Japan is a country, which, like many ancient Asian kingdoms, sealed itself off from the rest of the world for long periods of time, ironically following these with periods of violent expansion and conquest. In modern history, the Second World War concluded a period of horrific regional domination with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, forcing their unconditional surrender. Having risen from the ashes in its own unique way, Japan is now a huge producer and innovator of cars and technology which have impacted societies around the world in unprecedented ways.
The culture has unique iconic elements familiar even to outsiders: samurai, ninjas, geishas, karate, sushi. More recently, Japanese manga, anime, J-pop and video games have flooded the youth culture market. There is a great deal from both the ancient Japan and the modern that will no doubt fascinate your child.
For this day, center the following projects around the idea that you’re preparing to have a Japanese tea ceremony. Note that it isn’t entirely necessary to get all the details correct: the point is the idea of mindfulness and appreciation of beauty.
Start by painting your faces in the style of traditional Kabuki theatrical masks. There are many websites you can look to for inspiration such as this Pinterest page: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/446982331756372284/?lp=true
Ikebana is the traditional art of flower arrangement. The idea isn’t to take a crash course, but rather to take real, or even home-made paper flowers and place them harmoniously and artistically in a vase.
Calligraphy: you can make basic calligraphy-looking strokes using a small flat paintbrush. Teach your child to write their name kanji-style using only straight lines without turning their wrists. Make placemats for each member of the family.
Origami creatures are a lovely addition to any place setting. Don’t go out and buy expensive speciality paper, any square piece of paper will do (plain printing paper is good, newspaper and construction paper are respectively too thin and too thick…don’t ask me how I know.) Find instructions for basic beginner’s figures to try. This will be a challenge for a young child’s dexterity, so exercise patience.
Prepare green tea and, if you wish, a Japanese treat such as mochi. The recipe we used can be found here: https://www.japanesecooking101.com/sweet-mochi-recipe/. However, be careful: eat small bites and chew slowly to avoid choking (https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/mochi-the-deadly-japanese-snack/ )
Place a picnic blanket on the floor, prepare the place settings and sit down cross-legged to enjoy your ceremony.
If your child hasn’t done any martial arts, karate is an interesting place to start. Find videos teaching a few basic steps of karate. Also, Geronimo Stilton in The Karate Mouse (note, the author is officially listed as Geronimo Stilton, though I’m sure there may have been humans who helped)makes for a surprisingly informative read.
The Japanese don’t have a history of mathematics in quite the way the Ancient Greeks or the Maya did. However, one idea I liked was that monks would often leave elaborate math puzzles on temple walls for other monks to try and resolve. Naturally, these math puzzles were also esthetically beautiful. This gave me the idea of “stealth” math which I developed into the following game: instead of a boring old math book, you can turn a math lesson into a series of Ninja missions. Depending on your child’s age and abilities, you can have them run around the house collecting a series of numbers or envelopes with math puzzles. The challenge, of course, is that ninjas need to move without anyone hearing or seeing them, so this shouldn’t be a noisy game. Give your child a simplified, hand-drawn map of your house or apartment with Xs to show where the math puzzles are. Your child is then tasked with planning when and how to get into each room without anyone knowing and solve each puzzle. After solving it, they have to leave it in its original place for you to sneak around and correct afterwards. You can leave comments or even stickers in the envelopes. This game can take all day as you both have to wait until no-one is looking before you sneak off.
The games of Go and Sudoku also practice strategy and math.
As a teenager, I used to quite enjoy Sailor Moon, though Dragon Ball Z might have greater appeal for boys. No doubt your family will find their own favorite anime series.
Japanese cuisine is rich and varied. Depending on your cooking skills, you can find recipes ranging between easy and nearly impossible. Don’t overdo the wasabi.
The tea ceremony was great, because a lot of the fun of an event is the planning. The idea actually came from an experience we had when my mother came for a visit: my mother had brought Barbie and Ken dolls from Canada and we spent an entire day planning their wedding, including decorating the house, baking a cake and writing invitations to all of the other dolls. The wedding itself lasted about 15 minutes after all that, but it felt like a day well spent and we had lovely memories. I thought it might be nice to repeat the experience by spending the better part of the day preparing for the tea ceremony. My mother had already returned to Canada but Child’s Father joined us for the ceremony.
We had fun painting our faces, and Child insisted on doing her own, so we sat like a pair of theatre stars side by side in front of a mirror. I helped her with some of the more intricate flower designs. We practiced calligraphy, but at the time Child was deeply resentful of any attempt to teach her to read and write, so we didn’t linger on that part. Origami, too, was a failure. I, myself, can only make a frog well, and Child got frustrated trying to make her own and just wanted to watch me. So, I made a couple of frogs and we moved on. Ikebana was fun because we cut out flower petals out of different coloured paper and glued them into some nice flower arrangements. Most flowers have a Fibonacci number of petals (5,8,13, 21) so we got to review that idea. Later that afternoon on our walk, we counted flower petals on flowers rowing by the side of the road and found Fibonacci numbers every time.
Then I got to relax while Daddy was karate sensei (teacher). He taught her to count to ten in Japanese while practicing the moves. We had already read the Geronimo Stilton book over the previous week, and Child was interested in the karate lesson. Then again, she likes anything involving sanctioned kicking.
The math game, as described above, did take all day. But, truth be told, Child is the noisiest ninja ever and it took great acting on my part to pretend not to notice her stomping and crashing about. She got most of the math right, though, and loved the stickers she got for correct answers.
We both hate Sudoku and I didn’t have time to learn Go.
For dinner we had a simple teriyaki vegetable stir fry with rice which was quite nice.
Additional note: Last time we were in an airport, Child loudly (and rather embarrassingly) announced that the lady in line behind us must be Chinese because of her face. The lady leaned forward and kindly explained that she was Japanese. Child unhesitatingly placed her hands together, bowed and said “Konichiwa”!