For Whom The Bell Tolls: How I Spend My New Year in Tokyo

By Ash Warren

Like Australians and soccer, it’s an unspoken truth that the Japanese have never really gotten into Christmas. It seems to lie in a rather lonely place on the edge of the plate somehow, next to the brocolli and the brussel sprouts that you know you should eat but you’d rather bypass in order to proceed directly to the tiramisu.

Even so, there are plenty of Christmas lights here in Tokyo, and Christmas trees and Christmas events and Christmas sales, particularly the latter, which due to the dolorous state of the Japanese economy (think large ship meets iceberg, people gathered at the stern singing hymns) starts no later than September.

Christmas lights in Nakadori, Ginza

And it’s a weird animal, this Christmas.  It’s a sort of half-thing, like something that has gone into the transporter room on Star Trek and come out the other end, well, not quite right, like Mr. Spock with normal ears. Recognisable yes, but still a bit dodgy somehow.  It’s not even a holiday here, it’s a workday, a school day, department stores are Santa-free zones,  what’s going on?

Welcome to Pseudo-Christmas.  It’s a Christmas that is almost exclusively for The Young, and mysteriously given the middle finger by everybody else. The Young though take it seriously, and there are two particularly Japanese aspects of it that are seen as sacrosanct to Pseudo-Christmas, so let’s not just gloss over them.

Firstly, it is mandatory to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken (yes, you read that right) on Christmas Day. As a result, KFC is responsible for the slaughter of enough forlorn birds to feed a small African nation on this day, no doubt much to their corporate joy.  Why this tradition seems to have gotten a foothold in Japan of all places no one knows, but the only way to get into a KFC on Christmas Day in Tokyo is with a machete and the cry of ‘fire!’

The other must do among The Young is the ‘Romantic Christmas Date‘.  Such is the importance of this for young single gals, the mandatory sequence of events being a trip to see the Christmas lights in Ginza followed by a meal in a French restaurant costing the equivalent of three month’s pay, that in a recent poll 53% of women stated that in order for the aforesaid date to occur they would accept a request for a date from, and I quote:

‘Absolutely anybody‘.

Such is the state of true romance.  But let’s move on.

Still and always, the beating heart of the season is oshogatsu,  the New Year.

New Year reigns supreme in Asia, and especially in Japan. It is a treasured time for family and rest.  A moment when the whole nation returns to the family home, in many cases visiting loved ones for the one and only time in the year  (The Chinese sensibly do it in February, allowing them to make the most of the New Year sales shopping in Tokyo. God bless them, we need the money).

Here’s what happens.

First of all, it isn’t just New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day. Oshogatsu actually begins a few weeks earlier, with a liver-terminating series of Year End parties called bonenkai.  The word bonenkai actually means ‘forget the year’ party, and if you were a salaried worker in a Japanese company (or a Democrat in America) the significance of this would not be lost on you.  Most people have four or more bonenkai in December, one or two of which will be work related and the others with your friends because, hey, why not?  Thus the restaurants in the bonenkai season tend to be absolutely heaving, and the late trains equally heaving, and then there are a vast number of drunks found heaving therein, or just lying on the floor going round and round the Yamanote line like sushi on a conveyor belt.

Just in case you missed someone, in the first weeks of January there will be another round of similarly liver-terminating shinnenkai (New Year Parties) with the same colleagues and friends because hey, why not?

Typical izakaya pub/restaurant in Gotanda, Tokyo.

 

Then there’s the cleaning.

Osoji (Big Cleaning) usually takes place the week before New Year when housewives militant will dragoon all the available members of the family, willing or unwilling,  to clean the house from top to bottom, fix the paper sliding doors from the children’s misadventures, blast the windows with carcinogenic sprays, wash the sneakers in the shoe box…. you get the picture.

Once the dust has settled so to speak, attention is turned to a far more important subject: food.

The New Year period has, for hundreds of years, been deemed a holiday (don’t laugh) for women.  Thus the preparation of traditional osechi dishes at this time, each one having some esoteric meaning (long noodles = long life, red azuchi beans = hard work etc.) which are made in industrial quantities then arranged in ornate lacquer boxes and eaten over a three day period.  Mama, therefore, does not have to cook.  Which is a good thing, as she’s exhausted making osechi anyway.

Then, in the last few days of the year, there is the writing of nengajo or New Year cards, on forest-withering scale.  Most people send out at least 40 of these cards to friends and family, and in the case of my family it’s a few hundred.  All of these are delivered on the morning of January 1st by legions of temporary postal workers, usually students, in what represents the world’s largest single day postal delivery.  Over 13% of the the total annual posted items in Japan are delivered on this day.

