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SHIRASAGI NO MAI
The Shirasagi no Mai, or White Heron Dance, dates back to the Heian period and embodies the slow and graceful movements of that time. The dance was restored in November of 1968 by the Asakusa Tourist Federation to commemorate Tokyo’s 100th Anniversary as the capital of Japan. The parade includes a lineup of 3 warriors, 1 pole carrier, 1 feeder, 1 parasol carrier, 8 white herons, and 19 musicians, as well as guardian children dressed in traditional costumes. You can see the Shirasagi no Mai at Sensoji Temple in mid April.
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OSECHI
Osechi ryori is an assortment of colourful dishes packed into special boxes called jubako. Each dish has a meaning and symbolizes a wish for the coming year. According to tradition, nothing should be cooked on New Year’s Day, so osechi foods are prepared in advance and thus contain lots of sugar or vinegar to preserve them for a few days. Some traditional osechi ryori foods are: Kuromame (black soy beans seasoned with sugar and soy sauce), Kazunoko (herring roe), Kohaku Kamaboko (pink and white fishcakes), Kohaku Namasu (red and white vinegar daikon and carrots), and Konbu Maki (dried herring wrapped in seaweed).
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HAGOITA
A hagoita is a rectangular board with a handle, also known as a battledore, which is used for playing a New Year’s game called Hanetsuki. At the end of the year a Battledore Fair, called Hagoita-ichi, is held at Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. Fifty open-air stalls sell hagoita, shuttlecocks, kites, and other New Year decorations. Hagoita sold at Hagoita-ichi are not intended for practical use but rather as ornamental good-luck charms. They are elegantly decorated with images of Kabuki actors, popular celebrities, TV personalities, athletes, or anime characters. When a hagoita is sold at the fair, it is common practice for both the seller and buyer to rhythmically clap their hands together.
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NAGASAKI KUNCHI
With over 380 years of history, the Nagasaki Kunchi festival is listed as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. The festival is held every year from October 7-9 and features colourful costumes, parade floats and various dances such as the famous Dragon Dance. 59 towns, called odoricho, are divided into 7 groups and each group takes turns performing at the festival and showcasing their own unique traditions. Performances are divided into 3 categories: Honodori – traditional Japanese Dances, Hikimono – large boats which are pulled on wheels, and Katsugimono – performances with heavyset props such as the Dragon Dance, Kokkodesho, and Shachi Taiko drum performance.
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AOMORI NEBUTA MATSURI
The Nebuta Festival is one of the four largest festivals in the Tohoku region and was made an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1980. The festival runs from August 2 – August 7, and attracts as many as 3 million tourists each year. Large Nebuta lanterns depicting warriors in brave poses are wheeled through the city streets each night from August 2 – 6 and during the daytime on August 7. A fireworks show marks the end of the festival on the evening on the 7th and the floats are carried into the sea. During the parade, dancers wearing a costume called a haneto dance ahead of each float to hayashi music chanting "Rasse rasse".
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UKAI
Ukai, or Cormorant Fishing, is a 1300-year-old night-fishing practice used to catch small Japanese trout in the Nagara river in Gifu prefecture. The fishing season runs daily from May 11th to October 15th, except when waters are high due to heavy rain or during the harvest moon. Fishing masters, along with their helpers and pilots, use iron baskets filled with pine wood as flaming torches to guide the way and attract fish. Cormorants, tied to fishing masters with a rope, catch the fish and are brought back to the boat to release their catch. Ukai masters belong to the Imperial Household Agency and every year they send the first catch of the season to the emperor. The trade is inherited and continues to be passed down from father to son to this day.
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SASEBO KOMA
Affectionately known as the "Bouzu Koma", this fighting top is now only produced in the Sasebo region of Nagasaki Prefecture . The top is made of wood (usually Camellia and Oak) with shallow grooves carved into its upper parts. The grooves are painted bright red, green, and yellow, and sometimes black. The sharp tip is made of either wood or iron and designed to prolong the length of the top’s spin. To play, the rope is wrapped as tightly as possible starting at the tip to the upper section and then thrown to the ground directly above the opponent's top.
