Indiana University Overseas Study

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New Year’s is undeniably one of the most important events celebrated in Japan.  I imagined this meant a night out laughing, dancing, and socializing with friends and family while waiting for the countdown to midnight and firework spectacular.

After asking my host family and friends about the big event, I was surprised at how different the celebration is from America’s.  Television networks do not broadcast festivities happening around Japan, let alone the rest of the world (this means I won’t be able to watch the New York Time Square’s ball drop this year).  Instead of partying into the new year, most Japanese gather at home with family and visit shrines.

Sarah and I at Asakusa Shrine on New Year's Eve

Sarah and I at Asakusa Shrine on New Year’s Eve

The day after Christmas ends, New Year’s preparations are already underway.  Many businesses close from January 1st to the 3rd, but some stay closed for even longer periods.  Every television commercial, bus, subway, and train has advertisements for cuisine, retreat locations, or everyday goods that people should buy anew because, why not, it’s the start of a new year!  Household entranceways are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees.  Together, these form a kadomatsu, or pine gate, and symbolize longevity, prosperity, and steadfastness.   A set is placed in front of the home to welcome ancestral spirits of the harvest.  Small wreathes can also be placed above entranceways to ward off evil spirits.

Leading up to the night of December 31st, families vigorously clean their homes in hopes that the toshigami diety will provide a bountiful harvest for farmers and a blessed, joyous year for everyone.  Cleaning helps remove any lingering bad feelings or heavy burdens so that the new year may have a fresh start.  Similar to New Year’s resolutions, this is a time to make wishes and promises.  According to my host mother, though, these are especially personal and may not come true if you speak them aloud.

On New Year’s Eve families generally spend time together eating an assortment of traditional dishes, including toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles) and osechi-ryoori (festival dishes).  Bitter orange, fish cakes and roe, mashed potato with kuri (chestnut), burdock root, sweet black soybeans, and shrimp cooked in sake or soy sauce are a few of the items arranged together.  Sticky, stretchy mochi rice cakes are eaten as well.  Each food holds a special meaning revolving around healthy children and longevity.  Even though household members do not usually use formal speech with each other, the set phrase “akemashite omedetoo gozaimasu” used to greet is rather polite.  This greeting (aisatsu) translates as a wish to congratulate the opening of new relationships.  At home, television networks broadcast popular music programs featuring Japan’s famous J-Pop and enga singers.

Asakusa Shrine

Asakusa Shrine

If you’d like to go out for the night, though, apparently a Buddhist temple is the place to be.  To see what a Japanese New Year is all about, Sarah and I booked a hotel in Asakusa from December 31st through January 2nd.  Asakusa was an incredibly convenient location—a few blocks from Asakusa’s Sensoji Jingu and the Tokyo Sky Tree!  First we visited the shrine, where the streets were packed with people buying souvenirs and snacks and snapping pictures beneath the famous kaminarimon entrance, or “Thunder Gate.”

We made our way to the shrine and found food vendors—they were preparing takoyaki, okonomiyaki, hot oden, chocolate bananas, candy apples… all the traditional festival foods.  Picking up a couple sweet bean paste cakes, we walked over to the Sky Tree.  The tower was opened to the public May 2012, and is currently the tallest tower in the world.  Although it’s not a fireworks extravaganza, the tower is striking lit up with blue, purple and red lights against the night sky.  We checked out the Sky Tree Town shops and restaurants, and bought Tokyo Bananas as souvenirs.  A few people have said they are “Twinkies from Japan.”  Indeed, they are spongy cakes filled with cream—but the cake has animal-print patterns and they offer a variety of filling flavors.  Definitely worth a taste!

Tokyo Sky Tree on New Year's Eve

Tokyo Sky Tree on New Year’s Eve

As midnight approached, we made sure to reserve a spot back at Asakusa Shrine.  By 11:00, the main street was closed off with groups of people waiting to throw coins into the shrine, which wards off evil.  Seconds to go, everyone chanted together for a countdown and then right at midnight, they began throwing coins toward the shrine doors.  From midnight, temples all over Japan also toll their bells 108 times!  This number represents the 108 human sins in Buddhist beliefs—bell ringing supposedly eradicates the 108 worldly desires of sense and feeling in every Japanese citizen and erases the past year’s sins.  Instead of booming fireworks or celebrating loud crowds, the bell’s rings echoed throughout the streets.

On January 1st the Japanese pay special attention to the “firsts” of the year.  Hatsuhinode is the first sunrise of the new year; many people wake up early and drive to the waterfront or climb a mountain in order to see the sunrise.  Hatsumoode is the first trip to a shrine or temple; people go not only to give thanks and praise, but also to dress up and wear kimono, a traditional Japanese garment.    Besides visiting the beach or a temple, many department stores in Tokyo offer “lucky” mystery grab-bags called fukubukuro.  These contain store items and are sold at a discounted price—the downside is that shoppers have no idea what’s inside.  Just about every shop down the eccentric streets of Harajuku was selling these mystery bags!  We visited Meiji Shrine on our way to one of the most interesting places for the mystery bag craze—Harajuku.  Both the shrine and shopping streets were packed!  Especially if you’d like to observe the day’s traditional festivities leisurely, I suggest waking up early and starting at your local shrine!

New Year’s in Tokyo was definitely different from a celebration in the States, but it was a fantastic way to conclude my trip abroad and a unique, once in a lifetime experience!

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