Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Friday, January 1-Sunday, January 3, 2009 [Combo 7]-

Here in Japan, New Year’s is a celebration called お正月-Oshogatsu. It is three days of rest, family, religion, and tradition. I have never seen a country quite literally “close down” like Japan does during the New Year’s. In my area, stores and cities are all closed up so that everyone can start the next 365 days off to a peaceful and focused start.

The first sunrise of the New Year is a special one for “the land of the rising sun” so in honor of the holiday I woke up at 6:30, climbed up onto our roof, and watched the sun climb over the hills to the East. I was all alone, it was freezing, and yet what took my breath away wasn’t the cold, but instead the realization that it was already 2010! I was almost halfway done with my exchange year, I will turn TWENTY this year (an age that feels far too old to call myself), I have come so far here on exchange and can now speak Japanese, and on top of that I was about to see one of Japan’s most treasured moments: the first few rays of sun of a new year. It was a profound moment of self-insight that I wasn’t ready for at six something in the morning on a frigid Japanese rooftop. I know that I will carry that moment and the image of a soft, golden New Year’s sunrise with me for the rest of my life.

After falling back asleep for another couple hours I woke up in time for an early lunch of “Osechi ryouri” or traditional New Year’s cooking. Everything was prepared in fancy lacquer boxes meant to last the three days of Oshogatsu so that women wouldn’t have to cook for that time. The vast spread was somewhat different from regular Japanese cooking because everything needed to keep for several days, meaning that nearly every dish contained vinegar, sake or some sort of preservative. I did enjoy the tasty large prawns cooked in sake and soy sauce, boiled black beans, roasted walnuts, broiled fish cakes called Kamaboko, bitter young mandarin oranges, Zouni mochi rice cake soup, and even herring roe. Each dish has a different meaning: shrimp having a long curved back are supposed to represent reaching such an old age that your back bends, black beans are meant to bring health, the mandarin oranges are called Daidai in Japanese which also happens to mean “generation after generation” implying that they will bring you many descendant, the same idea goes for the herring roe, because there are so many tiny fish eggs the hope is that you will have just as many children. It was actually a very enjoyable lunch with my host parents as I think they had missed having children in the house with whom to celebrate. I was reminded that even though they’re at home doesn’t mean that they’re surrounded by family either. I am very lucky to have relatives back home who are so connected and loving.

During the afternoon we made the traditional visit to local shrines called Hatsumode. The shrines are primed and polished for this, their most auspicious of days. I was impressed by the influence of tradition that Oshogatsu brings with it. I know for a fact that many Japanese people do not have very “professing” types of faith. Yet today they were out in the hundreds. Still, in my four months here I have yet to be invited to take part in real religious ceremonies (just once at the Sato’s visit to their family grave) and no one has tried to teach me about Buddhism or Shintoism. I know that that is not the case back in Minnesota where many exchange students are at least invited to local churches in an attempt to show them our Christian faith. I’m not complaining, I’m simply saying that it plays a role on overall culture when your religion is more of a tradition than a belief. Who knows, the same might be said more and more of Christmas these days in America and certainly in Europe.

Anyway, I visited both the Hachimansan Shrine where my host father’s cousin keeps the temple and also the very popular Torinokosan Shrine. Torinokosan has the patron image of an Owl and is perhaps the most well known shrine in this area of Tochigi. The crowds were out in force and the three of us had to park part way down the mountain, but the climb up to the top was well worthwhile. The music, food, stalls, decorations, ringing of the shrine bell, and opportunity to see Mt. Fuji were definitely the highlights of my three days. I snapped one shot of distant Fuji-San in the distance but because the colors were mostly gray and faded I used iPhoto to change it up a bit. The image to the right is my new background and I’m reminded of my New Year’s celebrations every time I see it. Look closely and you'll be able to make it out in the center there...
The rest of the holiday was spent visiting Miki’s house. The Miyazaki family and I ate a large sushi feast, watched TV, joked around, and played a Japanese version of the card game SPOONS where instead of spoons in the middle they threw in different coins! It was a riot as her cousins, aunt, grandma, and mother all joined in the fun. Let’s just say before it was all said and done three people’s knuckles were bleeding and Miki’s grandma had to stop because she thought she would strain her back if she had to keep diving across the table! UNO also made an appearance and I stayed over at their house as late into the nights as I could. All in all, I was as relaxed and well-slept-in as I’d been since who knows when. I am definitely a new fan of the Japanese style of three full days of holiday, I wonder how hard it’d be to convince president Obama to change that…hmmm, I’ll get on that, maybe give him a call sometime this week. I’ll add that to my list of things to do.
A view from the roof just before the sun actually rose
One more snapshot of the first few beams of 2010
The Osechi Ryouri lunch table
My host mother, Kimi, and host father, Hideo
Hatchimansan Shrine. Apparently a god of music lives in this building
It makes its home in that little black hole and the colored papers are a symbol of its music
The far less crowded Hachimansan Shrine. Torinokosan was literally packed
I also decided to watch the sunset from the roof top the evening of the first too
What I forgot to mention above is that although all of Japan is closed down for the first, the post offices are not. It is Japanese custom to send countless New Year's greetings to family and friends. Think Christmas cards but they are almost all themed up the zodiac sign of the new year (this one being Tora - Tiger!). You get the same kind of funky ones as back at home (i.e. the elderly woman dressed in a full-body tigress suit, or the family that just sent a picture of their two pugs...), but some of the cards are incredibly intricate, with fancy handwritten calligraphy. They can be placed in the mail any time throughout December but it is up to the postal service to deliver them all on the afternoon of the 1st! Poor mailmen and women, instead of a relaxing start to the year they're hit with by far their busiest day! On the bright side they're done with it for the year =)
The card table with the Miyazaki family
Miki and her dad with the delicious sushi feast they invited me over to on the 3rd


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for sharing many of your stories, thoughts, and photos! I know the feeling, 1/2 of your exchange year has flown by, yet you've packed so much in and learned more than you'd ever have imagined. Reading about your early morning experience and insight on New Year's day brought back so many memories (from my experiences and talking to Naomi). Thank you, I needed to be reminded of the excitement adventures bring (both good and not so good).
    I look forward to your posts in 2010!
    Keep Smilin'!