Valentine's Day in Japan: what to expect?

red string is a symbol for love in Japan
The red string of destiny is a common metaphor in Japan for lovers’ fate

As with every other imported holiday, Japan puts its own twist on Valentine’s Day as well. If you are used to a variety of romantic gifts such as chocolates, candles, jewelry, special dinners, flowers and so on, you might be surprised that in Japan it’s chocolate only. In fact, chocolate companies make half their annual sales during Valentine’s season. But what Japan lacks in variety of Valentine’s Day gifts, it makes up in variety of chocolates. Around this time all shops and department stores are well stocked with chocolates, so even if you are not buying them as a gift, it’s worth buying them for yourself, as you can get your hands on limited edition varieties.

The history of Valentine’s Day in Japan

Unlike the Valentine’s Day celebrations in the West, in Japan, Valentine’s Day is not for couples exchanging gifts, it’s actually only the women who give chocolate to men. Before you start wondering if there is some sinister plot here, the anecdotal explanation is that when the holiday was imported in Japan it had the misfortune of being wrongly translated. At the time when not many people expressed feelings freely this giving of chocolates as a love confession was more than welcome. Decades later it’s part of Japanese culture and looks like it’s here to stay. But don’t think men are off the hook so easily. They have to prepare for a day called White Day.

black and white chocolates

What is White Day?

A response to Valentine’s day and a chance to even out things between men and women, White Day was established in 1978 and it falls exactly a month later, on March 14th. This is the chance for men to reciprocate the Valentine gifts and it is believed that true gentlemen double or triple the worth or amount of the gift they previously received. The name comes from one of the first marketing campaigns for this holiday when a Fukuoka company marketed marshmallows as the perfect gifts. Following that, white chocolate became a favorite, although nowadays men seem to give all kinds of chocolates. The official statement nowadays is that white as a color stands for sugar and therefore everything sweet. Some men are even getting closer to the Western tradition of Valentine gift-giving with opting to gift lingerie, jewelry, flowers and so on. You might be wondering why they don’t go for the ever popular romantic Valentine date, but that date traditionally for the Japanese happens on Christmas Eve.

white day gifts

Not all valentine chocolates are equal

The choice of chocolates that companies put out for Valentine’s Day is astounding, but there are also choices the gift-giver has to make. For starters, it is really important whether you are going to buy the chocolate or buy ingredients and tools to make chocolate from scratch. It doesn’t matter if you are a good cook or not, the stores have everything covered so that anyone can make chocolate. What matters is how much effort you want to put in your chocolate gift and usually hand-made chocolates mean a lot of love and attention.

handmade chocolate

That being said, you probably understand that this chocolate is not for everyone. But then again, Valentine’s is only for your significant other, right? Well, in Japan, yes and no. You give chocolates to more people and according to that the Valentine’s Day chocolate can be separated in three categories: honmei choco, giri choco and tomo choco. Let’s break down these chocolate conundrums one by one.

three different chocolates

1. Honmei choco (本命チョコ)

This translates as “real chocolate/real love chocolate” and as mentioned above it will probably be either hand-made or very luxurious and expensive. As the name suggests, this one is meant for the person you love or are in a relationship with and it is the closest custom to Valentine’s Day as it is known in the West. This year’s Valentine’s Day KitKat’s new unique ruby colored chocolate is said to be the most sought after.

handmade sweets

2. Giri choco (義理チョコ)

This translates as “obligatory/duty chocolate”, that is chocolate you give on Valentine’s as an obligation or a duty to men other than your love interest or significant other. These men are most often work colleagues or male family members. It’s a social obligation that probably came about because of the aspect of Japanese culture that values inclusion and a lot of people must have felt excluded if they didn’t get any chocolate. This obligation chocolate is the reason why honmei choco keeps getting more luxurious to set itself apart from giri choco which is usually store-bought and cheap, or a box of smaller chocolates passed around the office for everyone to take a piece.

chocolate heart

However, a lot of women dislike this outdated practice, rejoicing when Valentine’s Day falls on the weekend. Some bosses have recently formally banned obligatory chocolate and this year the luxury chocolate brand Godiva even ran an advertisement advising people to stop buying obligatory chocolate and preserve the special meaning of true feelings chocolate only. Who knows, maybe this custom is slowly on its way out of the culture.

assorted chocolates

3. Tomo choco (友チョコ)

The most recent type of Valentine’s Day chocolate giving is tomo choco or “friendship chocolate”. In the same vein of not excluding anyone, girls started giving Valentine’s chocolates to their girl friends just for fun. You can never have too much chocolate, right?

chocolate present

Finally, it’s common wisdom that opposites make a whole, so let’s not forget single people. Both on Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day it has been getting more and more popular to make singles’ parties on Valentine’s Day around Tokyo. So there is something for everyone to look forward to during Valentine season!

love in lipstick


WATTENTION NINJA WRITER PROFILE

Zoria April
Zoria is a writer, of the rare poet variety and a passionate photographer. If you see somebody around Tokyo taking photos of concrete walls, it must be her. She loves to dress fashionably and go drink as many cups of coffee as humanly possible, preferably in cafes with a view.MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Ninja ID: zoria

Setsubun and mamemaki: where to go to chase the demons out

soybeans for mamemaki 1
If you find yourself confused as to why suddenly local supermarkets and convenience stores are stocking up on baked soy beans and showcasing them along with some demonic creatures, don’t be, there is a whole tradition connected to it. February 3rd is Setsubun, a traditional festival marking the end of Winter and the first day of Spring according to the old lunar calendar. At this crossroads of seasons it is believed that evil spirits or “oni” roam around, so people have to throw roasted soybeans at an imaginary oni or someone wearing an oni mask while you shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” meaning “Demons out! Luck in!” to usher in the good luck.

