New Year – temples, shrines but no fireworks

“I’ve just spent four days cleaning my house, one day for each room. Is this winter cleaning the same as spring cleaning in England?” my host mother asked. I told her frankly that I didn’t know anyone in England who spends four days cleaning their house, even under the name of ‘spring cleaning’. Yet in Japan osoji cleaning is an essential part of the new year celebrations and is done in homes, offices and schools. On the last day of term, I’d spent over an hour cleaning the school with the students; washing windows and wiping surfaces as part of osoji. This is the first of many traditions of shogatsu, New Year in Japan.


Shogatsu is celebrated during the first week of January and it’s a time when families get together, share symbolic food and welcome in the new year together. Just like a western Christmas, the preparations for the festival puts the country in a mild state of panic as houses need to be cleaned, decorations need to be hung and banquets of food needs to be cooked. Yet, when New Year’s Eve arrives families settle into spending lazy days at home, visiting relatives and eating mochi rice cakes under their kotatsu. 

New Year Eve

On December 31st, most families watch their favourite TV shows until just before midnight when they dress up warm and visit a Buddhist temple. Neighbours join force to ring a large bell 108 times, the number of worldly desires in Buddhist belief, to cast off their sins from the previous year. After the bells have been rung, long soba noodles and ozoni soup is eaten to bring about a long, happy year.

From then on, a number of firsts are celebrated. The first visit to a shrine or temple, the first sunrise and, the first dream hatsuyume. The first dream is on the night of New Year’s Day to the morning of the 2nd and the luckiest dreams are: “first, Mt.Fuji; second, hawks; third, eggplants”. The origin of these ‘lucky’ dreams are contested so I’m afraid I can’t tell you how the humble eggplant (aubergine) got into the top three!

New Year’s Day

As I walked around Echizen on January 1st, it felt like a ghost town. Cars were in driveways, lights were on but the streets were deserted. I realised later that families don’t generally go out on these days, except to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day. I stopped to watch as a middle-aged man make his first visit to a shrine. He first threw a coin in to an offering box, bowed deeply twice, clapped his hands, bowed again and then pulled a rope that hit a bronze gong. As the sound vibrated through the vicinity, he held his hands in pray. I then copied him, but didn’t bang the gong so forcefully as I didn’t want to wake the kami, the Shinto gods. What would they think of me with a camera round my neck and not knowing if I was in a temple or a shrine!

The mix of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs is confusing for most foreigners. A friendly café owner explained to me that he visits a Buddhist temple to pray for his deceased relatives, but he visits a Shinto shrine to pray for good luck about worldly things, such as health and good business. This has been confirmed to be by my bible of Japanese culture*, that assures me that Buddhism is associated with spiritual matters and temples host funerals. Whereas, Shinto is a religion of earthly matters and shrines are places to pray for success in everyday life. Most people in Japan practise both faiths therefore, it’s customary to both visit a temple, to be purified from the sins they committed in the last year, and a shrine, to pray for good fortune in the coming year. The best of both worlds, you could say.

After all that praying has been done, osechi-ryori is eaten from tiered lacquered boxes filled with symbolic foods. I didn’t try any of this food, nor did I visit a temple at midnight because I was partying with a mix of Brazilian and Irish friends in Osaka. When the clock struck 12, I was in an Irish pub drinking Magners and humming Auld Lang Syne. I had no chance to hear the bells ring out 108 times over the racket of drunk ex-pats!

Yet when my group of rowdy revellers were wandering the streets of downtown Osaka and shouting “Happy New Year” to everyone and anyone, I noticed that they’d been no fireworks. Surely every country has fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve? Well, apparently not Japan. Fireworks here are associated with summer festivals. I don’t really blame them, as who wants to watch fireworks outside in minus zero temperatures? When we eventually found the club we we’re searching for, I was happy to be inside and dancing the new year away with my new friends.

I haven’t even touched on the sending nengajo New Year’s card or about children receiving packets of money from their relatives, but as you can see New Year in Japan is steeped in tradition, religion and history to bring about a good year and wave good bye to the previous year.

Welcome, the year of the snake!

*The Bilingual Handbook on Japanese Culture. Gillespie, J. K. (2004).

Being a tourist in my own town

After three days of sitting under my kotatsu (heated table), eating Christmas chocolate and watching films it was high time I got some exercise. I also wanted to explore Echizen on foot, something I hadn’t done since I arrived in August when the heat was unbearable. Now snow has fallen in abundance and has settled on rice paddies, parks and roofs. I put on my wellies and a coat, grabbed my camera and set off for an afternoon of exploration.

