Monday, 31 December 2007

New Year celebrations

The three-day New Year holiday (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is a very special time in Japan, a time of solemn prayers and joyous greetings. While New Year's Day is a holiday in many parts of the world, the occastion has a unique significance to the Japanese, who take the opportunity to begin anew many aspects of their lives. New Year is regarded in Japan as an auspicious occasion, when people clean their houses especially, resolve debts and finish business from the old year, make special foods (long soba noodles symbolising longevity, omoochi rice cakes, seasonal bento boxes), give special gifts (envelopes of money), visit a local shrine and renew wishes/vows for the coming year, engage in particular entertainments (such as kite-flying) and at the transition from 2007-2008 temple bells toll 108 times to purge the 108 (Buddhist) earthly desires ready to start afresh. Homes and entrance gates are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees.

On New Year's Eve, I went to the Kakizakai's where we had Sensei's hand-made soba, crumbed skewers an sake while watching the NHK famous red and white song contest battle between the sexes in which women and men annually compete to prove the most outrageous in a range of enka and J-pop and every music genre in between. Interspersed with weather reports of widespread snowfalls, such as 60cm in the west of Japan and Kyuushu and comic slapstick skits and game shows requiring that special sense of humour, while we nestled under the heated table kutatsu which appears at floor level but your legs drop into a sunken area underneath, traditionally heated by coals and nowadays by electricity. At midnight, we listened to the tolling of the bell from the temple downtown, No.13(?). On New Year's Day, after an unusual and pleasant sleep in to one of the coldest mornings yet (-6 degrees predictions of snow but only frost received), I meandered down to Chichibu Shrine. Most people attend their local shrine in the first three days of the new year for the afore-mentioned wishes/prayers and general festive activties. These included queuing to make a wish at the shrine, made easier by stalls selling takoyaki, yakisoba, karaage chicken, chocolate coated bananas on sticks and diversions such as weight lifting stones. I was a little bewildered by the apparent anomalous collision of traditional and modern, pagan and spiritual at the shrine and the efficiency of accepting donations. Further, the little wooden talismans conveniently only last a year and the expired ones are ceremonially burned at the shrine so that everybody needs to buy new talismans for all the members of the family for 2008, year of the mouse/rat (from the Chinese calendar).

On Wednesday 2nd, in the spirit of the new year, I followed up my bike ride, rather icy, with soba at the log cabin restaurant and was comforted by sitting at the large charcoal pit emanating delicious warmth, accompanied by tasty genmaicha with roasted rice in it and tempura soba with dipping sauce under the watchful eye of the stuffed deer head on the wall.

On the 30th, my short excursion (I am consumed composing hermetically during the holiday season) was to Temple No.19 Ryuseki-ji. On my way, winding through the back streets of this off-the-track district, I came across and interesting frog shrine. Ryuseki-ji itself is remarkable, principally for its location on a large platform of rock in an otherwise urban site. Its name means Dragon Stone temple.