A mother and daughter amuse themselves while waiting in line to gain access to a shrine by playing a pattycake game.
On one of the boards I sometimes read, someone derided the western method of celebrating the New Year's holiday and said that, by comparison, New Year in Japan "rocks". To be honest, New Year's eve/day was never one of my favorite times back home. As a teetotaller, I have little use for the copious imbibing that goes on and as a highly sensitive person, I can't bear the noise of raucous parties. So, I can't profess any particular affinity for the typical western-style celebration. More often than not, I went to bed before midnight and was completely indifferent to any celebration back home.
That being said, I'm not so sure that one can truly say the celebration in Japan "rocks" by comparison. While there certainly are some pretty interesting happenings, particularly where impressive high-energy traditional drumming (taiko) performances are offered, I think for the most part, there's a lot of crowding and waiting in line to spend a few moments bell ringing, clapping your hands, bowing your head, and making a small prayer.
A policeman stands in the street instructing people standing in line along the street to step aside any time a car comes along. I guess some people just don't get the day off.
Last year my husband went off alone to take copious numbers of pictures of the local activities. This year, I went along for the ride. The funny thing is that being there was remarkably little different than having seen the pictures he took last year with a few exceptions. For one thing, I miss out on getting stared at by bored locals standing in long lines and am able to walk around in slippery loose pebble-like gravel. There are also certain smells associated with being there.
This looks like far less of a "rocking" New Year than one might expect from some of the hype being spread around about things at this time of year in Japan.
One of those smells is burning rubbish and cigarettes near the fire where last year's New Year's paraphernalia are burned.
Another is the extremely strong odor of hot sake which people stand or sit around drinking after they've finished with the business at hand. It's not exactly festive imbibing as most people just placidly sit or stand around downing it from plastic cups. Of course, raucous partying in front of a shrine while people pray isn't exactly socially acceptable behavior so (ironically) sober (or at least somber) consumption is the order of the day.
As I watched people step up and take their turn praying, I wondered how many of them felt a sincere connection with a deity or higher power and how many were just performing a ritual for superstitious reasons or out of habit. When students are queried about their religious beliefs, very few ever say they believe in God and no one except a few random Christians have professed to being particularly religious. When I ask them why they pray when they don't believe in God, they just smile and either don't know what to say or say it's a "habit" or "custom".
The charms above are meant to bring luck either in general or specific to one's needs. Some are for safely giving birth to a child or not having any accidents in your car. Others are for travel and one is a "pet" charm for your dog or cat.
I've been told that students in particular make a visit to shrines during the holidays to pray for success in their entrance exams. My husband picked up the purple "education" charm on the left pictured above to hang in his cubicle at work as a way of telling his students he wants them to have good luck with their English studies. Though it may not actually work that way, it's the thought that counts, right? ;-)
We also picked up one of the little wooden plaques that you write your wishes on the back of and hang in the shrines (see last year's coverage for more on this). Other than these two items (which were 500 yen/$4.47 each), my husband also paid 100 yen for a little paper packet that contains his fortune for the year as determined by his birth date. He hasn't opened it up and inspected it yet, but I'm sure it'll be very accurate.
Other than the shrine area, we also covered a large shopping street near our house and most of the shops were closed except the toy stores, sushi shops, and convenience stores which was pretty much as it was last year. I do wonder if folks who work in those places pick up a heftier paycheck for working on January 1. I sincerely hope that they do.