Shinto. You can also use them as a centerpiece for a Buddhist altar too, in some cases.

To confuse matters, some omamori look like ofuda. How can you tell the difference?

Even Japanese people get confused. There are a lot of sites that answer this question. One website explains it like so (apologies if I mis-translated):

  • Ofuda provide protection for the whole household (safety and health at home), or just embody the deity in question.
  • Omamori are for things that are more personal and near-and-dear to the person: protection from car-accidents, success in school, etc. You keep omamori on your person.

If you are not sure, you can ask the temple/shrine you received it from. They know best.

The important thing is to not enshrine an omamori.

Anyhow, assuming you have an ofuda, the process for enshrining the ofuda is pretty much the same, regardless of Shinto or Buddhism:

  1. Place the ofuda facing south or west. This means its back is facing north/east. In some websites, south is the preferred direction, but west is fine too.
  2. If you have a kamidana (home Shinto shrine, 神棚) or butsudan (home Buddhist altar, 仏壇) place it in center. If the butsudan already has a central figure (a honzon 本尊), place it to the side and slightly below.
  3. If you don’t have a shrine/altar, you can also do the following:
    • Place it on a high, clean, well-lit area, where people tend to congregate. A bookshelf for example.
    • Place a clean, white sheet of paper, folded in half, underneath it, or a clean white cloth like a handkerchief.
    • Install the ofuda there.
  4. You can offer things like water, a small cup or rice (or any grain, or even breakfast-cereal for us Americans).
  5. When paying respects:
    • In Shinto bow twice, clap twice, think or say something and then bow once more.
    • In Buddhism, put your hands together near your heart and bow.
  6. Keep it neat and tidy from time to time.

But as I said this is all optional. If the only thing you do is place it in a well-lit area on top of a clean folded paper or handkerchief and leave it, that’s enough for most people.

Also, like omamori, they should be returned yearly if possible for ritual disposal. This is just a courtesy. People sometimes keep ofuda for years and forget to return them. I kept the ofuda above for 3 years because I had no chance to return it. Finally, I took it to a different temple for disposal. But the polite thing is to return them after a year as a gesture of gratitude where possible.

This process of yearly renewal is an important of Japanese religion regardless of whether it’s Buddhism or Shinto.

Anyhow, that’s a brief look at ofuda in Japanese religion. Thanks and happy new year!

1 The Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra provides a dramatic example of this.

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Shinto | 1 Comment

Japanese Buddhist Memorial Objects


As part of my training for ordination as a Buddhist lay-minister, I am learning more about Buddhist funeral services and how things work. One of the things the minister showed me is memorial objects: objects used to commemorate the deceased, and pay respects.

People everywhere pay respects to the dead, but in East Asian culture, due to influence of Confucius, this is often more elaborate than Western culture. Buddhist religion in Japan has taken on the role of providing funeral services, so besides Confucian respect for the ancestors, there are a lot of Buddhist elements too.

Posthumous Name

In Japanese-Buddhism, when a lay-person dies, they are given a Buddhist name. This is usually called kaimyō (戒名, “precept name”) or sometimes hōmyō (法名, “Dharma name”).

From what I understand, in other Buddhist traditions such names are given when a person formally becomes a Buddhist disciple or becomes ordained. In Japan, lay people usually recieve a Buddhist name upon death. In any case, when someone receives a Buddhist name, it symbolizes a karmic connection with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The person is now formally part of the community, and has hope to someday cross the turbulent ocean of life and death, the ups and downs of life, to the shore of Enlightenment.

Different temples, different sects and different priests have their own methods for deciding a Buddhist name for someone who’s died, but it’s important that they get a name, because that is what gets inscribed on funeral tablets for the home altar.

Funeral Tablets

Funeral tables, or ihai (位牌) seem to come in a large variety. These are often placed in a Buddhist home altar near the central image of the Buddha. Sometimes people offer incense, prayers, food and so on, especially around Obon Season but also Ohigan and other such times.

These examples below are unused tablets that the minister showed me, and have no real names written on them. He gave permission to photograph.

This is the tablet people typically see:


The Buddhist name is written on the front in Chinese-calligraphy. Interestingly, for Japanese-Americans, the name is also translated on the reverse side into English or Romanized-Japanese (romaji):


Sometimes people also have boxes like this:


These can be used to store more than one tablet by removing the lid. Unlike the ihai tablets above, the tablets inside are much smaller and only sheets of wood, but as you can see here, they can be stacked behind one another like so:


This lets you rotate the tablets so that if you want to pay homage to a particular ancestor, you just move their “tablet” to the front and open the door. Maybe for a death anniversary or something.

