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Japanese New Years

January 16, 2008

I got back from New Zealand to my apartment in Kyoto at about 12.30am on New Years Eve and went straight to bed. I woke up a few hours later and went to my friend’s house to celebrate the coming of the New Year with her and her family!

In Japan, New Years in like the Christmas of the West. Family comes together from all around, and everybody sits around and has a nice time together. Parents and grandparents give their children presents (otoshidama), which is through either tradition or laziness, money. All over the country, little Japanese children are getting little envelopes with cash inside from their relatives. Apparently, according to older people, it used to be a fairly modest amount. These days, kids rake it in. One of my ex students said that she has put this years otoshidama towards a trip to Australia.

Unfortunately, my friend’s parents weren’t giving me any money, but they happily invited me into their home to relax, eat, drink, and do Japanesey things with them.

I got a surprise when it turned out that the main meal of the night was going to be blowfish! The only knowledge I have of eating blowfish was gleaned from The Simpsons when Homer ate one in a Japanese restaurant. Apparently if they’re cut the wrong way, the meat becomes poisonous and can kill you. Homer’s chef was inexperienced and he spent the next 20 minutes trying to round out a fulfilling life.

It was delicious. And as a bonus, I didn’t die. Not content to settle just for eating the flesh of the fish, they also had some alcohol with a blowfish fin in it. The fin is removed, and set on fire, then dropped back into the cup. I had two cups. The first one was nice, but the second was a bit… fishy. Also, I got to eat the fish’s fried sperm sac. A delicacy, I hear.

During dinner and the food and drink that came after it, we watched the “Kouhaku Gassen”, just as my student’s Christmas card had said. It’s a long “singing battle” between two teams – Red and White. After each song, comments are made, and you folks at home can vote. I had no idea what any of the songs were, but some of the stage sets, costumes and pyrotechnics were pretty impressive.

As midnight rolled around, the TV changed to show temples all around Japan, live. At the coming of the New Year, temples toll their giant bells 108 times, to signify dispelling the 108 earthly desires Buddhism says we are plagued with for the next year. I’ve asked a few people to name some, but nobody can.

The temples all across Japan shown on the TV must have been mostly up north or in the mountains, as it seemed to be snowing alot more on TV than it was outside our window – where it wasn’t snowing at all. Which was a shame. I really wanted to see snow. We listened to the bells and the commentary as we sat and ate out toshikoshi soba.

In the New Year, the first visit of the year to a shrine or temple (hatsumoude) is very important. So the following morning I got up and went through the freezing early morning air with my friend (the parents complained about being old and cold) to the local shrine, where tons of other people already were. The queue stretched from all the way down at the bottom of the staircase, into the grounds, and right up to the shrine itself, where people were throwing in their coins, ringing the bells, clapping, bowing, and praying for a good year. Or for the Hanshin Tigers to win their next baseball match. Or for the country to be once again closed to foreigners. Or for a PS3. I’m not sure.

Once we got home again, we settled down for brunch – osechi. The special

New Years Day food. It comes in three boxes – loads of different types of many different foods, all set out and presented beautifully. I was helpfully told that each type of food carries a certain meaning for the New Year. So I asked what they were. After a few desperate attempts to make the beans and carrots sound a little more majestic than they probably really deserved, my hosts just gave up and drew my attention instead to the little three-tiered sake set. I forget what it’s called, but it’s a special sake which is drunk on New Years, out of three differently sized saucers and passed around the table. I forget what it’s called, but it’s a special sake which is drunk on New Years, out of three differently sized saucers and passed around the table.

That night, I went to one of the more famous temples in Kyoto (Kiyomizudera), enjoyed the sight, and the nice little decorations people in the area had put in their doorways for the season.

At some point I went home, and the next day, joined another friend and her family for hatsumoude at another temple, followed by more osechi. This temple was much bigger, and was centred around large rocks, on which money could be left in return for good wishes. But we decided to leave when it became evident that we couldn’t shake a strange older man kept lurching about and trying to look nonchalant about coincidentally taking the same path as us and striking up conversations with my pretty friend.

On the third day, I finally got to see my girlfriend. Despite my insistence, she refused to wear a kimono 😦  We went for another hatsumoude (although I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to have three… but I kept the others quiet) at a famous shrine near my house. The place was packed with people, and I made sure to point out how good all the girls looked dressed up in their kimonos. The shrine itself, where you normally drop some money, ring a bell and pray, had a big barrier about it, the ropes to the bells restrained, and a sheet laid out on the other side of the fence. The hordes of people were throwing money over the crowd onto the sheet and praying as best they could.

After joining the frenzy, we picked up a couple of good luck charms, and then went to test our fortune. I’m a little wary at these fortune places now – it’s a random draw and yet every single time I’ve done it, I’ve drawn “bad luck”. None of my friends have ever had it. Some had never seen it. Some hadn’t even believed it actually existed. And yet I drew it every time. But, starting a New Year, I decided to give it a crack. My girlfriend and I both drew, amazingly, “good luck”. In the details, mine said that I would have a wavering heart, which my girlfriend wasn’t too happy about until she read her own: “Your boyfriend will have a wavering heart, but you are not to doubt him”. It was a bit uncanny, and really, neither of us really had much to say after that.

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