David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

Japan Stories #12: Happy New Year!

The most important Japanese holiday (with the possible exception of O-Bon) is New Year's Day. One of the most prominent aspects of New Year's here is gifts. Lots of gifts. The first sign of this came at the university in the form of calendars. Every company prints and distributes calendars. I understand that Matsushita has a full-time, all-year staff of twelve to arrange for the design, printing, and distribution of their calendars. Although I only received a couple, my host professor seems to have received dozens and dozens. Lots of these come by mail, but many are delivered personally, usually by two men who stay for tea. I can't guess how many cups of tea my host had to drink to accept these calendars in the necessary manner.

Traditional gifts for the New Year's include assortments of boxed (and beautifully wrapped) food, especially coffee, salad oil, and soy sauce. The quantity of gifts that people give and get is incredible. We read that one government official bought four refrigerators in anticipation of the onslaught of gifts he would get. Universities have a special office where people can bring in 14 boxes of coffee and 23 boxes of salad oil, banking points to exchange for a more useful gift later on. So far we've been thrilled to remain largely outside of the New Year's gift wars: our only major present so far was a huge box of oranges from our friend Mayumi. Even at her quota of ten oranges a day, Cathy hasn't made a dent in the box yet. (Her hair is getting a bit redder, though.)

In addition to exchanging gifts, people send New Year's cards, too. This is done not only with personal friends, but with everyone your aura touched during the year (or in past years, most likely). The most common approach is to send postcards that you or your company designed. If you put a special symbol on the card, and mail it by a specified date, the post office guarantees delivery on January 1st. Many people send specially marked postcards that are actually tickets for a big nationwide lottery held on January 15th. So far, we haven't checked to see if we won anything. If we did, it'd more likely be another box of oranges instead of a couple of million yen. We received only about 20 cards on New Year's Day, but we saw some mailboxes in our building with stacks and stacks of them. (A couple of our cards were written entirely in Japanese, and we still haven't figured out who one of them is from.) Every card we've seen has a sheep theme, since 1991 is the Year of the Sheep (hitsuji). The post office had lots of rubber stamps with sheep on them, so people could decorate their cards. You could also buy your own stamp---of any shape or size---from department stores. We bought a cute little one with a sheep holding a letter in its mouth.

One of the most traditional foods for the holiday is mochi: white rice gluten that sticks to the roof of your mouth and the bottom of your stomach. Mochi, arranged in stacks of two or three round mounds sort of like snowmen, is used as a decoration in temples, shrines, and homes. Also, taking slurps of long thin buckwheat soba noodles on New Year's Eve and Day is a traditional way to wish for a long life. Eating a special kind of herring roe is also traditional, since herring swim in large schools indicating the New Year will bring abundance.

There are several traditional New Year's decorations. Inside most homes is a kagamimochi, which is mochi cakes, konbu seaweed, a piece of urajiro fern, and dried persimmons stacked on a wooden stand. This is crowned by a mikan (a citrus fruit sort like a tangerine) with green leaves. Shimekazari, another traditional arrangement, is a wreath of rice straw (wara, for those of you who've been keeping up with these stories) and urajiro, again crowned by a mikan. We've seen shimekazari, large and small, on our neighbor's doors, on storefronts, and even as a car hood ornament (including on a Cadillac Seville parked at the nearby Denny's). There is also a traditional New Year's flower arrangement called a kadomatsu of green bamboo, rice straw, ornamental purple and white cabbages, and cotoneaster.

Over the vacation, Cathy and I visited Osaka and Himeji castles. Osaka Castle, which was originally built around 1600, was almost entirely reconstructed in the 1950s. The castle itself is nice, and the view of Osaka from the eighth level of the pagoda is wonderful. The really impressive part is the huge rocks used in the original construction. These rocks came from all over Japan, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the famous warlord who built the castle, demanded that feudal families contribute labor and the rocks. Some of the rocks--- many of which have special names---weigh much more than 20 tons. The task of getting them to Osaka and placing them so beautifully and soundly is even more impressive than the rocks themselves.

