One of the things that surprises the Japanese is that New Year’s isn’t that big a deal in the West. It’s mostly a chance for parents to drink away the stress from Christmas and post-Christmas present replacement and for young people to have an excuse to drink heavily. (Not that much of an excuse is needed four young people to drink.)
In Japan, though, New Year’s is a much bigger celebration. It’s one of the two celebrations where family return home and the only celebration when television shuts down its regular programming and has nothing but endless New Year’s specials. (This includes reruns of last year’s specials as a way to setup this year’s specials.)
Because the television is mostly crap, people end up doing unusual things like “talking with their families” and “eating” and “drinking heavily.”
In fact, for the last few hours I’ve done nothing but eat and drink and, believe it or not, talk in Japanese. (It’s 9:20 p.m. on the 31st as I write.) I’ve now got a glass of Booker’s 125.9 proof bourbon at my side which means it’s the perfect time to write this post. (Since my brother-in-law brought the bourbon, it also means my in-laws are totally international.)
It also means my Japanese is at awesome level, or at least I believe it is.
The biggest television event of the season is playing on television as I write. It’s the annual Red and White Music Contest where the most popular singers and groups of the year perform for four hours in a “men” (white team) versus “women” (red team) contest. Also included are several Enka singers, who are not popular at all, but are necessary to give retired people a reason to watch. Inexplicably, for reasons I still don’t understand, the men often win. The prize is only bragging rights.
After midnight, it’s tradition to travel to various Buddhist temples and help ring the temple bells 108 times (each person only rings three times). The number of rings represents the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief and ringing the bells helps purify people for the start of the year. (For the record, I believe I’m at around 85 sins; so much to do, so little time.)
The next morning is spent drinking sake and eating ozoni, a kind of vegetable soup with rice cakes. I plan to eat three rice cakes—each is about the size of a deck of cards.
Last, all the kids get otoshidama, or New Year’s money from relatives. This is envelopes full of cash (with amounts based on relationships).
The final tradition is She Who Must Be Obeyed and I seizing large portions of the money and putting into savings for the girls. This is followed by fending off accusations of theft from our girls.
That’s tomorrow though. Until then, Happy New Year!