Finally, relatives might keep a book of names like so:


On each page, the Buddhist-name of a deceased ancestor can be written here:


Why So Elaborate?

Western Buddhists, who are unfamiliar with these traditions, may be confused or offended, because they prefer Buddhism to have less ritual and less “cultural” influence.1 But I learned a lot about this years ago after my wife’s uncle died from leukemia. Years later, we visited his home in Tochigi Prefecture. It was my first visit. Like most Japanese home, his family had a small Buddhist altar, with a framed photo of my wife’s uncle. On that visit, even though years had passed, we lit a stick of incense in the family Buddhist altar, put our hands together and bowed our heads. Even now, when we visit, we still do this out of respect because his death was a tragic loss for the whole family. He was a highly respected man and a good father/husband.

We don’t usually do something this elaborate in American culture, so I was a bit confused at first, but once I got used to the process, it made a lot of sense. The uncle had been a positive influence. Years later, you can still feel a sense of loss. So, for Japanese culture, this is how people remember someone who passed, and Buddhism the religion helps provide a framework for doing this. Even for Japanese who are not religious, it helps bring them together to remember those who passed away.

It’s not unlike leaving flowers on a grave in Western culture, but that ritual is usually in a Christian/Jewish framework because people are culturally Judaeo-Christian. People in Japan are culturally Buddhist.

So, the religious aspect gives people a way to express their loss in a constructive way. People in every culture have felt loss of loved ones, but it’s interesting how religion is used to express this loss, and help remember the dead.

I hope to write more about this in the future as I continue training.

P.S. There’s a humorous site that let’s you randomly generate your own Japanese Buddhist name for funerals. It’s not

1 Ironically, American Buddhist-culture is really just Western-Protestant influenced Buddhism.

Posted in Buddhism, Confucius, Japan, Religion | Leave a comment

New Year 2015 Wrap-up

Hi Everyone,


Happy 2015 everyone!

The last two weeks were very hectic. We celebrated Christmas at our house, followed by my daughter’s 8th birthday (yay), and then Japanese New Year or oshōgates. This post is a summary of the last two weeks. :)

First, we enjoyed Christmas. We had family over in the morning, and in the afternoon friends came over. Many of our friends are from Japan or Korea, and they don’t have family in the US. So we are like a family to each other. Princess and Little Guy both received many gifts. Here’s Little Guy enjoying his new toy, a plane from the movie Planes that plays music and lights up:


He also got two plush-animals (nuigurumi ぬいぐるみ). He’s obsessed with dogs, so we got him a dog and a fox, which you can see below. When he sees a dog on TV, or in real life, he starts barking like a dog. :)

My daughter made a note for Santa on Christmas Eve, and left cookies by the Christmas tree:



However, she is starting to ask a lot of questions about Santa, so I think she will figure out the truth by next year. :-/ I was around 8 years old when I figured out that Santa wasn’t real too, so it’s normal.

After Christmas, we were invited by a friend of a friend to their house for a kochi-pounding party or mochitsuki (餅つき). Mochi is Japanese rice-cakes made from a special type of rice (not typical white rice). Traditionally, you had to pound mochi using a mallet (kine 杵) and mortar (usu 臼). Another person has to constantly wet the rice and rotate it. It’s important to keep a steady rhythm so you don’t hit the other person’s hand. The mallet is heavy, but once you get into rhythm, the process is pretty easy. You can even pound mochi as a group: people go around in a circle, taking turns pounding mochi.

Here’s me doing it:


We got to take home lots of mochi. Some of it was stuffed with ankō (餡子), which is red-bean paste. Other mochi had yomogi mixed it to make it more green.

After this, we celebrated Princess’s 8th birthday!

Lego Birthday Set

My wife and I can’t believe it’s been 8 years! Here’s the earliest post about her (1 year after she was born, the picture in the blog post is lost). This year, she wanted to buy some Legos (more about that soon), and go ice-skating. Mommy and Little Guy couldn’t go ice-skating because Little Guy is too young. So I took my daughter. I haven’t skated in 20 years! Both of us just went around the ice rink very slowly.

Finally, I started to get better at skating, but then I slipped twice and fell on my back. Each time, I hit my head on the ice, which hurt. It was just like this scene from the movie Home Alone:


After this, my daughter and I gave up and went home. We got a cake at a nearby Korean bakery,1 and had a fun evening at home eating, dancing to Michael Jackson, and such. :)

Finally came New Year’s. I was stuck working New Year’s Eve until about 8pm. We watched the famous Japanese TV special, Kōhaku, which we can get through cable-TV. Kohaku is about 5 hours, and I never watch the whole thing though. Usually all the good acts are near the beginning, and then things start to get boring toward the second-half. A lot of it is things that only Japanese-people would know or enjoy, so I start to lose interest. Also, I had to do dishes, and clean the house before everyone went to bed.