The author’s 2017 New Year Card

 

Exhausted?  We haven’t even started.

In my family, and we are all Australians, even though my wife and I have lived here since the Edo Period (well it seems like that, but over 25 years anyway) we all look forward to New Year.  We don’t have to worry about visiting all those pesky relatives (‘the ones you neglected to bury’ as the old Irish song has it) because, well, we don’t have any here.  As a result, we stay in Tokyo while everybody else conveniently leaves, rendering a splendid and once-in-a-year tranquility to the Big Mekan that is really rather appealing.  Quiet streets, quiet trains, quiet shops.  Lovely.

At this time of year, in many houses, the kotatsu (a low, heated table covered with a quilt) takes pride of place.  Dressed in one’s most comfortable fluffy slippers and venerable hanten (a quilted jacket), one spends one’s days lazing thereunder, reading, watching reruns of ’24’,  ‘Die Hard’ #1-5 and of course all thirteen seasons of NCIS, which Fox TV thinks nothing of running twenty-four hours day, seven days a week in a ‘Catch-up Marathon’ of such mind numbing duration that would cause a Zen Master to run screaming from the room.  And as one is thus lying in state in a veritable semi-coma for over a week, one subsists  on a diet of tea and mandarin oranges, because That’s What One Does At New Year.

The author wearing hanten at his kotatsu

 

But.

There is one thing most of the country does NOT do at New Year these days (or at least increasing numbers tend to avoid like the plague, especially me)  and that is watch the New Year’s Eve Red and White Singing Contest on NHK, the national broadcaster.  This show, which starts around 7pm and runs till after midnight used to be a staple of Japanese life, without which no New Year’s Eve would be complete and where the whole family gathered around the Box like flies at a BBQ.

That is until the audience, especially The Young, realised they were watching the same show, with the same ‘celebrities’, over and over and over like they were trapped in a virtual Groundhog Day and ran for the hills and the pleasures of Die Hard 5 on the other channel.

The kohaku, as it is known, is over 50 years old and that’s about the time the same people as today started performing on it.  Indeed, like American cable TV (that twilight zone where no show ever really dies) no matter how old you are, how washed up your showbiz career is, how forgotten you are by any living member of the free press or indeed any other sentient creature including aliens checking out old broadcasts on Alpha Centauri, you can still find that ‘celebrity’ on the kohaku, belting out (the same) old ballad they had a hit with in 1963 about love’s labours lost or the beauties of their rustic hometown, which is now a forgotten, uninhabited and quietly rotting village in the mountains of Shikoku. It’s like The Walking Dead, with music.

At around 11pm on New Year’s Eve, we start to move.

It’s now time to go down to Dojoji, our local Buddhist temple, for the bell ringing ceremony called joya no kane.  As we proceed, the darkened streets are full of shadows, full of people moving, heading out to do the same.  We arrive at the temple in about ten minutes and line up.  The ceremony usually starts around 11.30 and then carries on for a few hours after that. One by one the families are allowed up onto the platform of the bell tower, and then together we raise the large wooden log and swing it into the great bell, which has two very nice benefits.  Firstly it emits a fantastically low, booming chime which you can hear for miles and which seems to radiate right throughout your body where it almost, but not quite, cleanses you of the bonenkai season.  Secondly it is supposed to expiate your sins for the year (of which mine, I am informed, are largely grammatical but my wife may disagree.)

After this we proceed up the road to Hikawajinja, our local Shinto shrine for hatsumode, which is the customary first visit of the year to a shrine to pray for good luck.  There is usually a huge line there by this time and we often have to wait for an hour with all our neighbors before we make it into the shrine itself.  While we wait, there is a noh dancing on the small stage inside the shrine grounds accompanied by music played on traditional instruments.

Shrine maidens dancing

After praying we look around the little stalls selling food and other things, perhaps drink some hot sweet sake and we always buy the ‘lucky arrow’ which has a little ema tablet attached with a picture of the chinese zodiac animal that represents the year.

If you are thinking this sounds all very religious by the way, it isn’t really.  It is very interesting that Japan is a land covered with temples and shrines but actually having very little real religion.  What they do have, and why they visit temples and shrines so often, is custom.  This is the real reason why people go, us included.  Plus it’s a great atmosphere and a very nice ‘clean’ way to start the New Year.

New Year is a highly underrated and magical time to visit these isles, and something you’ll never forget, as I never will.  So do come and join me sometime, fellow NiTHers!

Finally, let me conclude with this famous haiku from the Japanese poet Shiki, and wish all of you the best for the New Year!

New Year’s Day
nothing good or bad –
just human beings.