Winter Tales-Happy New Years 冬の話ーあけましておめでとう

Editor’s Note: This blog post was half-constructed in mid-January. I should be going through pictures in the next few weeks, and will get them posted tout-suite. Or “sugu” if you want the Japanese.

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Happy New Year all.

Today was a national holiday in Tokyo – Coming of Age Day (成人の日- Seijin-no-hi). It’s always the second monday of the month, and actually when I came back to Japan a year ago, I came in on a Sunday and this holiday was on a Monday, and I wondered why all the shops were closed. So it’s been about a year since I got here. How time flies. Today was the first snowstorm of the year, and it dumped about 4-5 inches- not horrible, but enough to slow down some of the trains and enough so that I could hear trucks outside having a very difficult time getting up the hill near my house. Apparently there aren’t many snowplows in Tokyo.

Winter here is relatively nice because it doesn’t get brutally cold (maybe around freezing), and the mountains to the north block out most of the precipitation  – if you go up into the mountains, or up to Niigata on the Sea of Japan side, you’d see they really get nailed by snow. It’s not a coincidence that the ’98 Nagano Winter Olympics are in the mountains between Tokyo and the Sea of Japan. It’s safe to say they probably never have to truck in fake snow in the winter.

I’ve finally gone through my hundreds of photos, and given the long nights and cold days I could tell some tales in anticipation of spring. I’ll start with New Years and then start again from where I left off in the summer. Hopefully by the time I get done with the ‘Winter Tales’ it’ll still be winter. (giggles madly – Ed.)

I just missed New Years in Japan last year, showing up on the 8th. I figured because I’d just been in the States in June, and I wanted to see what New Years was like here, I’d hang out and see what’s what. This was a bit of a mistake, because while the New Years holiday (お正月 oshogatsu) is probably the largest holiday of the year in Japan, for someone in my situation, it’s frankly kinda boring. I made do with the time I had, and at least I can pass along the cultural and historical underpinnings of this holiday, and also the warning to you, gentle reader, that you probably shouldn’t come to Japan for New Years unless you are Japanese, or involved with a Japanese.

So the first question that came to my mind was “Why does Japan celebrate New Years according to the Gregorian calendar instead of the Lunar (Chinese) calendar?” After all, many Japanese do hold the ‘Chinese zodiac’ near and dear to their hearts (This year is the Year of the Snake), and just about every other East Asian culture celebrates the Lunar New Years (which this year is Feb 10) — the Chinese (and all countries with significant Chinese populations), Koreans, the Vietnamese (where it’s known as Tet, as in the “Tet Offensive”), etc.

My thought was that the Japanese had to have celebrated the lunar new year but switched over during the occupation after World War II. That thought was wrong, but not completely. They did formerly celebrate the lunar new year, but they switched over in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration, along with dumping many of their other ‘old ways’ such as isolationism and, y’know, fighting with swords instead of bullets.

So when they scheduled it changed, but how they celebrated it hasn’t really changed much. There’s two main ‘traditional’ holidays, New Years and Obon — and then there’s a bunch of other government mandated holidays culminating in ‘Golden Week’ the first week of May which, like Labor Day or Presidents Day, are more about giving people a nice 3 or more day weekend off work, or perhaps to have a sale. In both cases, these traditional holidays have serious religious underpinnings, and are generally meant to be spent with family. This is so different from the American New Years holiday that there’s even a joke about it (I don’t remember the source, but I didn’t make this one up)-

In America, Christmas is when you spend time with your family, and New Years is when you go out and try to get laid, and in Japan it’s the opposite.

Note: We’ll have to come back to Christmas in Japan in a later blog post.

The few days leading up to New Years is preparing- cleaning the household as well as food shopping and cooking- it’s tradition to not do work around the house or cook during the New Year holiday. This preparation also harkens back to the times when no stores were open during the holidays at all, so people had to have food that would last several days purchased and prepared before the holiday. This seems at least a little like the preparations done for Jewish Passover to me. The more time I spend in Japan, the more interesting shadows of other cultures I see, be they false or true.

New Years Eve is mainly spent doing one of two things: Watching TV with family, or going out to a shrine or temple near midnight and freezing one’s butt off listening to the bells toll — Buddhist Temples ring the temple bell 108 times for each of the known sins of Buddhism. I thought about going out, but a) it was cold and b) I figured much like Times Square is on New Years Eve, most of the fairly well known temples would be packed full of people. So I went with the former.

NHK has a show on New Years Eve known as Kohaku, which is in essence a 5 hour live concert that is also a competition. Girls vs Boys. Picture Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve, but you’d have Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj competing against Justin Bieber and Moron, sorry, Maroon 5 for the glory of the title that year. And this show has been running on New Years Eve in Japan since… 1951. This had to have been one of the more surreal TV shows I’d seen since being in Japan, but hey, tradition, right?

At 11:40 NHK finishes up the show and shows live feeds from various temples and shrines to listen to the bells ringing, and sure enough, they were all packed. It was pretty cool to see some of the major ones in Kyoto or Mie or Hiroshima that I’d visited in the past, but the actual countdown to New Years on television was a bit of a somber affair. I’d bought a mini-bottle of bubbly at the conbini across the way, so I had a little celebration here. Not my best New Years, but not my worst.

I was interested to see earlier on New Years Eve that the trains were running 24 hours a day. Tokyo has one of the more impressive mass transit systems in the world, but a (small) complaint I have is that it doesn’t run all night. So you run into a concept of ‘last train’. The last train is usually at midnight or 1am depending on the train line and your location on it, and they don’t start running again till 5 or 5:30am. This means that there are generally 2 kinds of bars: Bars that close super-early (around 11pm) so that their patrons and employees can get their butts on the last train, or bars that are in effect open all night, or at least 4-5am. I think the train companies do this to save money and to be able to do maintenance in the off hours — I’ve heard the NYC subway crews, since their trains run 24/7, have to do maintenance on train lines between the running trains. Yeesh.

Anyway, since people are out and about on New Years Eve, they aren’t gonna catch last train, so most train lines stay open 24 hours this one day a year.

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(Written 3/5 -Ed)

New Years Day, and the several days after that (generally until the 5th), is dead in Tokyo. Since it’s the most important holiday, and people go home for the holiday, a lot of the shops close at least for the 1st and the next few days- some are closed all the way through till Friday or the next weekend. I spent one of the days going up to one of the major temples in Saitama — one that I had been to in the fall — and the place was packed. Lines out the gate of the complex packed. I guess it’s some ways similar to Christians that only attend church on Easter and Christmas.

Starting to be springtime here now. It’s still pretty chilly, but it’s getting lighter out earlier in the morning, and in about 3 weeks we’ll be starting Sakura season. Looking forward to the spring, but not the summer.