Himeji is about an hour east of Osaka by train. In contrast to Osaka Castle, this is an original castle instead of a concrete reconstruction. Luckily, we went on a cold winter day and missed the crowds. (Our Japanese friends always think we are unusual since we visit places when they are not crowded. The Japanese always flock to popular places at the same time.) The castle itself is what you think of when you dream about castles. It is really incredible. We entered the massive wooden gates and saw the main pagoda looming over the grounds. We soon entered a corridor several hundred meters long, with original wooden floors worn smooth by slippered feet over more than 300 years. Off the corridor were rooms for the medieval castle families, separated by sexes. Exiting the corridor, we followed several more paths and went up a couple of levels to the main pagoda, which consists of six levels. In contrast to Osaka Castle, which has modern stairs in addition to an elevator, you climb stairs and ladders up each level at Himeji Castle. The lower levels had some museum pieces, but farther up it was relatively bare, except for a few weapons racks and a small shrine at the top level. The top level truly towers over Himeji and gives a sense of the security that the castle must have given to the warlords. The exit leads you back to the castle grounds, which are supposed to be even more beautiful in spring when the cherry trees bloom.

An important Japanese New Year's tradition is to do the equivalent of our spring cleaning. In the last week or so of the year, everyone cleans their homes, offices, cars, etc. In my laboratory at school, the cleaning took place on a Saturday. Everybody showed up at 10AM dressed in work clothes. They then proceeded to empty every office and lab room (probably a dozen or more all told) and then to sweep, mop, wax, buff, and polish everything in sight. Windows were washed, too. The furniture was dusted, the hallways cleaned, and in about six or eight hours, everything was spotless for the New Year. As usual, the hierarchy was clear. The undergraduates did the grungiest work, the full professor was in overall charge, the associate professor took inventory, etc.

The Saturday before New Year's our friend Diane offered us a chance to go to a town called Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture (about 50 miles from Ryujin Onsen, which we visited in October). Diane had been there several times before, and she thought a winter visit would be nice both for us and for her friend Ernie, who was in Japan for the first time. And she couldn't have been more right.

On the way to Koyasan we stopped in a small city to see a friend of Diane's who has been hospitalized since he was in a horrendous car accident nearly a year ago. In contrast to the hospital we visited with Cathy, this one was quite modern. Diane's friend came down to the lobby to see us. He's a student at the Buddhist university in Koyasan, so he gave us a few pointers about what to do in Buddhist temples. He hopes to start training to be a priest again in April, after he's released from the hospital in about a month.

We hopped another train, which wound its way up into the mountains of Wakayama. As in our previous trip, the vistas alone would have made the trip worthwhile. At the last stop on the train, we transferred to a five minute cable car ride up a very steep slope to Koyasan Station. Koyasan is a small plateau surrounded by a set of peaks said to be shaped like a lotus leaf. It was founded in 816 by Kobo-Daishi (or Kukai), the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect and one of the most famous priests in Japanese history. The town consists mostly of approximately 100 temples, all of the Shingon sect. Koyasan was especially nice when we visited, since the town was largely empty of tourists (all our Japanese friends said, "Koyasan is wonderful, but why would you go there when it was cold!?") and had a fresh coat of snow. You've seen those pictures of Japanese temples in the snow, and each temple in the entire town looked like it was perfect for a picture postcard.

From Koyasan Station, we took the bus to Ringeijo-in, the temple where we stayed. Diane usually stays at the temple next door, but they were especially busy getting ready for O-Shogatsu (the New Year), and arranged for us to stay here instead. Our room looked out over the 150 year old garden, giving us the feeling of peace and calm a temple garden (covered with snow) should give. After having some tea in our room, we took off to tour town before dark.

We wandered through the center of town and past many temples towards Okuno-in, a cave where Kobo Daishi is said to be alive, in meditation as a living Buddha. Needless to say, this is one of the most sacred spots in Japan. And the cemetery that leads to it is by itself worth a trip to Japan. The path through the cemetery to Okuno-in is about 2 kilometers, through a forest of massive trees (mostly cedar) that make the path dark but not depressing. Along the paths are literally hundreds of thousands of tombs and memorials. (We heard estimates ranging from about 200,000 to over 500,000.) These used to be primarily from areas (actually families) of Japan, but now there are memorials for major corporations, clubs, and so on. Many people who are buried elsewhere (or cremated, as is common in Japan), have some hair or a tooth or something buried at Koyasan. After viewing Okuno-in, we hurried back to our temple through the snow falling at dusk.