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TEMARI
Introduced to Japan in the 7th century, Temari were historically made from the remnants of old kimonos. The name "Temari" literally means "hand ball," denoting their use as a children's toy. They were originally constructed by wadding up pieces of silk into a ball and then wrapping the ball with strip of fabric. This eventually evolved into an art form as noblewomen began to compete with each other to create more and more detailed and decorative pieces. Temari are cherished gifts, often given to children by their parents on New Year's Day. Traditionally, mothers would write a wish for their child on a small piece of paper and then weave the paper into the ball as they made it.
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SHIISA
Often found in pairs, Shiisa are a traditional Ryukuan decoration from Okinawan mythology and a variation on Chinese guardian lions. They are placed on rooftops or flanking entrances to houses to protect the house from evil. When in pairs, the left guardian usually has a closed mouth to keep good spirits in, while the right one has its mouth open to scare evil spirits away.
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OSHIRASAMA
Oshirasama are protectors of the home in the northeastern region of Japan. Also known as Oshirabotoke or "Oshira Buddha," these guardian deities are commonly viewed as patrons of agriculture and silkworm production. They are represented by dolls made up of a foot-long Mulberry stick and layers of cloth called Osendaku. Faces or a horse’s head is carved or painted on one side of each stick.
Oshirasama are often enshrined in the alcove of a main room or on a kamidana altar. Their festival day, called Meinichi, falls on the 16th day of the 1st, 3rd, and 9th months of the lunar calendar, during which the dolls are removed from their shrine and presented with offerings before a new layer of osendaku cloth is added. On the Meinichi of the 3rd and 9th months, a female folk shaman is called to the home to perform a set of rituals.
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AWA ODORI
Awa Odori, the largest dance festival in Japan, attracts over 1.3 million tourists each year. The festival is held in Tokushima prefecture from the 12th-15th of August as part of the Obon festival. Groups of choreographed dancers and musicians make their way through the streets in traditional Obon costumes. During the day, the dancers perform a restrained dance called nagashi, which is followed by a spirited dance, called zomeki, at night. Men and women dance in slightly different styles. While they follow the same basic steps, the women's dance is a more restrained version of the men's and is performed in tight formation. The song associated with Awa Odori is called Awa Yoshikono, a local version of the popular song Yoshikono Bushi. Different parts of the song are either chanted or sung.
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TANABATA
Tanabata, the 'evening of the seventh', is the Japanese star festival celebrating the annual meeting of lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vegas and Altair). According to legend, the Milky Way separates the two and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month of the lunisolar calendar. The legend originates from the Chinese Festival to Plead for Skills and became mixed with various Obon traditions. Girls would wish for better sewing and craftsmanship while boys would wish for better handwriting. Today, the festival is celebrated by writing wishes on small pieces of paper called tanzaku and hanging them on bamboo. Large scale Tanabata festivals are held in many places in Japan, where large colourful streamers decorate the streets. The festivities and the celebration date vary from region to region, but Tanabata is usually celebrated in July or August and most festivals include a decorating competition.
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HINA MATSURI
Hina Matsuri, the Doll Festival, is celebrated on March 3rd for the healthy growth and happy future of girls. Families with daughters set up ornamental dolls on platforms covered with red carpet in February and take it down immediately after the 3rd. The dolls are arranged in a particular order and complete sets include many extra accessories. On the top tier are the Emperor and Empress in front of a gold folding screen. Below them are 3 court ladies with sake equipment. On the 3rd tier are 5 male musicians, followed by 2 ministers and finally 3 samurai protectors on the 5th tier. The 6th and 7th tiers are used for items such as furniture and tools used within and away from the palace.
Hina Matsuri originates from the Hina Nagashi ("doll floating") custom of the Heian period when straw hina dolls were believed to possess the power to contain bad spirits. The dolls are set on a boat and floated down a river to the sea, taking all troubles with them.
