N is for New Year

Yeah, yeah. So this is some fifty days out relevancy. Well, I like to think of it as being 310 days early. Either way, this blog will always have a special connection to that time of year, because that is when this blog began.

And it was also the first time I spent Christmas and New Years in Japan. Which was a big deal personally, but also a big deal nationally, because it is arguably Japan’s biggest holiday.

But to clarify, Japanese celebrate the New Year (known as ‘oshogatsu’, お正月) on January 1st, not to be confused with the later Chinese New Year. But to be honest, the date is where the similarities end (unless you count New Year Resolutions, and the uncanny ability to utterly fail at them).  For one thing, whereas in the west it’s generally seen as something to celebrate, drink and merry affair, involving lots of fireworks, music and clubbing, in Japan it is a much more sober affair. On the stroke of midnight, folks are most likely to be either at the family home, watching TV specials, or at the local shrines and temples.

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Yeah, those two near the front totally photobombed my first snap of the year. Good, work, guys.

And it is at the shrines and temples where the true magic happens: at the at the temples is the ringing of a bell exactly 108 times, signifying the 108 sins of Buddhist belief (this is known as ‘joyanokane’, 除夜の鐘). Yes, I know. I can’t even remember the classic seven sins. But I know one of them is sarcasm. Which, y’know, is totally reasonable.

And at the shrines, the thronging crowds make their first visit to a shrine this year (known as ‘hatsumoude’, 初詣) to pray for health, safety and good fortune for the coming year. This is part of a collection of activities that count as being the ‘firsts’ of the year, from seeing in the first sunrise (‘hatsuhinode’, 初日の出) to ‘hatsuuri’ (初売り), the New Year shopping sales.

The holiday itself is when Japan is at it’s most Japanese. The family gathers in the tatami room to eat traditional snacks and meals, most notably ‘osechi’ (おせち), a kind of elaborate platter of foods. Though I’m yet to try osechi myself, owing to it being exorbitantly expensive, I must admit looks the part. The other de rigeur foodstuff is ‘mochi’ (餅), which is a sticky, spongy rice cake.

And what to do while you engorge on the spread of foods? Why, you watch TV of course! Japanese TV is pretty quiz and game show heavy at the best times, but this time of year is an all-out blowout, with 5 and 6-hour specials. The most famous one is known as ‘Kouhaku’ (紅白), literally ‘red and white’, named after the team colors the hordes of celebrities adorn while performing various songs.

The New Year season is also a prime season for sending and receiving letters and postcards to and from friends and family you forgot existed. These are called ‘Nengajyou’ (年賀状), and just like the equivalent round-robin letters we love to hate in the West, it’s not uncommon for folks to write out great think wads of Nengajyou each year. That being said, their designs are excellent, mostly using the New Year’s zodiac animal sign (and usually presented in a cutesy style to boot).

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Seriously. Only Japan could make a snake (a rope with teeth) cute.

The New Year in Japan, while a more somber affair than we are used to, is still definitely well worth experiencing. The country sheds it’s usual clash of East-Meets-West lifestyle for a while and becomes pure-pedigree JAPAN.  And, best of all, you can visit the big cities on these days and have NO crowds.  Like, at all.  Seriously, it’s like 28 days later, out there.

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