Dinner was held in a private room in another part of the temple. The room was a spectacularly decorated temple room, with good tatami, wooden carvings, and simple but exquisite shoji screens on three sides. The only heat came from a space heater, and Cathy and Diane quickly kneeled close to it. Dinner was brought in by two monks. We each were given our own little lacquered table that we could kneel in front of. As we lifted the lids of our cermaic and lacquer dishes, we revealed one beautiful serving or food after another. The meal itself was neverending, with dish after dish after dish, all vegetarian. Great pickles, vegetables, seaweed, soups, custards, goma-dofu (a speciality here, sesame-based tofu), tempura, and, of course, rice, tea, sake, and beer.

Just before we started back to our room, a woman came in to talk to us. She is the wife of the previous head priest of the temple. When he died three years ago, their eldest son took over. She apologized to us that the screens in our room were not decorated in the style of those where we were eating. The reason was that we were in the new wing with (slightly) better heating, and that they had to put fancy screens in bit by bit, since each panel cost more than $1000 (and our room had eight panels, I think). Finally, she said that the morning service was at 6:30AM, and we were welcome to join.

Back in our room they had set us up for the evening. The kotatsu was in the center, and there were four futon laid out, each with it's foot under the kotatsu. This was good, since the place was awfully cold: in the hallways and at the communal sink and bathroom, there was no heat at all: we could see our breath at all times. We wandered on down to the o-furo (bath), washed up and soaked for a while, and hustled back to the warm futon and kotatsu.

At 6:30AM, Cathy and I went to the sanctuary. It was *really* cold, and when we got there there was an assistant monk preparing incense and bells and one other crazy person ready to pray. Kneeling, which is how they sit for the service, was a little easier due to the electrically heated rug on top of the wooden floor. The chief priest came in soon and started chanting. Several others, including Diane and Ernie, came a bit later. I left after about 15 minutes, and missed the priest's rundown on the sect and on Koyasan, which he gave to Cathy, Diane, and Ernie after the service was finished. We had breakfast in the same room as dinner. The food was standard Japanese fare, with miso soup, rice, and a variety of dishes, beautifully presented, similar to the previous night.

We settled our bill (it was 8000 yen, about $60, for each of the four of us) and checked out around 9AM. We headed for the main temple, the museum (which was closed), a couple of other temples, and the Daimon (or Great Gate) that marks the entrance to Koyasan (where Cathy and I briefly joined a snowball fight with a friendly Japanese girl and boy). At lunch, we decided we wanted to go back through the cemetery one more time, since it was so overwhelming. And it was no less so the second time. At the last moment, we grabbed a taxi back to Koyasan Station, caught the cable car, and got the express back to Osaka. Koyasan gets about a million visitors each year, and after seeing and feeling it, it's easy to see why.

On New Year's Eve, we went to Kyoto. Aftering meeting Diane and Ernie, we wandered around looking for a place to eat. Diane knows tons of places, but everything was either packed or else had an outrageous cover charge. (Ernie was happy, though, since he collected a lot of Kleenex while we wandered. How? Well, it's quite common for stores to hire people to stand on the street and pass out small packages of Kleenex, presumably as an advertising ploy. It is a great thing since many toilets in Japan have no toilet paper. You quickly learn to pick up as much Kleenex as possible, just in case. Ernie thought getting free Kleenex on the street was one of the major signs of the advanced Japanese culture.)

Diane finally led us to a small jazz place called Sesamo. It wasn't too crowded when we got there. Diane drank martinis, Cathy margaritas, Ernie hot sake, and I had brandy. They brought us a selection of food ranging from small patties made of fish eggs to nacho chips. Later on a band consisting of a trombone, a piano, a bass, and a percussionist played. We stayed for one set, which was really great, and then headed off. The whole thing cost just over 10,000 yen ( $75): not bad for good booze, food, and jazz on New Year's Eve.

