click three times … there’s no place like home there’s no place like home

You can take the girl out of Japan but you cannot take Japan out of the girl.

There’s no time I miss being in Japan more than at New Year’s.

(Equally, there’s no time I feel more displaced on American soil but that’s an ongoing issue yet to be resolved.)

It’s already New Year’s Day there, the most important day of the year, solemn and pure in a sense, there really is no Western equivalent. Their celebrations always resonated and intuitively made more sense to me than the American approach of getting blinding drunk, raucous parties and overall loudness (an American trait).

This is the time of nengajo, New Year’s postcards. I remember writing them industriously and the time required because I’d need to look up nearly every kanji and I loved receiving them, usually the post office delivering en masse at or just before New Year's Day, and would ask for help when someone's kanji was illegible.

This time, New Year’s Eve, in Japan would be osooji, the Great Clean. I’d be joining in on cleaning my house from top to bottom, including windows. (I still carry on with the tradition except this year I skipped windows because they were recently done and are film-winterized.)

Office desks are cleaned and organized too, businesses often giving employees half the day before closing for a few days. I remember watching men and women in their blue business suits industriously scrubbing, tidying up and organizing, it was really sweet and cool.

Porches and sidewalks in front of homes, office buildings and shops are swept up. Cars are washed. I didn't have one so I washed my mamachan, the old lady style bicycle that prevails.

Grocery shopping is completed, usually in a frenzy, before stores close for day or two. Debts are paid off, though this tradition has fallen victim to economic blight. All to enter the new year with a clean slate.

Kadomatsu and little decorations spring up in front of buildings and at shrines and homes and on the fronts of cars and in crevices.

 

Each plant in the kadomatsu bears a symbolism, which I won't expound on but for example the bamboo must be of differing heights and cut at an angle to allow maximum entry of the spirits.

New Year’s Eve bells at Buddhist temples are struck 108 times — joya no kane, the watchnight bell — by monks or the public to cleanse ourselves of our 108 worldly desires.

I remember this New Year’s Eve in Utah a few years ago with my father and stepmother. Just before midnight we stepped out onto the quiet street on the bluff where they live and she tooted a paper horn and he unleashed the annual prognosticating cork of the champagne bottle and I struck a little brass dinner bell 108 times and yes indeed I counted.

On New Year’s Eve night and the few days after, they'll visit shrines, large and tiny, en masse to offer prayers and toss coins into wooden boxes and retrieve an omikuji, a fortune, which if bad is tied around fencing, ropes, branches.

Visitors will wait for hours at the ultra-popular shrines, like the famous Meiji Shrine where I lived, yets it's all very peaceful and melodic. The ones so crowded that there's no way to get to the donation box up front, they just send their coins sailing from afar, bonking people up front on the heads in a rain of coinage.

There's osechi ryori, dishes prepared specifically for New Year's ahead of time that keep and most of which are eaten cold except the (yum!) ozoni soup. Osechi was designed in a past era to give the women respite from cooking and housework (thus also the osooji) and the family could relax and rest and enjoy their time. Used to be the entire country shut down for a few days, absolutely nothing was opened, the streets were still, but that's changed a lot.

Osechi preparation is actually rather time-consuming so these days it's common to buy them at department stores and shops, they displays are abundant and lovely:

They truly are beautiful and each food has a meaning, for example:

Kazunoko (herring roe), a delicacy of many eggs to symbolize prosperity for one's descendents.
Kuromame (black boiled beans) symbolizes industriousness.
Gomame (small dried sardines) symbolizes a bumper crop.
Kobumaki (rolled seaweed) symbolizes pleasure or delight.
Ebi (prawn) symbolizes a wish for long life.

They don’t necessarily taste quite as lovely as they look, true, though I didn't mind. I knew natives who did, who stuck their tongues out at their mention and would tell me they liked only this or that but of course they'd eat them when presented because overall they're a people of grace and manner. (wish the same could be said of Americans …)

Then there is hatsuhinode, viewing the year's first sunrise. People gather and wait atop mountains or buildings, Tokyo Tower in Roppongi being a popular site where I lived, or they sit at seashores or in parks to receive the first light. Hatsuyume is the first dream of the year that is said to foretell the dreamer's luck in the coming year. There is more but these are those I hold dearest.

年暮れぬ
笠きて草鞋
はきながら

Another year is gone;
and I still wear
straw hat and straw sandal

                      — Bashoo Matsuo

年は明るいように

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