In Japan, New Year is the real deal. People do o-soji, or spring cleaning, then stock up on household goods and hunker down for a few days while everything is closed. Some people have nine days off or more! For kenshusei it is time to hunker as well.
Nick has vacated the kenshusei apartment for the week in order to spend New Year with the “Mrs’s” family, so I’ve been on my own. Since we don’t use any heat in the apartment, I’ve been quite cold and glad to have these new long johns sent from home for Christmas…
NEW YEAR’S EVE
I slept in on this day, made myself some toast and eggs in the early afternoon, and then did some o-soji. I finally threw out Yannick’s old futon mattress, which I had been using since he left last March, but which he let get covered in kabi, or the dreaded Japanese black mold. I thought I could keep it at bay by keeping the mattress dry, but no luck. So into a yellow trash bag it went for o-soji, and off to the D2 homestore I went.
I heard a story about the Soviet Union once: if you saw a line, you got in it even if you didn’t know what it was for, in case there was something important at the end. Using the same logic, I bought more toilet paper at D2 just because it was almost sold out.
So I caught the bus home from D2 lugging enough TP for a small army and a new futon mattress, hopped off at the laundromat to take my bedding out of the drier, and made it home in time for a delicious New Year’s Eve dinner of roast beef…
On the advice of my English students, I decided to spend the midnight countdown at Chion-in temple, which has a huge bell that is rung 108 times at midnight on New Year’s. Unfortunately, my student didn’t tell me that you have to get there by 10:30PM to get in. So I ended up standing around with the large crowd outside the entrance. The crowd was about half stoney-faced, quiet Japanese and half boisterous, inebriated 20-something Europeans, who I assume were mostly exchange students from Kyoto University. While it’s true that young French girls en masse is a sight for sore eyes for this expatiate, the term baka-gaijin couldn’t help but come to mind. However, it was nice that they called out the last 30 seconds of 2013, or I wouldn’t have known when the year changed. My evening looked pretty much exactly like this photo of New Year’s Eve outside Chion-in:
Then I went home and had a New Year’s snack: a very small bottle of cheap bubbly and dried salmon courtesy of Takenaga’s grandmother.
NEW YEAR’S DAY
The first day of 2014 dawned bright and balmy. It was one of those mild winter days when it is actually warmer outside than inside. I got up late and made my way down Imadegawa street to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to a guardian deity of learning. It is a quite spacious and popular shrine full of tall old trees, stone monuments, and traditional wooden buildings to house various kami gods. Today, it was swamped with people, but no one was in a hurry. It was a very relaxed atmosphere with vendors outside offering sweets and dart games. It looked almost exactly like these photos of the shrine:
After Kitano Tenmangu, I bicycled around a bit, exploring parts of my neighbourhood I’ve never seen. Everything was quiet with businesses closed and people out walking, usually to shrines or temples, I suspect. At Shiramine, I paid a visit to Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and watched the shotokan karate club going out for a bare-foot run to start their New Year’s Day training… New Year’s Day training–oh, the shame for a kenshusei!!
NEW YEAR’S EVE in New York
In the afternoon, I spent New Year’s Eve with my parents. How did I do that? Not by flying home but through the magic of Skype. Midnight back home is 2:00PM in Kyoto, so logged on and had my traditional New Year’s celebration with my parents, which consists of cheese, shrimp, and champagne and watching the ball come down in New York’s Times Square (I watched the ball broadcast on TV and rebroadcast through Skype!).
Incidentally, shrimp are also eaten as a traditional New Year’s food (called o-seichi) in Japan. Because of their curved backs, shrimp are said to resemble old people and, so, are a symbol of longevity. Other o-seichi include rolled up omelettes, which are said to resemble traditional scrolls and represent good luck for studying, and sweet potatoes, which are the colour of gold and good luck for business. By the way, that orange goop is homemade shrimp cocktail sauce made with wasabi instead of horseradish. Delicious!
Later in the day, I received a mystery gift in the post. I know it is for me only because I can read my name in katakana. I don’t know what it is, but I think it is flash cards. Somebody wants me to learn Japanese!
Notice the stamp on the bottom. 2014 is the Year of the Horse.
TAKENAGA’s PAPA’s UME WINE
At the embu in Tokyo in November, Izzy and I met Takenaga’s family, and her father gave us bottles of his own homemade ume plum wine. I’ve been letting mine sit in order to make the flavour stronger, but tonight was the night. So, I’ve been sitting here watching cheesy chambara films and bad documentaries on YouTube and drinking Takenaga’s papa’s homemade plum wine…
On New Year, everything closes. I went out for a bike ride. The streets are dark. Nick and I live in the Nishijin textile district, where kimono cloth has been made since the middle ages. Normally, the square in the middle has a restaurant bar, cafe, and other businesses open. Here it is tonight:
The izzakaya across from the dojo where I went to my first Mugenjuku party last February was dark:
And even the French restaurant called Waraku above the dojo is silent and uninviting tonight:
I hope someplace is open tomorrow, so I can find something to eat!
Happy New Year 2014 to you all!