We headed off towards Yasaka-jinja, one of the major shrines in Kyoto. (This is where our friends Naomi and Glenn were married in October.) Shijo-dori, the main street to Yasaka-jinja, was made into a pedestrian mall to handle the crowd. It was raining lightly on and off, though, and Diane said it was far less crowded than in previous years. People were happy and lots of women (and a very small number of men) were dressed in traditional kimono. We got to the main entrance to the shrine around 11:50PM and shuffled by the stalls selling candy, calendars of seriously half-naked women (seriously), grilled octopus, and so forth. People were buying good luck symbols, including wooden arrows called hamaya (with a special Year of the Sheep placard for making New Year's wishes), small bookmark-like charms called o-mamori to pray for marriage, health, success in school, etc., and many more. Cathy bought two o-mamori to help with studying. Lots of people were buying o-mikuji, or fortunes. For 100 yen, you get to pick a long stick out of a box. The number on this stick is given to the seller, who hands over the appropriate fortune. After reading it, the buyer ties it onto a tree or a special fence, along with about a billion other o-mikuji. And everybody was going to one of the shrines to pray.

We also saw lots of people swinging rope incense: a special kind of rope that stays lit and burns extremely slowly. Some people would swing it in circles, while others would simply swing it up and down. On our way out of the shrine, somebody stopped and gave me half of his rope (maybe we got 2 feet worth), lighting it from the other half. We then made our way up to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple that is about a 20-30 minute walk. It was well past midnight by now: in contrast to the U.S., there was no easy way to tell when it hit midnight. Given the wonderful spirit, beautiful kimono, dancing spots of light from rope incense, and the many sonorous bells in the background, we didn't miss the midnight fireworks at all.

Going into Kiyomizu-dera, the guards stopped me at the entrance. After a brief while we worked it out: it's a wooden structure and they don't permit burning rope incense inside. So, they took me to the side of the entrance, where they had a hitching post to which you could tie your rope and pick it up again on the way out. Wild! Just inside, the temple bell was ringing. Every temple rings their bell 108 times on New Year's Eve. There are lots of descriptions about why, but the simplest seems to be that there are 108 human sins and this atones for them. This temple's bell was huge. It is rung by a mallet, maybe six feet long, hung from two heavy ropes. A priest rings the bell using a third rope hanging down from the middle of the mallet. He swings the mallet back and forth several times, building a lot of power and momentum, hauls it back one last big time, and smashes it into the bell. The whole ceremony is incredibly exciting. We then walked around the temple grounds, which are nestled in the hills overlooking Kyoto from the east. At the entrance once again, I picked up my rope incense and we headed back to the train station.

The train back to Osaka runs all night on New Year's (in contrast to most nights, when they stop around midnight). They don't run so frequently, though, and the 2:30AM train we got was jammed. Luckily, Cathy got a seat (she is now a world expert in elbowing people in order to get to a seat first---in this case, though, we should have been given seats anyway, since we were probably the oldest people on the train.). Although it was packed and everyone was tired, it was still great seeing people wearing kimono, carrying arrows, green bamboo branches, and other New year's symbols. When we got out at our transfer stop, 55-minutes away from Kyoto, I was surprised to see two empty beer cans rolling around the floor, since nobody drinks (anything) on the commuter trains and since nobody litters the trains, either. We finally made it home around 4AM. I didn't mind, though, since the few bowl games that were shown on New year's Day were shown on tape delay around midnight on January 2nd. (Go Huskies!)

The next day, we wandered to a temple about 15 minutes walk from our apartment. Just like the night before, there were lots of people praying, buying fortunes and arrows, and generally milling around. One new thing (to us) was a big fire burning in the middle of the temple grounds. We saw people burning parts of home shrines, last year's arrows, and bags of whatever. (At another temple, we saw a big shed where people were dropping off similar things to be burned.) Apparently this is a way to break with the past and start clean for the new year. In addition, we finally bought an o-mikuji, since these were in English as well as Japanese. The summary of ours, at the top of the sheet, was "Barely Good", in contrast to others we saw that said "Good", "Very Good", "Not Very Good", etc. Over all, it said we'll just have to keep working hard at things. In Japanese, they would say, "gambatte", which means "push on!" (you hear this all the time when climbing Fuji-san). Cathy and I thought that this was more than a "Barely Good" fortune, and we were happy to push on and start the New Year with it.