New Year’s Day was quiet and relaxing. My wife made a small New Year’s dish (osechi-ryōri おせち料理) with a baked tai (鯛) fish, and ozōni soup:



In the past, when we eat osechi-ryori, we make too much, so it goes to waste. Some things are eaten very quickly, some things just sit in the refrigerator for a week. So, this year, we only made a small amount. It was very good, and was eaten all up.

I had to work (again) in the morning, but in the afternoon, we went to the same Shingon Buddhist temple in the city of Redmond we go every year for Hatsumōde: the first temple visit of the year. Homepage here. I know one of the priests there from the days of E-Sangha, an old Buddhist forum that no longer exists. He is a good guy, and we enjoy catching up every year.

We participated in a Shingon ritual to help purify us of negative karma, and to bless us for the new year. We exchanged our old ofuda and omamori for new ones. My wife is no longer under Yakudoshi, so we didn’t have to worry about purification. I returned my old ofuda of Tenjin I got from Yushima Tenmangu, but haven’t got a new one yet. I’ll do that next time I’m in Japan (more on why in an upcoming post).

Finally, we drove home. This was a beautiful sunset I photographed from the car while driving across the 520-bridge:


Speaking of nice views, friends in Japan sent me another photo, this time of Mount Fuji as seen from Enoshima on New Year’s morning (gantan 元旦):


The last two weeks were very fun, but we are exhausted. It will be nice to return to our normal routine on Monday when Princess goes back to school, and I go back to work on a normal schedule.

As for New Year’s, I have a couple resolutions I hope to share soon. Stay tuned!

P.S. For the first dream of the year, I dreamt about work. :-/

P.P.S. 写真はまたありがとうございます。:)

P.P.P.S. The lego birthday set above is sold by Lego. It’s very cute. We bought another set for Little Guy for his 2nd birthday later this year. :)

1 American cakes are sickly-sweet, and not very good quality. So, we like to buy cakes from Asian bakeries (Chinese, Korean, etc). They taste much better for about the same price. The difference is the ingredients and quality.

Posted in Buddhism, Family, Food, Japan, Shingon | 2 Comments

The Years Gone By

Kitagawa Utamaro ukiyo-e woodblock print


I talked about the Kokinshu poetry collection recently, and since it is the end of the year (nenmatsu 年末 for you language-students ;) ), I wanted to share some fitting poetry. This is poem 342 in the Kokinshu, and the final poem in the Book of Winter:

ゆくとしの Yuku toshi no
おしくもあるかな oshiku mo aru kana
ますかゞみ masu kagami
みるかげさへに miru kage sae ni
くれぬとおもへば kurenu to omoeba

Which Professor Laurel Rodd translates as:

the passing year too
leaves regrets as it departs—
in the clear mirror
the reflection dims as I
think of time now gone by.

This poem was composed by Ki no Tsurayuki himself, the man who led the compilation of the Kokinshu. This poem is a somewhat tragic sounding, so I found another poem that is similar, but with a different message. This is poem 903 from the Book of Miscellaneous Poems by Fujiwara no Toshiyuki:

老いぬとて Oinu to te
などか我が身を nado ka waga mi wo
せめきけむ semekiken
老いずは今日に oizuba kyou ni
あはましものか awamashi mono ka

Which Professor Laurel Rodd translated as:

Why should I berate
my aging body complain
of growing older —
if we did not age would I
ever have known this blessed day.

Happy New Year!

Posted in Japan, Poetry | Leave a comment

Mount Fuji in Winter

As a final post for 2014 (maybe), I wanted to share a photo a friend submitted from Japan:

Mount Fuji from Shizuoka Prefecture

This was a photo of Mount Fuji taken from a town in Shizuoka Prefecture.

During the night of Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year), it is said that if you dream about Mount Fuji, a hawk and an eggplant, you will have great fortune during the coming year. This first dream of the year, hatsuyume (初夢), has a simple way to remember: Ichi-Fuji, Ni-Taka, San-Nasubi (一富士、二鷹、三茄子).

  1. Mount Fuji (富士)
  2. A Hawk (鷹)
  3. An Eggplant (茄子)

Hopefully some of you will at least dream about Mount Fuji now. ;)

Happy New Year Everyone!

P.S. ”C”ーちゃん、写真は送ってくださってありがとうございます。

Posted in Japan, Travel | 2 Comments