Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The New Year In Japan

I don't have a story for this, but I have random foggy memories of a few New Years in Japan. When I first returned to the U.S., I used to say that I had missed Christmases here in the states, but now I will miss the New Year in Japan. Here's why:

1. They close the entire country, for about three days, starting on January 1. There are no stores, restaurants, or government offices open. The trains do run, so someone is working. And there is mail delivery (I don't remember if on the first or the second), but they only deliver New Year's Cards. For the most part, people stay home, eat, visit their neighbors, stop in at the local shrine (if you are in Tokyo, there are a couple of shrines which are very crowded at New Years), eat some more, and relax. It's hard to be a type A personality for those three days. I believe that people will go back to work around the 4th or the 5th of January, but the first day they pretty much have an office party.

2. New Year's cards are post cards that everyone sends out to their friends, family and casual acquaintances during December. You can send them whenever you want, but they will not be delivered until after January 1. I always got a few. My Japanese friends literally got hundreds. One important thing to note is that almost all of the post cards are like lottery tickets. They all have a number on them, and certain numbers win prizes. All I ever won was a couple of pretty stamps, but I did keep them.

3. I don't remember a lot about Japanese New Year food, but I do remember that there were two kinds of soups, one sweet and one not. I believe that both had mochi, which I describe as a kind of Japanese rice dumpling (although that is not exactly right, and I'll link to a place where there is a better description.) All the food is the kind that can be prepared ahead, so that everyone works hard on December 31, but no one has to work at all on January 1. The other food I associate with New Year is the mikan. It is not strictly a New Year's food. But mikans are in season in December and January, and I recall spending many a lazy day sitting under the kotatsu, peeling and eating mikans.

4. I also associate New Years with sleeping. It really is a time to relax, and do as little as possible. One year, one of my students invited me to spend the New Year with his family, who lived near Mount Aso. So on December 31, I took the train and spent a few days with his family. All of the children in the family (teenagers) stayed up late on the 31st and went to the temple to hear the tolling of the bells. We all slept until noon the next morning (at least). And, to me, it was like a big slumber party, because, in traditional Japanese style, everyone slept on the floor, on futon, with lots of thick but light kakebuton. (And, I slept in the same room with the children, all of us on tatami mats.)



5. During the New Year, there are non-stop silly game shows on Japanese TV, all the time, along with popular music shows. That's about it. And I learned a couple of Japanese card games, using hanafuda cards,which it seemed as if we played nonstop, while staying in our robes and pajamas. I still have a set of those cards somewhere, although I don't remember the rules of the game any more.

6. Finally, during one New Year celebration a co-worker at the school where I taught invited me to wear kimono. This was a BIG DEAL and an all-day affair. I had to go to the beauty parlor to get my hair done especially (with brillo pad type things in the sides and a lot of teasing and hair spray to get my blonde hair the right shape), and it took some time to put on all of the layers of the expensive silk kimono. (If I get a picture up, please note the long sleeves, which usually are reserved for young, unmarried women.) Then another young worker and I got in her car and drove to the shrine and a couple of other places, to say, "Yoroshiku", which basically means, "Greetings," I think. I'll tell you, it's no mean feat to get into a car wearing a kimono, much less drive.

7. One of the things that happens during the New Year holiday is that people just drop by. When I visited my friends at Mt. Aso, they got into their car one afternoon, and went visiting a number of their friends, bringing little New Years gifts, and wishing blessings.

This is what you say in Japan at New Year's time: Akemashite Omedetoo Gozaimasu!

And so I wish you a Happy New Year to you as well.

17 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Diane, what a beautiful story. Those days of rest and refreshment sound lovely.

And don't you look gorgeous in your kimono!

mompriest said...

A friend of mine has been to Japan and is trained in the tea ceremony. She does "tea" at the Japan House in the college town where she lives (she's a geologist by trade, working on her Ph.D in Education)....your reflections on Japan remind me of her experiences in Japan. It's an interesting culture...

RevDrKate said...

Thank you for sharing this...it is such a wonderful glimpse into another part of your life as well as another culture. Happy New Year.

MikeF said...

Thank you, Diane - wonderful atmospheric account! Though I've never been to Japan there's something about everything I hear that makes me think I'd be quite happy there for a while...

Did anyone ever tell to a kimono really suits you?

FranIAm said...

This story- like so many others you have told - had me hanging on every word.

Lovely and so evocative. I felt transported, as I often do, by your words Diane.

And the photo!! Loving that!

LawAndGospel said...

Thank you for sharing this experience. My younger daughter and her friends are keen to know about life in Japan ( inspired in part by their love of anime cartoons). This will be great for time at the dinner table when we share! Happy New Year to you and yours!

Diane said...

well Mike, thank you, and I must say that especially in the early 1980s, a kimono did suit me. probably my size at the time was what led my friend to invite me to wear a kimono.

David said...

A couple from my internship church were missionaries to Japan after WWII, and like you, they have so many fascinating stories. Thanks for posting these.

Diane said...

I wonder who those missionaries are, David? Maybe I know them?

Rev SS said...

Nice! I also have friends who have spent time there, and like you, loved it.

Gannet Girl said...

That's you in the kimono? You look so beautiful! Albeit quite restricted in the potential for movement!

Diane said...

I do think that a kimono can look quite beautiful. however, the common wisdom is that the purpose of a kimono is to show off the pattern of the fabric, rather than the figure of the woman.

Diane said...

btw, it's NOT my kimono. Someone loaned it to me to wear for one day. And it probably cost at least $10,000.

gartenfische said...

What a beautiful remembrance. Thanks for sharing this.

Wow, the kimono photo is cool.

Happy New Year!!!

more cows than people said...

wow. what cool traditions! i wish we had a week of rest at the start of the new year... boy do i.

and yes, gorgeous picture in the kimono.

thanks.

pachirox said...

That's so cool! By the way, it's me, Maddie! My mom helped me sign up for this blog. Miss me? I do you. Thanks for the picture frame too!

Nancy said...

You would prolly like reading my friend Tanya's blog: http://tttl1998.blogspot.com/

n, np