Wednesday, January 16, 2008

1/17/08 New Years in Japan

I was particularly interested in witnessing how the Japanese celebrate New Years. I didn't really know how to go about observing it at first, though. For example, in order to really experience Christmas in the US you really need to know an American family that will let you participate. On the same token, New Years is more of a family holiday here, and without any families available I was afraid we might end up just aimlessly wandering around town looking for something to do.

I asked around enough times at school to learn about some more accessible activities. Hatsumode is the practice of going to a shrine or temple at midnight in order to experience one's first shrine visit of the year. Word on the street was that the local Bannaji Temple on the north side of town would be a popular place for people to celebrate.

We arrived at the temple around 11:30. I was still a bit worried about a general lack of people in the area. I figured there would be an obvious commotion: people entering the shrine, some extra car traffic, added noice... something. This didn't seem much different than any other night, and I started to doubt the intelligence that I had gathered.

When we got to the main temple, I was relieved to see that there were several special things set up and that there were a few people around despite the darkness. Still, though, there weren't too many people around, even this close to the big minute. We scarcely noticed by this point, as we were already taking advantage of the opportunities that the lull provided us. The main temple was attractively lit inside, and it occurred to me that although I had strolled by this building several times, I had not yet seen its large doors open.

Angelica in front of the inner temple area. The thing directly behind her that looks like it might be a grill is where offerings are thrown before a prayer. The coins make one or two satisfying rattles before they fall onto what always sounds like a massive hoard of pocket change.

We then turned our attention to the monk-looking gentlemen selling charms on either side of the temples' grand doors. The touristy temples in Kyoto always have a ton of this stuff for sale, but each time I see them I point and ask for an explanation of something different. Here was a more modest selection of pretty much the same stuff. There were charms of all shapes and sizes. Various types of safety and protection seems to be the main idea behind all of the little things. There are a few with suction cups that are meant to hang from one's windshield; they are meant to bring protection from traffic accidents... often several little such things are visible in Japanese taxi cabs. Others are key chains, some little gold-colored cards that you are supposed to carry in your wallet. Still others are tiny little replicas of a elementary school child's backpack... I assume I gather the meaning behind those.

I was drawn to some more traditional, less cheapy-looking things off to one side. There was a big pot full of what looked like pointless arrows with a bit of paper tied around each one. I really wanted to know what these were about and asked, but the explanation was way over my head. Another interesting thing was a few different sizes of pieces of wood with some sort of fancy writing on them. If I remember correctly you are supposed to hang them above a doorway. There were many of these little boards but each had something different written along the side. They turned out to be the same protection stuff. Safety from fires, good fortune, and so forth.

Angelica and I both ended up buying a family safety board. The monk guy even wrote our names on them all pretty. So, if your last name is Milito and you've been feeling extra safe lately, now you know why.

All that superstition had really worked up my appetite, so I took advantage of this opportunity to show Angelica all of the cool carnival type foods that were available, on account of the festivities.

This was just straight grilled squid on a stick. Not a whole lot of description necessary. I picked a single large tentacle over the chunks of body meat. Pretty darn good.

These are pretty basic as well. Banana, chocolate, sprinkles. Delectable.

Strawberry Shortcake and her friends here are patiently waiting for the next batch of donuts, known to some as the charm of protection against hunger.

As the clock ticked towards midnight, a long line started to develop leading back to the temple entrance that we had been at earlier. Sure we had just been there without having to pause even a minute, but that was last year. We got in line and waited.

A look backwards at the line, framed by the happy food stands.

At a few minutes till several bells began to ring around us. It was a nice atmosphere. Not the same excitement as a classic American new year ball drop, but a different kind of buzz. As the line started to advance, people began to take pictures every which way by cellphone. Ringing a large gong thing hanging over the main staircase was a popular amusement as everyone marched towards the front to say a prayer. Eventually the line degenerated into a hectic free-for-all. We eventually made it to the top of the stairs and shared in the commotion.

I was definitely happy that we made the effort to come out despite the cold. It was a great time.


A pretty typical example of a new year decoration, called a kadomatsu. This one is a bit small and lesser quality, but you get the idea. The basic feature of all that I saw was the three bamboo pieces cut at an angle.

I saw this at the supermarket and I was compelled to buy it. It is a little old-school looking barrel of sake, sake included. I assume that it too is a new year thing, as I have not seen them for sale prior. Maybe a week ago I put up a picture of a massive wall of these things that were stacked in front of the kabuki-za in Tokyo. You can refresh your memory here.

One last little tidbit. A popular food eaten during the New Year season is called mochi. Its pretty much a big pile of sticky rice pounded into a dumpling. It's sticky, formless nature poses an apparently significant amount of peril to the elderly, and a death toll is announced the next morning in the newspapers... all from choking. Dangerous world out there. Here is a small article on the aftermath in Tokyo.


  1. I did New Year's at a smal town temple in Tochigi a couple of years ago also. It was a pretty neet experience. The temple was pretty crowded also with a long line to make an offering. The line remained orderly the entire time.

  2. Yeah I was a bit surprised about the whole crowd. It was mostly younger people, contrary to my assumptions. Some of them were kind of rough looking, and still more of them were some stage of drunk, so once were done with the praying business we got the heck out of there.