i’m sure you’re still enjoying the holiday season. so are we japanese. we got out of our christmas fantasy completely, though. we japanese don’t mix our new year celebration with christmas. so you can see no christmas trees anyplace in japan now. our 新年shinnen (new year) has got to be traditional, authentic and 100% japanese. once chrismas day (or even christmas eve!) is gone, in my country, people get busy with preparations for the new year celebration, sweating our guts out. how and why, you'd ask? we, at home and also in our offices, dust and clean every nook and cranny -- even statues of buddha and gutters before 正月shogatsu (the new year).
what a sobering thought! ... a killjoy? i guess you think. indeed, we japanese are serious people even when the time is for letting our hair down, aren’t we. but i don’t argue, since it’s a custom and meant to purify things and ourselves. so much so that our new year arrives as a fresh and dignified start. traditionally, in many ways, our new year holidays is just like christmas holidays in christian countries: a mass exodus for family reunions; exchanging (small) gifts; decking the halls; seasonal gastro-enthusiasm for traditional food (to gain weight, definitely!) and most importantly, caring for people in need.
on new year’s eve we visit a buddhist temple to shake off our 108 worldly desires as the temple bell tolls 108 times by midnight, which is our sort of new year's countdown. and then, many people move on to ideal spots somewhere for viewing the sunrise. being at the crack of the new dawn is very important. well, if weather permitting, though. over the next 3 days, we visit a shrine to pray for something we wish. i've come to think of it, to serve our purpose, we japanese can be christian, buddhist or shintoist, or namely anything like chameleon. whatever i will be, the new year is the time when i’m happy to be japanese and feel lucky to be in japan.
especially, i love the refined new year appearance and atmosphere of 東山higashiyama, an old neighbourhood of 京都 kyoto, where i was born. it’s divine. you would be struck by the beauty if you were in kyoto at this time of year. for their colour scheme, their formalism and their presentations, kyotoites’ aesthetics of "しつらいshitsurai (decking the halls)" is even magical. when i walk along the streets lined with neat rows of houses and shops in kyoto, it makes me proud of my origin. kyotoites preserve their local custom and stick to traditional values (good ones) while they are increasingly forgotten in our modern society.
new year decorations must be set on december 28th. but i’m always a tradition-breaker, placing my tiny 鏡餅 kagamimochi (ornamental rice-cake) on new year’s eve, which is considered bad luck. coincidentally, our new year decorations, especially the colours, look a bit similar to christmas decoration. 松matsu (pine), 竹take (bamboo), 橙daidai (citrus), 藁wara (straw) and 裏白urajiro (fern) are main materials for decking, but, like holly, foliage with red berries such as 南天nanten (nadiana), 千両senryo (sarcandra glabra) or 万両manryo (ardiosa crenata sims) are also often used. every item has a meaning that is supposed to bring us good luck. we japanese are good-luck believers (or plain gullible?) and fond of trivial superstitions.
actually, i’d been working hard (except the new year’s day), having a deadline to meet over the past week, so i didn’t go out to kyoto this year. but, hooray! i’ve just finished and sent it to my editor. now i at last feel like celebrating while most people are going back to work tomorrow. by the way, we must remove all the decorations after january 7th that is when our 松の内matsuynouchi (period of new year celebration) is officially over (like epiphany?). till then, i am still allowed to be in the festive mood for few more days.