Twenty minutes later I was sat in a Kyudo dojo (Japanese archery training hall) watching a sixty-something year old man practise this ancient samurai tradition. I’d seen this man practising before but never dared to stop, in case my presence put him off. Yet this time I watched, trying to keep perfectly still, as the archer drew his bow high, held the position for an eternity and then let go. ”Thwack!” the arrow had hit the target. I was about to walk away when the man caught my eye and gestured me towards him. I diligently came, hoping he spoke some English. He didn’t.

Once seated and with my camera at the ready, I watched him commence the ritualised pattern of movement that involves absolute concentration of mind and body. It looked more like an art than a sport and it was obvious he was a master of it. Once he’d finished the routine that accompanies the shooting of the arrows, I tried to make conversation. Truly, it was embarrassing for me to ask him questions in my broken Japanese. However I did understand that he was indeed a sensei of the sport and he had twenty students from chu-gakko age (12-15) to adults. He let me hold the two metre long bamboo bows, with the beautiful leather handle and the maker’s seal at the bottom. I also admired the feathered arrows, two of which were wooden, one of which was aluminium. He told me much more about himself and the martial art but it was lost on my poor Japanese skills. I said domo arigatou gozaimashita (polite thank you) and slid the wooden door of the dojo shut. At that moment I vowed to take up Japanese study fervently so I can communicate more fluently with people like this.

I wandered through the back streets of Echizen and entered temple gates to nosy around. On New Year’s day, I had had the wonderful experience of going to a temple, clapping my hands twice, ringing the bell and praying for the new year. I had also bought three charms, without knowing what type of good luck they’d bring, and was given a paper bow and arrow from the generous temple priest. I later found that the bow and arrow should be hung up inside a house to keep away bad omens. The kindness of the temple priest made me think that they can’t mind too much having foreigners look around (not that Echizen has many foreigners), so I freely explored some more of the temples. In these weather conditions, they are slightly ominous places to be, not because of bad spirits but because large boulders of snow can easily slip off the sloping temple roofs. After I nearly got hit by an avalanche of snow and decided it was time to move on. Maybe I had angered the spirits!

My next stop was Godou Book Cafe, a hidden away establishment that I’d been recommended by a friend. I was greeted with Irashaimase” by the cool looking man behind the bar, then a male customer said, ”Meccha kawai” and then in English, ”So pretty”. With only men drinking beer and smoking in the ‘cafe’, I wondered what type of place I’d come to; it certainly wasn’t like the other cute, women-run cafes I’d been to before. ”Thank you” I replied to the English-speaker, ”Nice to meet you”. Waiting for my coffee to arrive I took in the leather seats, country music and old pictures on the wall and decided it felt more like an English pub than a book cafe! When the coffee finally arrived the barista/barman spoke to me in very quick Japanese and I had absolutely no clue what he was saying, but I did the easiest thing I could in that situation, nod my head and smile with agreement. The man who spoke English asked me if I understood and when I replied ”Wakanai” (I don’t understand) everyone laughed! This eased us in to conversation and I soon found out that the barman had once been a student at my school. We joked about his old soccer coach who, eleven years later, was still a science teacher. I never did find out what the barman had said to me, but I left knowing I’d found a place to feel at home in.

After walking back through the dimly-lit and snowy streets, I ate my fill of hot noodles in my local Hachi-ban Ramen restaurant. Hachi-ban Ramen is the healthy Japanese equivalent of McDonald’s. I am not a huge ramen fan but I like to watch the chefs in the kitchen toss noodles in giant vats, fry oil so there is a metre high flame and generally work together as a ramen machine to get orders to customers in less than five minutes. There are also friendly women who greet you, show you to your seat and take your order. They too rush about serving customers but never look flustered. Each worker has their own job whether it’d be filling the water, frying the gyoza (dumplings) or taking the money and the whole system works efficiently. Having worked in food establishments before, I know that there stress-levels fly high behind the closed doors of kitchens. Here however, the men looked more uncomfortable when there was a lull in customers and had nothing to do!

I walked home with a tummy full of noodles and happy to have met some of Echizen’s townfolk. I know that I could never be classed as a ‘local’ here but I’ll will try my best to make friends with them. So, where’s my Japanese study book?

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