NOT BORE – BOAR! Making the Most of a Kansai New Year’s
Foreigners who walk into a department store on Christmas Day will be shocked to see not one decked hall. On December 25th, all evidence of the Yuletide shopping binge is swept away, and for exactly seven days, these gateways to the loot of the world become temples of Japanese tradition. For one whole week, the arbiters of Japanese culture (i.e.,Takashimaya, Hankyu, Hanshin, and the rest) lay off on the ersatz Western holidays and finally let the Japanese be Japanese.
Since 1873, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted here, Japan has celebrated the New Year on January 1st. Despite that, the Japanese word hasn’t changed – it’s still called o-shougatsu,お正月, the beginning moon, as in the Lunar New Year of China). This year will be the Year of the Boar and soon everywhere we’ll be seeing representations of amazingly cute wild pigs to get us all in the mood (definitely a challenge: see sidebar).
By tradition, New Year’s is not a wild party night, but one when families assemble in their hometowns and eat unique traditional cuisine. If you’re a newcomer to Japan, you might think yourself somewhat out in the cold, especially if you’ve not gone to the bank by December 31st and have to subsist on Cup Noodle from Lawson’s until January 4th. Fear not (but do go to the bank): join in the traditions of Japanese Shougatsu and feeling alone will be the least of your worries.
Ring My Bell
On New Year’s Eve, all the trains in Kansai (indeed, all over Japan) run all night, although only a few times each hour. This is a chance for people to go to their favourite shrines and make their first prayer for good luck in the New Year (this is called hatsumode, 初詣). It all sounds terribly decorous and dignified (and if you’re into that, I suggest going to a Buddhist temple instead, especially the sprawling, solemn Shi-Tennoji in southern Osaka City), but this being Kansai, a popular gathering place is going to be crowded and lively. Get some friends together and go shrine-hopping : start off with dinner and drinks in Umeda, end up in Nara somewhere, if the spirit moves you. If you’ve only been to a Japanese shrine on a quiet weekday, you’re in for a treat (but if you’re at all claustrophobic, go to a small local shrine in your neighbourhood). The larger and more famous shrines, or jinja (see sidebar), are madhouses by midnight, with thousands of people jostling to be the first to pray in the New Year and throw a monetary offering to the gods. Several have good luck traditions of their own (for example, you’ll see people coming from Kyoto’s Yasaka Jinja twirling small pieces of rope, keeping a spark alight: it was said, back in the days when homes were heated with charcoal braziers, that the first fire lit with this spark would bring the home good luck. I can’t imagine what they light now, but the custom persists).
Meaningful food – osechi ryouri
On New Year’s Eve, families in Kansai eat soba noodles on New Year’s Eve. Not everyone seems to know why, but the answer I heard most was that long narrow noodles symbolized an old saying ,Hosoku-Nagaku (細く長く, narrow and long) which is rough shorthand for “stick to the straight and narrow and live a long time.” and so out goes the old year. Traditionally, Mum now gets her annual three days off from cooking. So what does everyone eat? What Mum and Gran (or the cooks at the department store where they ordered it in) have been preparing for days: o-sechi ryouri, New Year’s food. (If you can’t share it with a family, check out a hotel buffet – see sidebar).
Once upon a time, osechi was considered a treat, a delicacy to be savoured once a year. In roughly one Westernized generation, though, it has become something to be endured – I’ve yet to talk to anyone under 25 who really likes it. This is sad, not only because an ancient tradition is slowly (but surely) disappearing, but because when prepared right, osechi is delicious (although admittedly I’ve never been stuck eating it for three days). There are regional variations all over Japan, but here are the basic dishes and their (very loosely) agreed-upon meanings.
Kazunoko – herring roe, which symbolizes prosperity; tai (sea bream), which symbolizes good luck; Kuromame – symbolizes hard work and diligence; Kobumaki (rolled seaweed) – represents pleasure; ebi (prawn) symbolizes long life. O-Zoni, the traditional soup with vegetables and mochi (rice cakes) is made with miso broth in these parts, but with soy sauce in Tokyo. It goes without saying that sake goes very well with all of this.
After a good night out and a good day’s feed, take a few days to digest and recharge, get to work on those resolutions, and prepare for a great 2007. You’d be advised to stay out of the department stores, though, or you’ll be bluntly reminded that there are only six more weeks until Valentine’s Day.
Hotels Which Serve New Year’s Food
Japanese restaurants at all the major hotels serve o-sechi ryouri for that first breakfast of the year. Some continue to serve (in the charming words of one clerk, whose English was better than she realized) “O-sechi-ish food” for lunch and dinner until January 3rd. Here are some of the best. All hotels I contacted advised booking ahead to avoid disappointment.
• Hyatt Kyoto – O-sechi breakfast on New Year’s Day, traditional fare until January 3rd. tel. 075 541 1234
•Swissotel Nankai, Namba – Hanagoyomi restaurant serves traditional breakfast only on Jan 1st, 7:30 -10:00. tel. 06 6646 1111
•The Hilton Osaka (directly above subway Nishi-Umeda Station) – the Japanese restaurant Genji serves breakfast on the 1st, traditional lunch and dinner only until the 3rd. tel. 06-6347-7111
• Ritz-Carlton, Umeda – Restaurant Hanagatami on the morning of the 1st only. tel. 06-6343-7000
•The New Otani (JR Loop Line, Osakajoukouen Station) will serve a Japanese buffet on the 2nd floor (Banquet Hall Floor); also the restaurant Shiromi (3d floor) serves traditional o-sechi from 7:00 to 11:00 AM, New Year’s Day. tel. 06-6941-1111
Hatsumode – a shrine for every prayer
• Yasaka Jinja (八坂神社), Kyoto – also called Gion-san, it is sacred to Susa-no-o, the Shinto god of medicine. It’s the place to go to pray for a healthy year.Take the number 206 or 207 bus from JR Kyoto station, or take the Keihan Line to Shijo Station (then follow the thundering herd!).
• Sumiyoshi Taisha (住吉大社) – first built in the 3rd century, and famous for its beautifully curved bridge (mentioned in the 10th-century Tale of Genji), Sumiyoshi Taisha is the guardian of seafarers and prosperity. Osakans love it, and when you go there on New Year’s Eve, it will feel like everyone in Osaka is there with you. From Osaka’s Namba station,take the Nankai Line (local train) to Sumiyoshitaisha station.
• Kitano Tenmangu, Kyoto – Sacred to Karai Tenjin, god of learning, it is near the elite Ritsumeikan University and is filled every year with high school students hoping to pass the dreaded entrance exams. Take Kyoto City bus to Kitano Jinja-mae stop from Hanku Omiya or Keihan Sanjo Stn.
Finally, those who’d rather go to a Buddhist temple at midnight might like to know that Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto is the favourite of those looking for love and marriage, and Todaiji in Nara is, thanks to all those deer, for animal-lovers.
2007 – Year of the Boar
A woman who ran a printing shop in Osaka once told me that graphic designers hate the Year of the Boar. Unlike dogs (2006’s animal), snorting, bad-tempered Japanese boars are particularly difficult to make cute – and cute is the bottom line in Japan. For those of you turning 12, 24, 36, 48 or 60 (and on and on) – take heart: this is your lucky year. Besides, traditionally, you are intellectual, sincere, tolerant and honest. If you’re a graphic designer, though, you still probably wish it was the Year of the Kitty-chan.
This article originally appeared in Kansai Scene number 80, January 2007.