According to the Chinese zodiac (which is still used extensively in Japan), 2015 is the year of the sheep (or occasionally goat, depending on who you ask). That’s “Hitsujidoshi” 未年 in Japanese.
So how best to pay homage to this duodecennial event? Below are a few sheepish suggestions to get you started:
1. Climb the “Hill of Sheep”
Located to the southeastern side of Sapporo City on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is Histuji-ga-oka 羊ヶ丘: the “Hill of Sheep”. Though it’s generally pretty rare to see a sheep in Japan, here you’ll find them grazing on hillsides stretched out before you – an especially striking sight at sunset, when the fields turn gold in the dying light.
Whilst here, don’t forget to check out the bronze statue of Dr William S Clark, an American professor who was instrumental in establishing Hokkaido University, and whose advice to his students: “Boys, be ambitious”, is famous throughout Japan. Not particularly sheep-related, but interesting nonetheless.
2. Eat “Genghis Khan”
Not content with being the founder of the largest contiguous empire of all time, Genghis Khan also lent his name to a Japanese grilled mutton dish: “Jingisukan” ジンギスカン.
The dish consists of strips of mutton grilled on a dome-shaped metal grill in the centre of your table. The dish is so-named because in Japan, lamb is traditionally thought to have been the meat of choice among the Mongol forces, and the dome-shaped grill is meant to represent the soldiers’ helmets, which they supposedly used to cook their food.
You can find “Jingisukan” restaurants in various parts of Japan, but they are most common in Hokkaido – the only area of Japan where sheep continue to be farmed.
3. Go on a Wild Sheep Chase
Figuratively, of course. Delve into some of Japan’s finest contemporary literature and read “Hitsuji o meguru boken” 羊をめぐる冒険 – A Wild Sheep Chase – by Haruki Murakami.
First published in Japan in 1982, the book forms part of Murakami’s celebrated “Trilogy of the Rat” and won the Noma Literary Newcomer’s Prize that year. Combining elements of American and English literature, Japanese animism, mystery, magical realism and postmodernism; the novel follows its protagonist from Tokyo to Hokkaido on his hunt for a sheep that has not been seen for years and will give you an excellent introduction to one of Japan’s finest modern writers.
It is customary in Japan to send New Year cards, or “Nengajo”, to family, friends and business associates. Most people use nengajo sold by the Japan Postal Service with pre-printed, decorative postage stamps – and this year’s cards follow a very special sheep-related theme.
Whereas the Western zodiac runs on a twelve-month cycle, the Eastern zodiac cycles every twelve years – meaning that the last year of the sheep was in 2003. Accordingly, in 2003, the Japan Postal Service produced a card featuring a sheep knitting a scarf. Now, in 2015, their cards feature the same sheep, proudly wearing his finished scarf. This adorable story captured the heart of the world’s media, and has even appeared in international news!
On the Japan Postal Service website the following explanation appears: “The scarf, which was in the middle of being made twelve years ago, is now complete.” Cute!
5. Visit a goat cafe
A slightly tenuous one this, but what the heck. The Japanese are currently having a boom in pet cafes, popular in cities where residents do not have the space or the time to keep animals. First came cat cafes (sooo last season), then rabbits, and then it escalated to owls and eventually to its logical conclusion: goats.
Sakuragaoka, which we mentioned in a post some time ago, is one such cafe (in fact, to our knowledge, the only one), and is located in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. It is home to Sakura and Chocolat, two extremely cute goats who are available for customers to feed and pet.
Take your sheep on holiday…… not.
Hold the phone! Put down that sheep passport and step away from the easyjet website.
Contrary to a widespread report that appeared on Yahoo news a couple of years back, “Hotel Sheep”, an exclusive hotel where the rich sheep-lovers of Japan could check in their woolly companions while they went on holiday, was unfortunately a very well-executed and successful hoax. Which is, of course, a huge and continuing incovenience to sheep-lovers everywhere.
So unfortunately, 2015 may be the year of the sheep, but it is not yet the year to take little Shaun to Japan. Who knows, maybe in 2027?
There are of course plenty of non-sheep related places and reasons as to why you should make this years trip Japan here…and we haven’t even mentioned cherry blossom in spring, summer festivals, autumn leaves, great food, unique experiences and places etc etc.