Sunday, January 13, 2008

Christmas and the New Year in Japan

The Christmas holiday season often start with a "meeting to forget the year" (bonenkai忘年会). This is a serious drinking session between colleagues or friends in a Japanese bar (izakaya居酒屋). The aim is to solve all the troubles of year in alcohol. Japanese people do that seriously, as the strong beer smell in the last subways at this period of the year shows. Bunch of friends, sport club, office colleagues, head of section’s party, head of department’s party, suppliers party, customers party, a social Japanese will attend a dozen such evenings during December.
But December is not only the month of employees sinking in alcohol. It is also the month of illuminations. Often set-up by department stores, they bring some cheerfulness to grey cities. They sometimes reach a grand scale, as in the Millenario show, attended by 200.000 people everyday. They wait for several hours to go through an illuminated street of central Tokyo. Once under the lights, it is of course forbidden to stop because people behind are waiting to take the turn. Security guards strictly enforce the rule.
In December, Japanese also write Greeting Cards (nengajo 年賀状). The custom is to send them to their close family and friends, but also to customers, suppliers and all social relations. The cards are very simple, with a small drawing representing the animal of the year (the rat in 2008, the cow in 2009). Long stories are not necessary, since these cards just mean the sender is still alive, and still cares about the receiver. It is common to send or receive several hundreds cards, pre-printed cards are acceptable. Rubber stamps are sold in department store with the common greeting messages. However, elegant people will hand-write their greeting cards with a calligraphy brush. These cards all are equipped with a number of lottery, and will be distributed exactly on January first by the Japanese post office, which just recruits temporary workers on this occasion.
Christmas Day does not have any religious meaning in Japan,except for the very small Christian community. It is not even a major event, and not a bank holiday. However, people eat Christmas cake that day. Chicken is “de rigueur”, the result of 30 years of marketing from the fast-food chain KFC. Fried Chicken should be ordered several weeks in advance to receive them hot at dinner time on Christmas eve. On December 15th in 2007, according to the KFC site, it was already impossible to book fried chicken for slots after 4pm. Young couple have a romantic date. This starts in an elegant restaurant, and ends in an hotel room that was also booked several months in advance. The day is as sad for singles as Valentine’s day in the west. Maybe a sign of the economic crisis, it was still possible to book a smart hotel room in Tokyo for Christmas night on mid-december 2008.
During the last days of the year, it is common to listen to the 9th symphony of Beethoven, especially the “Ode to Joy”, sometimes sung by large choral. The traditional celebrations start on the New Year's Day (shougatsu, 正月). In the old Chinese lunar calendar used until 1873, the New Year's Day often took place at the beginning of February, right before the beginning of spring. The majority of the city dwellers return to their home town during the last days of December, and large cities are almost empty. Trains are overcrowded and Japanese motorways become a huge solid traffic jam.

Before new year’s eve, Japanese families usually clean the house in order to properly welcome the new Year. It is the Daisoji (大掃除). Your host in this blog happens to be quite tall, and was often asked to clean the windows and the top of furnitures. New years eve is often spent with family. A strong audience watches the variety program "Kohaku Uta Gassen" (紅白歌合戦). Two teams of singers perform a song contest: the reds (women) and the white (men). 58th edition of the program is held in 2007. It is a little bit past its prime, but still the most popular variety show in Japan.
Around midnight, the bravest people go to the Buddhist temple to strike one of the 108 gong that welcome the new year. There are several explanations for the number 108, but the following one is probably most interesting. There are six parts of the body through which one can feel the world through: eyes (眼), ears (耳), nose (鼻), the tongue (舌), guts (身) and the heart(意). This should be multiplied by 3 because the feelings can be pleasant (好), unpleasant (悪) or indifferent (平). That should be multiplied by 2 as the feelings can be pure (浄) or impure (染). This makes for a total of 36 that is then multiplied by 3 to take into account the former life (前世), the current life (今世), and the future life (来世). As This example shows, understanding buddhism is no small undertaking.
A dish of soba (buckwheats spaghettis) is also eaten on the evening of the 31. One eats them hoping that his life will be as long as the shape of these pastas. While in the temple, it is also common to drink sweet hot sake(甘酒), especially welcome during this cold night.

The great family event takes place on January 1st. People gather to eat New Year's food (osechi ryori, 御節料理). This is prepared in advance and elegantly laid out in lacquered boxes. In the past, it was taboo to cook during the first 3 days of the year. This custom is a blessing for the house wife as she can fully enjoy the party.
Food vary from region to region, but it often has a meaning of good omen. Black beans (kuromame, 黒豆) shoud bring good health as "bean" has the same pronunciation as health in Japanese. Cured sardines (tazukuri, 田作り) represent an abundant harvest, as sardines were formerly use to fertilize the rice paddies. Herring egg (kazunoko, 数の子) promise a year fertile, with many babies born, their pronunciation in Japanese meaning "many children". Fish cakes (kamaboko, 蒲鉾) remind by their shape and their color (white and red) the raising sun. People eats also sea-bream (Tai, 鯛) because the sound is related to the word "medetai", considered good omen. Mochi, a rice paste, is also eaten on that day.
Mochi (餅) is considered as an offering to the Gods. Japanese people eat it in a soup called zoni (雑煮) to thank the gods for the harvests of the previous year, and to prey for next year to be as good. The recipe of the "zoni" differs from region to region. Basically, the pieces of mochi are square and are roasted in the east of Japan (Tokyo東京, Sendai 仙台, Aomori 青森) because it is the custom of Edo, old Tokyo. They are round and boiled in the west of Japan (Kyoto 京都, Osaka 大阪,Hiroshima 広島and Fukuoka 福岡) following the fashion in Kyoto. The soup is based on fish stock (sumashiすまし) in the east of Japan and Kyushu (九州) the island at the extreme west of Japan. Miso (味噌) is used in Kansai (関西), especially in Kyoto. Azuki (小豆) soup is drank in Hiroshima region (center-west of Japan).
Mochis are also used as a decoration (kagami mochi 鏡餅). It is made of two balls of mochi one over the other with a bitter orange (daidai 橙), whose meaning is “several generations”, and should bring a long lineage of descendants. Other New Year decorations associate the pine (its evergreen foliage symbolizes permanence), and bamboo (which folds but does not break, and means strength). Arrangements using these plants are placed in the entrance of the house (kadomatsu 門松 meaning pine of the entrance) to invite gods to visit the house. People also often places a rope with papers folded in zigzag (shimenawa注連縄) to decorates the door of the house, temples and even cars.
Japanese offers gifts only to the small children. For older ones, money, called "the coins of the year" (o-toshi-dama お年玉) is wrapped in an elegant envelope. Japanese families have few children, and so children receive many gifts from parents, aunts and grandparents. It is not uncommon for a young child to receive several hundred euros of New Year's gifts. Older people often resent this, as they were brought in families with more children, and thus did not receive that much. On the first of January or following days, Japanese pays the first visit of the year to the temple (hatsumode, 初詣). They also go to their neighbor house, offering cakes or small gifts (onenga, お年賀).
On the 2nd or 3rd of January, everyone goes back home, causing record traffic jams and completely saturating public transport. The working year then starts with a series of parties with friends and colleagues to welcome the New Year in alcohol and dignity. That is called Shinnenkai (新年会), and is repeated several times between groups of friends, colleagues, customers and suppliers. The loop is then closed, and the holiday season is wrapped-up in alcohol, just the way it begun a month before.

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