This is the time of year that I miss Japan the most.
For three years, I lived in Kyoto and Osaka, studying, teaching, and becoming part of a community. I was lucky to share my life there with several Japanese families, and with the Nakamuras and the Masumotos, among others, I was able to experience the best of all the holidays.
New Year’s is the longest celebration of the year. For the last week of December, women are busy preparing food, every imaginable kind of delicacy. They make enough to last through the first three days of January, so that throughout the days off everyone has plenty to eat, but no one has to spend the holiday in the kitchen.
For three days, all the businesses close down, from giant corporations and banks, to the mom and pop stores on the way to the train station. Everything closes. And people focus in on family, on neighbors, on community.
On New Year’s Eve, at midnight, everyone goes to their neighborhood Shinto shrine. They bring with them the amulets from the past year, wooden and paper placards, animals, arrows with blessings tied to them. At the shrine, each person takes turns approaching the huge bell, and tugging at the thick rope to ring in the new year. Then the old amulets are brought over to the bonfire, and thrown in. Crowds of people stand around and watch the old year burn away. And each person leaves the shrine with new amulets, for the new animal year, starting off fresh.
On New Year’s Day, we usually woke up late and moved slowly. Food was available all day; there was no set meal time. People just ate, and drank, and visited. It is the time of year when you pay respect to relatives, local community leaders, bosses and teachers. When I spent one New Year’s with a high school principal, people came to the door for days bringing small gifts of food, bowing to this teacher, asking for his continued favors for themselves and their families.
And it is also a time to visit the large temples, to make religious pilgrimages a little further away. First we spent hours preparing, all the women together, with the older women in the family dressing the younger women up in kimonos.
I remember one year standing still for nearly two hours while five elderly aunts and grandmothers labored over my holiday outfit, putting on layer after layer of clothing, tugging and tucking and fussing. By the time the obi had been tied, I had been transformed; I felt like a living doll. Then we all took the train together to the temple, walking through the snow in our zoris, carrying our parasols.
And then there were the afternoon karaoke parties, with everyone in the group taking their turn at the microphone, while the others cheered them on. I spent hours rehearsing a Japanese pop song so that I would be able to hold my own.
Every year, when our New Year’s Eve parties are being planned, I am flooded with memories of Shinto shrines, kimonos, big snowflakes, bonfires, and friendship. And I find myself checking out airfares to Tokyo in the newspaper.
Oshogatsu omedetou. Happy New Year.