Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Day 2008

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.

Sake is heated in a large pot and sold to visitors.

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.

11 comments:

1tess said...

Your post makes the "celebration" look quite grim. We fell asleep long before midnight so the festivities here might also have been less than stellar. There is 5 inches of new snow on the ground, so it'll be a quiet day today. Anyway, Happy New Year.

Shari said...

I didn't quite mean it that way, but it does look pretty sedate and grey, doesn't it? Shrines aren't likely to be rocking good times though. Also, I guess that so little was "new" to me that my reaction can't be all that excited. It's probably the down side to having been here so long. That being said, pictures don't lie. That's the way it looked and felt.

I'm sure that families have a more festive time at home together but I can't exactly peep in their windows and take pictures of family fun. ;-)

On T.V. last night, it was more of a celebration though the crowds looked painfully dense.

Happy New Year to you, too!

Emsk said...

Happy New Year to you and your other half, Shari xx

Shari said...

Thanks, Emsk. I hope 2008 sees you having more positive experiences in Japan than the previous one!

All the best to you!

mjgolli said...

It seems that the Japanese new year is relatively mild compared to ours. That would be a nice change, rather than people getting drunk and stupid!

This year I didn't even realize the new year had come until nearly 1 am. I was editing a few webpages for my site and some clients, and I looked up and it was 12:55am.

This might sound stupid, but I usually ring in the new year by listening to my shortwave radio to the US time station WWV (similar to Japan's JJY) before midnight local through to the new year. It's goofy, I know, but this year I didn't.

Anyhow, may the new year be safe, comfortable and enjoyable to you and yours!

Shari said...

I've read that "drunk and stupid" happens on New Year's Eve here as well though it's not anticipated and planned on as it is in the west during the New Year. It just happens naturally when some people overdo it.

I tend to be playing multiplayer games during New Year's Eve and pretty much have the same experience as you - I look up and the time has passed.

Thanks for commenting and for your kind wishes!

Chris said...

***someone derided the western method of celebrating the New Year's holiday and said that, by comparison, New Year in Japan "rocks"***

Yeah if you like sitting with your family, waking up to see the first sunrise and eating taste deprived food.
Don't forget the temple!! There's a boredom induced coma waiting to happen.

Shari said...

Hi, Chris, and thanks for commenting.

I think that the biggest festive holiday season for Japan is the bon season. New Year's is more of a "refresh, renew and relax" sort of thing.

One aspect which is probably pretty exciting for kids is the o-toshidama (cash gifts). I imagine that it's a bit like Christmas for them up until that moment. For adults though, well, perhaps it's not so exciting.

By the way, I add links to my home page for everyone who comments. If you'd like to tell me which of your 4 blogs is the primary one, I'll be pleased to add it. :-)

heng said...

Regarding the religious part, I suspects it's similar somewhat to the situation with young buddhists in singapore.

The idea is not to believe, but to not disbelieve, on the off chance that there really exists some omnipotent being that sends you up or down.

And then, it's also about plain, silly pride. It's dumb to be thought of as religious in this time and age, so it's easier to brush it off (even to themselves) with a silly excuse that they're doing so just because it's a habit/custom/everyone else does it. Truth is that when it really comes down to it, deep inside, they really believe in such stuff.

tornados28 said...

I "celebrated" the New Year in Japan a few years ago and I liked it. We went to the temple at midnight and it was generally a very interesting experience because it was something I had never experienced before. We waited in line to ring the bell and make a wish, etc.

That being said, I do agree that my feeling is Japanese people probably do this traditional activity on New Year's more out of tradition and habit than truly out of being spritual. But even if that is true, I think it is a good thing on some level to have this type of tradition.

The tradition and ritual on New Year's in America is to watch college football.

Shari said...

Heng: You raise some interesting points, particularly about the idea being to not disbelieve rather than to believe. My experience has been that younger folks tend not to visit shrines on New Year's Eve/Day at all but older folks do. This would fit in with general tendencies with all religions around the world where faith or spiritual thinking grows as one ages and mortality seems to be something that feels more real.

tornados28: I completely forgot about watching football back home since my father wasn't into sports and no one watched them in our family. I think he watched the parades or just hoped to find an old movie when he watched T.V.

I've always felt that New Year's holidays in Japan should be compared to Christmas back home since both are the biggest holidays of any particular culture. That being said, western cultures tend to have more ostentatious celebrations than the Japanese which can be both a bad and good thing.

There are actually a number of shots I didn't get to which explain a bit more about the praying part (like the fact that there are several little shrines where one can pray at for different purposes) which we found pretty interesting. I also thought the temple area was quite attractive in a minimalist way, but I didn't have the time to get to those thoughts and will be saving them for next year.

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment!