New Years in Japan

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It just wouldn’t be right to pass an entire year without wearing a winter hat, so I flew up to Tokyo this holiday season for some cold weather and quality girlfriend time. My stay happened to coincide with Japan’s biggest holiday: New Years. While people around the world took to the streets and had a raucous time, most Japanese gathered with their families to eat traditional foods and watch the very popular New Years TV special. The closest we got to any end-of-the-year revelry was at Tokyo’s fish market, the worlds largest, where mobs of shoppers surged through narrow alleyways in search of candied chestnuts, pickled radishes, octopus legs, and the perfect slab of tuna. The market reaches its peak frenzy in the end of December before closing for the holidays. Fish egg sellers stood on crates calling out prices while eager buyers waved money in the air. One vendor selling sweet omelets, a New Years staple, had people waiting around the block, with flags marking the path of the line as it crossed busy intersections. After forcing our way through the crowds and waiting an hour to get sushi, we picked up some New Years treats of our own and made for the exit.

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After living in Bali these past months, Japan had the appearance of a completely secular society. Tokyo’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines seemed to exist primarily as tourist attractions. They were often crowded, but mostly with young people taking pictures. New Years presented a different scene. At midnight people all over Japan gathered at Buddhist temples to ring bells. We’d read that they are supposed to ring 108 times but there were clearly more than 108 people queued up at the local temple. Here is the pagoda where they rang in the New Year.

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 After sounding the bell, people went to pray in the temple or wandered back out to the street. The night was eerily quiet; if there were fireworks we didn’t see or hear them. The next day a similar scene was played out at Shinto shrines across the country (the Japanese like to cover all their bases when it comes to New Years). People waited patiently for their turn to toss a coin in a bin and say a prayer. The atmosphere was calm and pious, so different from usual scene found in Japanese shrines. I didn’t even see a single camera, and that is really something in Japan. The whole city felt still. Many shops and restaurants closed; people stayed at home with their families. Buildings displayed ornaments of bamboo and pine branches, reminding me of the small offerings I often see adorning houses and automobiles in Bali.

I returned home a couple days later with a slightly revised impression of Japanese culture and spiritual life. Tokyo may have all the trappings of an industrialized western city, and its people may come across as highly rational and non-religious, but it is still home to a strong and deeply foreign culture. The beliefs and practices of Japan’s unique blend of Shinto and Buddhist tradition live on in their own curious way. For example, the lead researcher in my girlfriend’s neuroscience lab, a professional scientist mind you, always submits her journal articles on auspicious days determined by an antique Japanese calendar system.

Bali is often touted as a land where traditional culture lives on undiminished by the flood of foreign influence. Here, religion remains a dominant force in everyday life, demanding a never-ending cycle of offerings and ceremonies. This ‘Island of the Gods’ is a truly remarkable place, but it is nice to see how another Asian island has continued its own traditions amidst such different economic and political circumstances. And there is no better time to see this than New Years in Japan.

Other highlights…

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The anonymous lunch: at this Ramen spot you order on a machine, then mark your flavor preferences on a card, and finally receive your bowl of noodles through a curtain at a counter with wooden dividers between each patron.

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The Japanese spa: here we are at a traditional hot-spring Inn, where scalding hot mineral-rich water is pumped into pools where you sit with a small towel on your head and take in the view of Fuji-san. Very decadent.

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