Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A very Japanese New Year

Because this was the first -- and probably the last -- time I would spend New Year's Eve in Japan, I wanted to ring it in right.

To me, ringing it in right meant celebrating the same way Japanese people do. The only problem was I didn't know what Japanese people do on New Year's Eve exactly. A quick Google search turned up a few answers. I learned that New Year's is one of the most important holidays on the Japanese calendar but that it is typically spent at home with family. It's more about quiet, quality time than it is about consuming copious amounts of alcohol and kissing a random pair of lips at the stroke of midnight.

I also learned that Japanese people clean their homes from top to bottom to start the New Year off on a clean slate. They spend New Year's preparing and eating traditional food, including rice cakes or "mochi." But because mochi is extremely sticky and chewy (the texture is best described as a thick ball of glue) a few elderly people suffocate and die every year while trying to eat it. The annual mochi death toll makes headlines every January.

Scrubbing the floors, slaving over a hot stove and choking to death are not my idea of a good time so I decided to westernize my Japanese New Year's Eve and look for a ball drop.

It turns out the closest thing to a public countdown and exploding fireworks is the traditional ringing of the temple bells. Before midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells across Japan begin to ring 108 times. Apparently, the tolling of the bells purifies us of our 108 worldly desires (nothing like starting off the new year with a little self-loathing and flagellation).

In case you're wondering what all of these 108 sins are, many of them are your garden-variety sins. Greed, lust, envy, gluttony, gambling. That sort of thing. But the Buddhists aren't content to just cover the basics. They've included all kinds of bad behaviour in their long list of sins, including inattentiveness, stubbornness, stinginess, voluptuousness, capriciousness, a desire for fame, indifference, dissatisfaction, lack of comprehension (what does that mean?), and sarcasm (no, I'm not being sarcastic).

I managed to find a temple in Osaka that had both the traditional ringing of the bells and a public countdown. It seemed to be the Japanese equivalent of watching the ball drop in Times Square. So I had pinpointed where I wanted to be when the clock struck twelve. Now I just needed to figure out what to do in the last hours of 2010 and the first hours of 2011.

A little bit more digging -- clicking deep into the third and fourth pages of the search results -- revealed another Japanese tradition I could get behind. Part of celebrating the new year in Japan includes paying special attention to the first time something is done in the new year. For example, hatsuhinode is the first sunrise of the year and many people will often climb a mountain or drive to the coast to see it. Going to a temple to ring the bells and then heading somewhere to watch the sun rise seemed liked a good way to ring in the new year to me.

Sergey gave me free reign to plan the entire night. He claims this is because I am such an excellent planner. And while this is indisputably true, I suspect laziness may have had a small role to play in his willingness to let me be in the driver's seat. Although to be fair, he came up with the idea of going out to eat and he introduced me to the concept of coffee-shop loitering.

The New Year's plan in a nutshell was to head to Osaka for dinner, loiter in a coffee shop for a couple of hours, head to a temple for the countdown, stay up all night (more coffee-shop loitering) and then watch the first sunrise of the year from the top of a skyscraper.

The first part of our very long night in Osaka was spent inside an arcade trying to get our picture taken in one of those little photo booths where you can digitally customize the photos with a mind-numbing array of cute things like stars and sparkles and hearts. But we simply couldn't fight our way through the hordes of teenage girls who were monopolizing the machines.

So we gave up and headed to the first decent restaurant we could find, which turned out to be a Korean-style BBQ place where you pay to cook your own food. It was loud and the air inside was a fragrant mixture of two kinds of smoke -- one part cigarette smoke and two parts tabletop-grill smoke. But it was delicious and warm and we ate until we couldn't eat anymore.

After dinner, we enjoyed an hour of coffee-shop loitering before heading to the temple for our first traditional Japanese New Year's Eve countdown. At the temple we were given a numbered ticket and a sheet of paper with a detailed explanation about how the night would go down. We were ushered into a huge room with a few hundred other people and told to wait for further instructions. There was no room for spontaneity. Everything was highly organized, with lots of rules and procedures. It was fun because it was the opposite of fun.

Eventually, a guy with a bullhorn came into the room and told us to write a New Year's message on the little piece of paper we had been provided with at the door. My message was vague and general, something about wishing good health and happiness upon pretty much every person on the planet (like that's ever going to happen). Sergey's message was indecipherable (because it was written in Cyrillic).

The bullhorn guy then shouted at us to form a single line out the door in order to receive a balloon. We were told to tie our handwritten message to the balloon. The balloons and their accompanying messages were not to be released until midnight. Although some slippery-fingered folks let their balloons go early. We were then marched outside and up the temple steps where we waited for the clock to strike twelve. We joined the crowd in counting down from 10 to one (in Japanese, of course) and threw our balloons up into the air at midnight. Happy New Year, indeed!

And then the real fun began. Everyone who wanted to was allowed to ring the temple bell once. The only problem was that everyone wanted to ring the bell. Because there were so many of us, we were divided into groups based on the letters of the alphabet. There were about 100 people per letter, starting with A and ending with Z. We were grouped under letter M. By this point we had been outside so long that we were cold. Really cold. But we kept ourselves warm with the thought of the free soup after ringing the bell.

Next on the agenda was some more coffee-shop loitering until the first sunrise of 2011. The ability to spend hours in a coffee shop without buying a refill is one of my favourite things about Japan. I've said it before but it's worth repeating. When you buy a cup of coffee in Japan, you are not just buying a cup of coffee; you are buying a piece of real estate. That one coffee gives you the right to monopolize a table for as long as you like. One hour, two hours, eight hours. You can stay as long as the place is open. You don't have to buy anything else and no one will ask you to leave.

It seemed like everyone else in the coffee shop that night was also using it as free accommodation. Two Japanese girls sitting beside us were hunched over the table fast asleep with their heads cradled in their arms. One of the employees kept waking them up and telling them they weren't allowed to sleep. Eventually, the poor guy had to give up since practically everyone in the place was asleep at their tables.

The sun was scheduled to rise at 7:05 a.m., which meant we still had four and a half hours to kill when I took this picture. So we enjoyed some valuable times with our beverages.

By 4:30 a.m. we were tired of sitting in the coffee shop so we decided to make our way to the sunrise party -- a short 10-minute walk away. The elevator took us up to the 40th floor of the Umeda Sky Building, where we had a panoramic view to watch the sun come up. Except it was still dark at 5 a.m. and very, very, very cold. So we waited inside until the sky started to lighten. At the first hint of daylight, we joined the crowds of people on the outdoor observatory waiting for the sun to rise.

I can only remember a handful of times when I have experienced this kind of cold. Standing on top of the Osaka skyscraper waiting for the sun to rise ranks right up there with standing on an Ottawa street waiting for the bus to come in minus 30 degree weather. It was the kind of cold that seeps under your skin and into your bones, making you shiver uncontrollably while stamping feet you can barely feel.

It was also the kind of cold that makes you realize that life on earth owes its random existence to its random distance from the sun. If the earth was any further away from the sun, we would freeze. The universe kind of blows my mind sometimes.

All of this made the sunrise so much more awe-inspiring when it finally did arrive. To see the sky go from pitch black to navy blue to purpley pink to light blue as the earth rotated on its axis was an amazing thing.

When the sun finally broke above the clouds, everyone started cheering. I couldn't tell if they were happy because of the sunrise or because they could now get out of the cold.

It was a great way to mark the end of one decade and the start of another. We managed to combine a couple of Japanese traditions and create a few of our own. I think we rang in 2011 right. Happy New Year, everyone!