Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year's in Japan

I still have two more requested posts, and I'm working on putting them together for CWJ and Hayley Lavik, but I thought while I worked on those I'd do a little post about New Year's in Japan.

The Japanese celebrate the new year on the first of January - not later, with the Chinese new year. I've spent the new year in Japan three times, but I have the richest memories from when I was visiting with Japanese families in Kyoto and Osaka. You really can't get nearly as good a view of a celebration like this if you're seeing it from the outside.

On new year's eve, my Kyoto family took me to the Yasaka shrine. We drove partway, and then walked the rest of the way because the streets became too crowded. The weather was clear but icy. The shrine was lit with hundreds of white paper lanterns, and people were lining up to approach a fire that burned in a large hanging brazier. When they got there, they'd use the fire to light a short natural-fiber rope. In fact I had seen people with burning ropes walking in the streets as we approached the shrine, some twirling them over their heads to keepthem lit. Though my family didn't spend the time in line, they explained to me that people would then take these ropes, still smoldering, to light the first fire of the new year in their homes.

On the way back from the shrine we stopped at a small restaurant to eat red snapper soup. In Japanese the red snapper is called "tai," and it's considered a good luck fish because its name is the same as the last two syllables of the word "omedetai," which means auspicious (and which in another form is also used to express congratulations).

On new year's day, you're not supposed to cook. The traditional food for New Year's is called "Osechi" and it's prepared in advance and packed into beautiful boxes to be eaten cold on the first of January. I've eaten it in Kyoto and in Osaka. I have a cookbook for osechi, and it's some of the most beautiful and complex food I've ever seen. Pickled carrots and radishes carved into flower shapes, for example, make the traditional new year's colors of red and white (which are also on the flag!). There are little things almost like meatloaf squares on bamboo toothpicks, except that the squares are cut just right and the bamboo toothpicks go in one end so the whole thing looks like a folded fan. It's amazing, and I keep promising myself that one day I'll do it for our family, but so far I haven't had the energy required!

New Year's also has performances. On the pop culture side, there's a televised singing contest where celebrity singers and actors get into male (white) and female (red) teams, and sing off against each other. I prefer the more traditional style of performance - I have gone to see the Noh play "Okina" performed on the Noh stage near the south gate of the Yasaka shrine. That involves male performers wearing gorgeous woven costumes and masks tied in the back with long cords, who chant to the syncopated music of drums and flute.

I know today is January fourth, so it might seem a bit late, but the New Year is the big winter holiday in Japan, and people get three or four days off surrounding it. Christmas is also celebrated by many people, but it's much more of a Western-inspired holiday and is typically associated with white cakes with strawberries, and KFC (if you can believe that!). In Tokyo, at least when I lived there, they still had the near-life-sized statues of Colonel Sanders, and dressed them in Santa outfits for Christmas. Yikes!

So Happy New Year, everyone! あけましておめでとうございます。Which means, (the new year) having opened, let it be auspicious.