For a country with such a long history, Japan has very little traditions of its own.
Even though the Japanese emperor’s lineage dates back to 660 B.C., the country’s main religion (Buddhism) and crop (rice) are imports from China. It is the same with Japan’s most celebrated holiday, New Year’s.
The New Year’s celebration in Japan can be compared to Christmas in America. It is a family holiday.
Christmas in Japan is purely a commercial holiday propagated by Starbucks and KFC. Through a brilliant marketing scheme, Japanese consumers have been convinced that it is western tradition to eat fried chicken on Christmas Day. However, Dec. 25 is still a work day.
On the other hand, the entire nation commemorates the New Year’s holiday from Dec. 29 to Jan. 3. Between those days, almost the entire city of Tokyo shuts down. I had to wait a week to go to the dry cleaners. It is a period of rest and time is meant to be spent with your loved ones.
It is also the time of the bonenkai. Bonenkai literally translates as “forget the year.” One of the true stereotypes of the Japanese is that the salarymen work themselves to the bone, and they drink hard. At the end of the year, every company holds a bonenkai celebration and the workers drink themselves stupid in order to forget all of their troubles from the proceeding year.
I call this an average Friday night.
Another tradition is the Japanese send New Year’s postcards called nengajo, kind of like Christmas cards. These are small postcards designed with the Chinese zodiac representing the upcoming year. This year’s zodiac is the snake. Pretty badass.
Since last November was the first anniversary with my wife Lisa, and paper is the traditional first anniversary gift, I bought Lisa several nengajo with a snake logo.
I thought this was pretty clever. However, Lisa’s grandfather passed away earlier this year. In a year in which you lose a family member you are considered to be in mourning, and you don’t mail any nengajo. Which means I have $30 worth of postcards we won’t use until 2025.
Like Thanksgiving revolves around a turkey feast, the Japanese New Year’s holiday centers around the osechi ryori.
The typical osechi is an assorted variety of painstakingly cooked finger foods that are placed in three ornate drawer-type boxes that stack on top of each other.
Japanese housewives are supposed to start preparing their osechi two weeks prior to New Year’s. Today, most families buy the food for their osechi pre-prepared from restaurants.
However, since this was Lisa and my first New Year’s in Japan as a married couple, she wanted to start our life together on a positive note.
Which meant we spent three straight days cooking and washing dishes.
Each drawer of the osechi box contains five or six sample sizes of each dish, and some of the foods takes hours and hours to prepare.
For example, the sweet black soybeans, called kuro-mame, take over 12 hours alone. First they must simmer in the pot for four hours, then they have to sit and soak for another eight hours.
Another traditional osechi food is the gobo, or burdock root. When we bought the gobo in the grocery store, it looked like we bought a bunch of tree branches. We had to peel this ridiculous food and slice it into small bites that had to soak in a bowl of water and vinegar before it was boiled for 30 minutes.
Did I mention that this also tastes like a stick that has been soaked in vinegar?
Most of the food in the osechi could be described as scrumptious. It is however, healthy as hell, and they each hold special meaning.
The black soybeans represent good health in the upcoming year. Herring roe (eggs) symbolize a wish to have many children. Kamaboko, broiled fish cakes that come in pink and white slices, stands for “joy.”
The gobo root represents long life, as do several other foods in the box. Prawns are a staple in osechi, and the curvature of the crustacean means that you will live long enough for your own spine to curve.
On New Year’s Eve it is tradition to eat soba noodles, which are longer in length than the average noodle, symbolizing, you guessed it, long life.
So on New Year’s Eve, we followed custom and slurped on our soba noodles at home while we watched the kohaku on TV. Kohaku is similar to Dick Clark’s countdown, in that all of the top Japanese pop stars perform during a showcase hosted by popular entertainers.
If you thought Japanese food tastes bad, you should listen to their pop music. Brutal. The current most popular act is a group called AKB48. This “band” consists of 48 mildly attractive young girls in skimpy outfits that dance and lip sync to bubble gum pop. They are adored by teenage girls and middle-aged men. That about says it all.
At midnight, the ball doesn’t drop. Nobody pops a champagne cork (though we did) and nobody sings auld lang syne. You just go to bed and wake up early to go to the shrine.
Now this isn’t a Buddhist shrine, but it is a Shinto shrine. Shinto is the native religion of Japan. There aren’t any priests or bibles. There are just several shrines maintained by monks that are dedicated to ancestors and past emperors. Shinto is commonly described as “ancestor worship.”
The largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo is Meiji Shrine. Lisa has attended Meiji Shrine every year since she was a girl. A typical New Year’s Day begins with an early toast of sake (rice wine) followed by a trip to a shrine.
This year, over 300,000 people visited Meiji Shrine on New Year’s Day, including us. The weather was rather nice – 50 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny. We walked for 50 minutes to get to the shrine where we were met by the crowd.
We happened to enter through the west entrance, which you could call the back door. In years prior we had always gone through the east entrance with everybody else and it would take over an hour just to get through the gate to reach the shrine.
This year we didn’t have to fight the crowd (though there were still quite a few people) and we were able to reach the shrine within 15 minutes. Once at the shrine, you throw in a coin (typically 5 yen), say a prayer and then clap twice.
Then you return home and eat osechi all day and drink beer and sake. Not a bad tradition. I could get used to this.