30 foot High Bonfires

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the local elementary school, the scene of some of my recent posts.  As I prepped with the teacher, she asked me to finish my second class 5 minutes early.  Something about everyone going outside for dondoyaki.

Dondoyaki… hmm… what’s that?? I started processing it to try to figure out the meaning.

Takoyaki- Octopus batter balls

Yakiniku- Grilled meat

Yakitori- Grilled chicken

My best guess: grilled something.  Must be food. Grilled seafood of some sort?

After the first two classes, I came back to the office for my break.  One of the office staff encouraged me to grab my coat and head outside.  “It’s Japanese culture.”

Ok- new piece of the puzzle: it’s related to Japanese culture.  A New Years food perhaps?

In the middle of the schoolyard, there looked to be cherry-shaped bunch of pine-branches standing some 30 feet tall, with ropes holding the top of the “cherry stem” into the air.  Here and there were adornments and also at the bottom there seemed to be many pieces of paper with black calligraphy characters on them.

No sight nor smell of food anywhere.

After all the students gathered in a huge circle, a massive fire was lit and naturally everything was enveloped in flames.  Even from my distance, I could feel the wave of heat. Huge pops and cracks occasionally startled me, which I later found out was the bamboo cracking on the inside of the bonfire.  Clouds of ash rose to the sky and some students and moms collected some of the pieces of bigger ash that fell to the ground.

As I headed back to the office to wait for the students to pick me up for my next class, I knew it was time to do my research.  What was this that I’d just observed?

Dondoyaki is the Japanese tradition of burning all the New Year decorations and the lucky charms bought at the temple that hold the zodiac of the previous year.  Apparently it’s the only way to dispose of these things, as it’s extremely bad luck and bad taste to just throw them away.

Some even say that if you scatter the ash on your crop,that it will be more plentiful or lucky or such. And you’ll grow younger if you warm your hands by the fire.  Some people even roast mikans (mandarin oranges) and mochi by the fire.

So… see!  I was right– it did involve food in some aspect!


The Japanese language can be ambiguous at times.  Maybe many times.  Often, the subject is left unsaid, because people get the gist (hm… didn’t know that was spelt with a “g”) of who is doing what.  Unlike Spanish, the conjugated verb doesn’t tell who’s doing it.  So, if you miss the beginning of the conversation, for a learner, it could be challenging to find out what’s going on.

No, this is not a language lesson, but a cultural lesson.  Really? you ask.

Yes. Language absolutely reflects culture and subculture, no matter where you go. I’m sure someone else has said it, but if they haven’t, remember to quote me on it.

I was recently with two friends.  One in particular I have a lot of difficulty understanding.  I have no idea why, I just can’t seem to catch her.  She’s a Tokyoite, so I’m not sure what the deal is.  I actually feel a bit sad about it.  The other friend has spent some time overseas, so I’m sure that helps me when she’s communicating (she knows what I’m going to understand and what I’m not).

Anyway, friend 1 was saying something that I was working at grasping.  The wheels in my brain were working out of control to come to the conclusion of what she was getting at.

Friend two saw the steam rising slowly from my brain.

“Dakara….” she kindly stepped in. (“Therefore/because of that…”)


Like I hinted at before, there’s a huge part (exaggerated motions here) of language and culture here that’s all about what’s left unsaid.  What’s hinted at.  And to successfully understand the Japanese language [and people], ya’s gonna needsta know this.

1+1= …..

2.  You don’t need to say it.  But maybe in Japanese, it’s like 1+…..

For example, if you invite a friend to something or otherwise request something and the person uses the word “chotto” (a little), that’s usually a no.  EEEeeeeeck, screech the car, case closed.

Beside that, there is SO much about the grammar and phrases that the your language choice conveys the feeling behind it. You don’t even have to say the feeling, the phrase you choose communicates it all.

So, lately, I’ve been practicing my “dakara’s” with people.  What are they really saying here?  Is there something that is unsaid in this situation that they are hoping I catch?

I feel like I must look like an outfielder with baseballs flying all around while I’m just standing there, eyes straining at the air.

Let’s hope no concussions come out of this.