Thursday, January 10, 2008


Happy New Year

Hope everyone’s New Year is off to a good start. Mine has been mixed so far. I’m trying to pull myself from the lethargy of the holidays so that I can actually get some work done.

As for the holiday itself, it was very nice. This was my second New Year holiday spent with my in-laws in Japan; I like the holiday in Japan much more than I do in the U.S. The focus is very much placed on preparing to greet the new year, which is good in the end, but a horrible process. “Horrible”. . .that may be strong. What makes it so bad is ōsōji 大掃除, the “big clean”—of house and car mainly. This may not be such a dread for many Japanese, but my wife is a fanatic cleaner. I, though nowhere near my wife, am fanatic once I get going (however I am often content not to “get going”).

The whole event is made even more pleasant by the fact that Japanese homes do not have central heating, which is actually a moot point as often the windows and doors are left open for cleaning and circulating “good air”. In other words, it’s as cold inside as it is outside (5-12 degrees Celsius). The cold, mixed with ample cleaning chemicals, also does a number on one’s hands—little cracks exposing fresh red meat. . .hurts so good. On second thought, “horrible” is not too strong; it’s perfect.

Anyway, after the madness it is very wonderful to leave a clean house, as we move to the in-law’s house for the holidays. On New Year’s Eve it is a yearly tradition (perhaps across Japan) to eat toshi-koshi soba 年越しそば, which are buckwheat noodles in a broth with a bit of fish. The characters mean “pass the year noodles”. After this many families sit down to watch kouhaku 紅白, meaning “red and white”. This is a show that features many of Japan’s top singers, traditional and popular, that split into a red team and a white team and compete to see who will win the audience’s approval. This show lasts right up to the new year. It's like a Japanese version of the Oscars, without the movies or awards. . .I guess that's a good analogy, probably not though.

Now, usually the new year in Japan is greeted with silence, broken only by the crisp gong of temple bells. However, this year there was a live concert being broadcast from the Tokyo Dome of boy bands from a company called “Johnny’s”. I won’t go into much detail except to say that these bands are the dregs of society, but the girls in Japan (and the occasional woman, such as my wife) adore them. A picture will do more justice than any vituperation I could spew, so I’ll leave it at that.

At my in-law’s home New Year’s Day is opened with a large breakfast: white miso soup with mochi rice and the beginning of osechi おせち, which is a special assortment of dishes that have meanings significant for the New Year. We continue to eat osechi for the next few days, between bouts of lying about.

Later in the afternoon on the first day of the New Year we all dressed up (as a side note we all wore NEW clothes garnered from Christmas, and also brushed our teeth with new toothbrushes—the key being new) and went for the year’s first visit to a Shinto shrine. The local shrine here in Nagaokakyo is called Nagaokatenjin 長岡天神. I don’t honestly know what kind of god is enshrined at the shrine. Anyway, this time we first visited some of the small food vendors lining the path to the main shrine—ate a crépe. The line for praying at the shrine stretched about 50 yards. Once we got to the shrine each of us through a coin or two, rang a bell, clapped twice, and then held our hands in prayer; each of us confessed our hopes for the new year.

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