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NAMAHAGE
The Namahage is a demon-like creature which features prevalently in an annual New Year's tradition in Akita prefecture. On the 31st of December, young men don a demon mask and straw raincoat, and carry a pail and a weapon made of wood. They roar menacingly, dance around bonfires, play taiko drums and visit every house in the village, searching for lazy and disobedient children to drag away into the mountains. Once the children have been sufficiently chased around and frightened, parents assure the Namahage that there are no bad children in the house, and appease them with food and sake. The Namahage encourages the children to keep studying and working hard, and the children make a new year's resolution to behave. Finally, the Namahage wishes prosperity and good health on the family before moving on to the next house.
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DARUMA DOLLS
Daruma dolls are modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism, and are a symbol of perseverance and good luck. They are typically made of red papier-mâché and depict a bearded man with eyebrows in the shape of a crane to symbolize longevity. The bottom is weighted in such a way that it will always return to an upright position when tipped, symbolizing the ability to overcome adversity or misfortune.
Daruma dolls are often used for setting goals. They are frequently sold with blank white eyes - one eye is filled in when setting the goal, and the other when the goal has been accomplished. Right after New Year’s Day, the Daruma are brought back to the temple from which they were purchased and a traditional burning ceremony is held. Then new dolls are bought for the New Year and new goals are set.
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EMA
Ema are wooden plaques sold at Shinto shrines for making wishes. People buy Ema to write their prayers or wishes on them, and then hang them up on the designated rack at the shrine for the gods to receive them. The tradition began long ago, when people donated horses to the shrines for good favour. This eventually became wooden plaques with the picture of a horse on them (hence the name, which is written with the characters for picture (‘E’) and horse (‘MA’)). These days, shrines have all sorts of different images on their plaques, the sales of which help support the shrine financially. The most common reasons for buying an ema are; success in work, on exams, in marriage, for having children, or for good health.
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YOSAKOI
Literally meaning “come at night”, Yosakoi is an energetic dance performed by large teams of men and women of all ages, combining traditional Japanese dance moves with modern music. It began as a modern rendition of a traditional summer dance (Awa Odori) in the city of Kōchi in 1954, and is now featured in festivals all over Japan.
Dancers wear happi coats, yukata, or other costumes based on historical clothing or popular fashions, and carry small wooden clappers called Naruko. Groups can also use drums, flags, batons, floats and other props/instruments. The dance is based on a song by Takemasa Eisaku, called “Yosakoi Naruko Dancing”, which combines 3 different songs: a children’s song called “Yocchore”, a folk song called “Jinma-mo” and a song called “Yosakoi-bushi” (meaning Yosakoi melody).

The Yosakoi festival takes place in Kōchi city every August since 1954, and has featured over 10,000 dancers every year since 2005. The groups must follow 3 simple rules: groups may not be larger than 150 people, the musical arrangement must contain at least some part of the Yosakoi Naruko Dancing song, and all participants must use Naruko clappers.
June 2011
TENGU
Sometimes described as goblins or demons, Tengu are supernatural creatures commonly found in Japanese folklore. They are part bird and part human, depicted with wings and an avian head/beak or an unnaturally long nose, and often wearing the small black cap and pom-pommed sash of the yamabushi mountain ascetics. They sometimes possess a magical fan made of bird feathers, which can generate a great gust of wind or change the length of a person’s nose. Originally considered malicious spirits or ghosts, they are now thought of as mischievous protectors of the mountains and forests, but beware their sense of pride and vanity; the Japanese expression “Tengu ni naru” (to become a Tengu) is used to describe a conceited person.
March 2011
HAKODATE
Hakodate serves as the gateway to Hokkaido from Honshu, the main island. The old brick warehouses of Hakodate have been renovated into a stylish shopping district, and the historic Motomachi district has been preserved, showing the buildings as they were in the late 1890’s. The Asa-ichi morning market is an experience not to be missed, as fishermen bring their catch to market – the famous Hokkaido hairy crabs must be seen to be believed! Ride the cable car up Mount Hakodate for a spectacular nighttime view over the city, which may be one of the world's best.