A traditional Japanese New Year's

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Thursday, January 4, 2007

Another year has come and gone, once again whirring past well before I expected it. Here it is 2007, and I've been living in Japan for nearly four years. I was recently made aware of an old student of mine from my first few weeks of working here. Back when I taught her, she was just getting ready to move to Dallas, Texas for university. The other day when I was teaching a friend of hers, I was informed that she was going to be finishing school in the spring and coming back to Japan. It struck me as funny at the time, as I thought it was early, but then it dawned on me: I've spent the same amount of time over here as most people do in college! Not sure why it hit me like a brick, but it did. It's certainly strange how quickly time can pass.

In any case, 2007 is still fresh and new at only four days old now. The New Year's celebrations were an intriguing affair and - though it wasn't the first time I spent the holiday in Japan - I finally feel like I got a very good insight into a typical Japanese shogatsu. I found it remarkable my first December here that nobody seemed to have any real plans for New Year's Eve. I imagined it would be the same affair that Western (and even non-Western) cultures have pumped it up to be. On the contrary, most everyone wants to stay at home with their family and watch television. In Japan, the only ones out boozing it up at the bars are homesick gaijin. This year, I was much better prepared, and in many regards it's actually preferable not to have all the pressure to do something grand and celebratory.

A standard custom for Japanese is osoji - a thorough cleaning of the home on (or just before) omisoji, or New Year's Eve. The idea is much like Western "spring cleaning," with the notion of starting the new year with a clean slate. In classic procrastination, Mayu and I got around to taking care of our own around 3pm on the 31st, despite needing to be in Kariya by early evening. Thanks to us having a fairly small place though, it wasn't an overly burdensome task. From then, we were off to her family's house for a classic New Year's feast.

While it's customary to eat soba (buckwheat noodles) or udon (handmade flour noodles) on New Year's Eve, many families accompany it with some other main dish. We had the caloric pleasure of yakiniku - basically the Japanese take on Korean barbecue. This, along with a couple trays of sushi and a few jubako (small lacquer boxes) of fresh osechi meant we had quite a spread awaiting us. Osechi are the main focus of the New Year's table and are generally eaten for the first three or four days of the new year (as well as on New Year's Eve sometimes). While their contents vary from region to region in Japan, certain dishes predominate: kuro-mame (sweet black beans), tatsukuri (small, dried herrings soaked in a sweet soy sauce mixture), konbu-maki (kelp wrapped around fish and bound with a strip of gourd), kazunoko (herring roe), date-maki (sweet egg mixed with fish paste), kurikinton (smashed sweet potato with chestnuts), and shrimp steamed in sake. In earlier times, these dishes were all prepared at home, but with the hectic schedules of modern, urban life in Japan, it's common for many families to purchase them from shops. Thanks to Mayu's grandmother's enthusiasm for cooking, however, we got to indulge in some true homestyle osechi.

I must admit, kazunoko is easily my least favorite kind of sushi. The rest of it though, was quite delicious. Mayu's mother and grandmother kept remarking about my surprising willingness to try and eat everything. I suppose that comes from years of growing up in a household where I couldn't leave the table until I cleaned my plate (even when it was meatloaf!). I figure it's all part of the greater experience though - if I don't end up liking something, I just don't need to have another serving. All that aside though, even with five people at the table, we were hard pressed to make a serious dent in all the food. It's a bit like Thanksgiving, I suppose, just with the menu turned all upside down.

After filling ourselves to the brim, we sat down for the big event of a modern Japanese New Year's Eve: the Red and White Show (Kohaku Uta Gassen). While its name may suggest an unusual fashion parade, in reality it's a grandiose blending of pop culture icons and celebrated enka artists in a sort of battle of the sexes. Musically, to me it's largely overproduced corporate drivel on the pop end (but that's pop music the world over, really), but some of the enka is really quite entertaining. Which is not to say it's wonderful music - most of it is ultra-melancholic sap of the sort rarely experienced outside of France or Korea - but it's a fascinating insight into the Japanese soul. It's also a great opportunity to see some lovely kimono (which Mayu's grandmother kept gawking over, incidentally). Even still, I had to keep my kanji book handy for something to do other than get stir-crazy from all the soulless J-pop. More importantly, it kept me from having to see bloody SMAP every three or four minutes.

Then, just after the stroke of midnight, we were off to the shrine. Were we going to any of Japan's major shrines - Yasaka-jinja, Ise-jingu, Izumo-taisha, Meiji-jingu - we would have been lined up in a veritable sea of people. Thankfully, the small shrine in that end of Kariya is a humble one and - though much more crowded than usual - it turned out to be an enjoyable, festive experience. A huge bonfire had been lit in the middle of the grounds and all around stood couples and families, many drinking amazake and/or having a bowl of shiruko (adzuki bean soup with mochi, or rice cakes). One by one, each group of visitors would shuffle up to the shrine altar to pray, walk to another booth to get a drink, and then meander over to watch the flames. A far more contemplative way to ring in the New Year than the big countdown, but just as memorable.

One of Mayu's old elementary school friends comes from a family that owns and runs a Buddhist temple. While shrines are a central part of New Year's celebrations, many Japanese also pay a visit to a temple to pray for the coming year. Low, resounding tones echoing from temple bells often echo across residential neighborhoods in the first hour of New Year's Day. Visitors are typically allowed to take turns ringing the bells themselves, up to the number 108 - symbolic of the 108 earthly temptations conceived of by Japanese Buddhists. Each of us got to ring the bell over at Mayu's friend's house, then stood around beside another bonfire chatting in the crisp first hours of January.

After a relaxed morning at her parent's house, I was able to coax Mayu into putting on one of her mother's fine old kimonos. Having never seen her in one (apart from in pictures), I was always eager for a good opportunity. With her grandmother there - she after all used to work in a kimono shop - there was no excuse this time. While I couldn't talk her into going for a stroll outside in it, I was able to get her to relax and let me shoot some photographs. Despite that small victory, I think I'd be hard-pressed to convince her to get done up as a maiko for a stroll around Kyoto.

Upon eating dinner in Kariya, we headed back home to Nagoya late on the 1st. As a final holiday experience, we hopped down to Nagoya's famous Atsuta-jingu on the 3rd, to see what crowds were still heading that way. We weren't disappointed by the turnout, for sure. The whole neighborhood around it was bustling with people, and the masses really bunched up once we passed through the shrine entrance. It took Mayu about five minutes just to cleanse her hands at the chozusha (ablution basin) and then nearly 30 for us to make our way  - shuffle by shuffle - up to the prayer site itself. Normally, only the exterior of the shrine is accessible, but around New Year's apparently they make an exception, and a number of people were proceeding beyond the main gate for a mere 1000. We declined though, having spent enough money over the past month. Mayu did decide to invest in a couple things though: a charm for avoiding disaster/misfortune and an omikuji (fortune). She was bemused by the travel section of the fortune, stating that it was a good year to do so and that west was a lucky direction (hey, we're heading to Europe!), but to be careful of her travel partner (eh?!?). Not sure how I feel about that one. . .

The most entertaining thing was watching all the people heading to the big mall across the way upon finishing at the shrine (or vice-versa) - like going from the old religion to the new. Many things don't change with the coming of the new year, after all.
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