JUDGING by the recent spike in Facebook statuses relating to pain, suffering and sobriety, it would seem for the most part that the working world is back in full swing both at home and abroad. I too, having FINALLY peeled the stinking Rolling Stones t-shirt off my back and put on the pants that general society prefers (nay - requires), am back at work again for 2011. Happy New Year people, make it a good one!
This has been my first Festivus in Japan, and I must say its been a delight. Of course things are celebrated differently here, and the National Geographic geek in me has been quite enjoying all of it!
So, obviously, the most notable difference is the reverence (or lack thereof) given to Christmas here as opposed to the predominantly Christian Australia. Honestly it was more Saturday than Christmas Day; shops are open, people go about their business and no one eats boiled goose. And why would they, this is not a Christian society, and although Christmas is increasing in popularity thanks to the increased western influence, it is really just another day here. The dominant religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shintoism, and they do not rank the birth of Jesus Christ terribly highly. This is not to say that Christmas is completely ignored; in fact it is a highly commercialized experience, there are Christmas trees in shopping centres, but it is by no means the ubiquitous sensory assault that often occurs in Australia. Christmas carols in supermarkets in November anyone?
One aspect of Christmas that has been imported and, dare I say, improved upon is the tradition of Christmas lights, which take on truly gargantuan artistic proportions over here. It is AWESOME, and quite a spectacle, and I LOVE IT. The innovative use of lighting should come as no surprise in this neon paradise and the Christmas work is some of the finest I have ever seen (a personal highlight was the grove of skeleton cherry blossoms lining the Meguro River that were all decked out uniformly in pink lights to give the impression of the trees in full blossom).
A rather random imported Christmas tradition that just cracks me up is the large number of people who visit KFC on Christmas Eve. Apparently it all stems from a rather aggressive and wildly successful marketing push in the '70s to equate Christmas with eating chicken from Kentucky, and if you think about it, The Colonel does look an awful lot like Santa.
But the big festive event for Japan is New Year, no doubt. It's a three-day holiday, it is respected and an easy way to try and explain it would be to say that it is what Christmas is to the Western Christian world, savvy? There is a lot about the Japanese New Year traditions to like, and the overriding theme seems to be to start the new year off with a clean slate. Homes, schools and work places get cleaned from top to bottom, temples and shrines hold bonfires to correctly dispose of the previous year's charms and fortunes, and there are specific decorations symbolizing longevity, prosperity, good fortune and health that are hung around the home and throughout businesses. One does not escape the obligatory social event that is the Christmas card, it is just moved a few days to New Year, and will most likely come in postcard form adorned with the corresponding Chinese zodiac animal of the coming year. FYI – it’s the Year of the White Rabbit.
I was surprised at how quiet the evening was compared to Australian traditions towards 'enthusiastic' revelry, (you all know I mean 'drunken' by 'enthusiastic'). It's a time for family here though; another tradition is to eat soba noodles together on New Years Eve (again, we are going for longevity here, but there are also stories of the triangular buckwheat seed from which the soba noodle is made representing the power of the Emperor. They're pretty big on symbolism over here).
At midnight temples ring their bells 108 times (in accordance with the Buddhist believe that each bell toll will ward off the 108 worldly human desires of the world) and it was quite an incredible sound to hear these bells echoing around the bay in the still of midnight. At around 6 in the am, me and a bunch of other souls made our way to Miura Kaigan beach to watch the first sunrise of the year, a sight accompanied by the sound of traditional taiko drummers.
Like a traditional Western Christmas there are traditional Japanese New Year foods, particularly mochi, which is a pretty serious little sticky, chewy rice cake that can pack a bit of a punch in the digestive stakes. I laughed off the National News precautions and warnings on how to serve and eat your mochi at New Year to reduce the harm or danger, and thus was suitably shocked to hear that 13 people had been reported dead in mochi related fatalities the following day. Apparently these bad boys are so dense and hard to chew down that if you get one stuck or choke on one you are in serious trouble. One article went as far as to recommend keeping a vacuum cleaner handy so that if you did choke or suffocate yourself on mochi you could SUCK THE OFFENDING PIECE OUT WITH THE VACUUM CLEANER NOZZLE. I currently cannot comment on how mochi goes down, as I have developed a mild phobia towards them. Annnnnnnnnd I have no vacuum cleaner.
Happy Year of the White Rabbit folks, I really do mean it when I say make it a good one.