bean-throwing ritual

soybeans for mamemaki

Among the setsubun activities that you cannot miss is to eat eho-maki, the most representative setsubun food. Eho-maki is a big sushi roll meant to be eaten whole and in silence while you are thinking of a wish and facing a lucky direction. Every year a different direction is believed to be auspicious and this year it is south-south-east. You should also eat the soybeans, but not all of them, rather the same number of beans as your age so that you have a good health during the year. This is all meant to bring good fortune and chase out the evil spirits lurking around. Of course, you can buy everything you need and do it at home, but you can also go and experience the tradition firsthand in any local shrine or temple. Just have in mind that the more well-known the place, the bigger the crowds.

eho maki and setsubun candy

Below, we introduce a couple of popular and interesting places to experience Setsubun in the Tokyo area.

1. Setsubun festival 2018 in Tokyo Tower – combined experiences

By attending the Setsubun Spiritual Cleansing Ritual and Mamemaki inside the Main Observatory of Tokyo Tower you will surely make the most of your day. Along with enjoying the view and visiting Tokyo Tower, you can experience this traditional ritual performed by priests from the nearby Zozoji temple, starting around 10:45 am and ending around 11 am. If by any chance you miss it or opt for Zojoji temple instead, the ritual there is held from 12 am to 1 pm the same day. Tokyo Tower will also offer sales of 333 Ehomaki rolls (¥1,000 tax included, comes with tea) to be eaten for good fortune. Participating in these rituals won’t cost you a thing, you only need to pay for the usual admission ticket for the main observatory at 150 meters height. So why don’t you enjoy Setsubun on top of Tokyo?

Tokyo tower and Zojoji temple collage

Address:4 Chome-2-8 Shibakōen, Minato-ku, Tokyo-to
Admission: for Main Observatory for adults 900 yen, junior high school students and primary school pupils: 500 yen, children 4 years old and over400 yen

2. Sensou-ji in Asakusa

Another great place to experience Setsubun is Sensou-ji in Asakusa. You can spend the rest of your day sightseeing in this Tokyo hotspot of culture and history and participate in the Setsubun rituals in one of the oldest temples in Tokyo. In Sensou-ji they don’t tell the demons to get out, they only tell luck to get in. That’s because they believe that the temple is already clean of demons. Here, you can see the dance of the Seven Lucky Gods from 2:30 pm and then see celebrities and athletes throwing not only soybeans but also candy and various prizes to the crowd from 4:00 pm. The sacred rituals are scheduled from 11:30 am and 1:30 pm followed by bean-throwing at 2 pm and 4 pm respectively.
To have a glimpse of the atmosphere, take a look at a video of last year’s Setsubun in Sensou-ji shared on social media.


A post shared by NACHU (@nachudesu1223) on

Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo-to

3. Naritasan Shinjoji temple in Chiba

This is a beautiful temple and a sightseeing spot in its own right. On the 3rd of February it will hold three bean-throwing ceremonies: 11 am, 1:30 pm, and 4 pm, each lasting for about 5 minutes. At this temple they don’t say ”Demon out” either, only “Luck in!” because it is believed that this temple’s deity is so merciful that it wants to give even demons a chance to repent and reform.

Shinshoji temple Chiba

Address:Chiba Prefecture, Narita, 1

4. Gojoten shrine in Ueno

This shrine is definitely not as big and famous as the ones mentioned before, but we recommend visiting it on Setsubun for its rare ceremony. In Gojoten shrine located in Ueno there is a ritual named Ukera-no-shinji (うけらの神事) and it is actually a short drama performance, a custom remaining from old times. This year the event will start at 3 pm and will be followed by a bean-throwing ceremony. Also unique to this temple, following the drama performance, is buying special ukera-mochi, which is mochi, a rice cake made out of sticky rice, mixed with the plant okera or ukera as an older form of the same word.


A post shared by えりな (@eeeerinaaa) on

Address: Tokyo-to, Taito-ku, Uenokoen, 4−17

5. Shimokitazawa parade – Setsubun on the streets

For something different try experiencing Setsubun in Shimokitazawa and their famous Tengu Parade. It starts at Shinryuji temple at 2 pm and then spills through the Shimokitazawa shopping streets enveloping the whole neighborhood with its atmosphere. Tengu are long-nosed demons from Japanese mythology so people participating in the parade wear Tengu masks. The parade will be back at the temple to do some more bean-throwing at 4 pm. Unlike the other Setsubu events, this one starts a day before, on the 2nd of February at 8 pm in the evening at the north exit of Shimokitazawa station. The main parade is the next day.

Shimokitazawa tengu matsuri 1

Shimokitazawa tengu matsuri 2

Address: 2 Chome-36-15 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo-to

Shimokitazawa being the bustling youth neighborhood that it is, we suggest you stick around and enjoy its atmosphere some more by ending the night drinking at some izakaya or Japanese pub. You chased the demons out, you deserve it!

oni mask


WATTENTION NINJA WRITER PROFILE

Zoria April
Zoria is a writer, of the rare poet variety and a passionate photographer. If you see somebody around Tokyo taking photos of concrete walls, it must be her. She loves to dress fashionably and go drink as many cups of coffee as humanly possible, preferably in cafes with a view.

MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Ninja ID: zoria