TOKYO – Come December, the life-size statues of Colonel Sanders outside KFCs throughout Japan don Santa suits, big-city hotels raise glorious Christmas trees, and woe to the father who, on Christmas Eve, does not bring home a Christmas cake for his kids — not a fruitcake, but a white-frosted cake decorated with winter scenes.
But I remember descending to my hotel lobby one not-too-distant December 26th to find the Christmas tree gone, replaced by symbols of the New Year holiday to come: soaring kites, hagoito (decorated paddles used in a badminton-like game) and stacks of round mochi (rice cakes) topped with oranges. Japan pays lip service to Christmas with the trappings of the holiday (and, frequently, the kitsch), but in this overwhelmingly non-Christian country, it’s the New Year that carries real weight.
Japanese prepare for the big day with symbols of newness and purity. Homes, businesses, taxis, hotel front desks, and commuter trains sport fragrant pine boughs, freshly cut bamboo, and origami lightning bolts. Businesspeople visit clients, thanking them for their patronage and delivering company calendars. Home cooks, traditional Japanese inns, and even department store food sections prepare osechi-ryori (New Year’s foods, including prawns, sweet chestnuts, and sardines all served in lacquer bento boxes and said to bode well at this auspicious time) and buckwheat noodles called toshi-koshi soba (literally “soba for crossing over the years”).
At the stroke of midnight, Buddhist temples nationwide ring in the New Year. In a practice of legendary simplicity, huge bells are rung 108 times, the number of the Buddha’s positive attributes. No champagne and noisemakers here; a Japanese New Year arrives with solemnity.
The first daybreak of the year, coastal dwellers in remote fishing villages scramble out of their futons to watch the year’s first sunrise over the Pacific. In small hamlets and big cities, postmen make special rounds to deliver stacks of postcards from friends and business contacts, and crowds throng to important Shinto shrines. In Tokyo, millions of worshippers pass through the giant torii gates at the city’s dramatic wooded Meiji Shrine, where the doors bear the nicks of countless coins thrown at them as offerings. Visitors, some wearing their finest winter kimonos, ask for blessings and pick up charms-wooden arrows, sprigs of rice mounted on sticks, and images of the Chinese zodiac.
Wien Japan returns to its normal routine – usually on January 4 – businesses start the year with parties involving a sip of sake, a Shinto symbol of purification. It’s the one day of the year when you might spot Tokyo office workers in kimono. And absolutely everyone greets each other with a gracious bow as well as a heartfelt, “Happy New Year! I hope to receive your favor again this year.”
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