New Year’s Day
“All is quiet on New Year’s Day, a world in white gets underway.” -U2, ‘New Year’s Day’
I have now officially made it through the holidays in Japan, and for as fun and exciting as it’s been, there have been equally as many hardships. Finals are only a week away, and with the six or so term papers I have to write and the five exams I need to prepare for, I admit that I haven’t had as much free time over the two-week winter break as I’d have liked to have had. That said, I have still had a great time, but in all honesty, I’m glad (for probably the first time in my life) that the holidays are over. It means I can stop thinking, “If I was at home right now, I would be ________,” and other such things that are wont to cause bouts of mild depression. At least now I can look to the future knowing that it’s a new year that is sure to be filled with wonderful experiences. And more college loans. And lengthy scholarship applications. And hopeless job searching. But moving on.
We were visited by a British man (my host mom’s friend/boyfriend/lover/fiance/unknown) for about ten days that overlapped with Christmas, so at least I wasn’t the only one in the house who Christmas was important to. The Japanese don’t really celebrate Christmas, which is understandable considering Japan is not and never has been a primarily Christian nation, and it’s considered kind of a second Valentine’s Day when only lovers give each other presents and when families eat the traditional Christmas cake. So that was a bit strange, but I actually ended up having a much better time than I expected. First, on Christmas Eve I went to my friend’s house where we ironically had the most traditional Christmas dinner I’ve ever had. On Christmas I Skyped with my family in California all morning (their Christmas Eve) and we opened presents over webcam. I received some pretty nifty things including socks (which I actually needed, no joke), hand sanitizer (also needed), leggings and fleece pajamas (ditto), and Super Mario 3D Land for 3DS. Which I also needed, of course. It can’t be finals time without some worthy procrastination material.
So it’s needless to say what I was doing until dinner time when my host mom and…her uh…British man returned from a day in Kobe. We had an amazing dinner of butaman, gyoza, and sushi (three of my all-time favorites), with cream puffs for dessert. Then we all opened presents, and I was so pleasantly surprised by all of the lovely gifts I received! Chocolate, Pokemon-themed croissants, a notebook, a pen, and even some manga from my host brothers. One in particular caught my attention called Saint Young Men in which Jesus and Buddha are roommates while touring Japan on vacation from Heaven. Can’t get much better than that. I bought my host family a Japanese annotated version of The Hobbit, which I thought was appropriate after their claim that they had never read it after I excitedly showed them the newly-released movie trailer. I also got my host brothers a Muse album, which I thought was their style. I actually felt like I skimped out a bit on the gifts, but I hadn’t expected so much from people who aren’t supposed to celebrate Christmas! Either way, it was quite nice and I was less homesick than I expected to be.
After Christmas was a bit of a different story. I think I’m experiencing another bout of culture shock (yes, it actually lasts for more than a week or month after traveling), and it hasn’t been fun. I’ve had the most terrible time trying to explain to my host mom that I need to buy a shinkansen ticket to see my dad in Tokyo when he comes in less than two weeks, but I have had no luck and to say the least there was a bit of a misunderstanding between us that resulted in us both frustrated with each other. A few days later she texted me while we were both still in the house to be careful and turn off the lights more often, and the day after that she wrote me a letter about how she doesn’t feel I am thankful enough or express enough of my emotions. I must really be a freak if a Japanese person tells me I’m not emotional enough. So I wrote her a letter, confronted her, and read it aloud (saying how I never meant to offend her and that I’m not really in a bad mood and profusely apologizing) which was so difficult, but necessary. So we talked for a bit and I think we reached an understanding, but things are still a bit awkward. What’s strange is that I thought I was being too thankful…guess I had that wrong. I suppose that every other word out of my mouth is going to have to be “thank you very much.” Emotions are also expressed (I am now realizing) through one’s voice rather than one’s face and slight mannerisms. The constant thanking and apologizing is something about Japanese culture that I’m still not used to, but hopefully with time the awkwardness will pass.
New Year’s Eve was much more pleasant. New Year’s is the most important holiday in Japan (the equivalent to Christmas in the United States), and is an important time for families. Akihiro and I spent the evening playing chess and shogi (Japanese chess but significantly more confusing in my opinion), and at midnight we all watched temples across Japan ring giant bronze bells on the television (which actually continued into New Year’s Day, as I could hear the sound of bells all day). Quite a contrast from watching the ball drop in Times Square. And then, as I was just about to say goodnight and get in the shower, much to my surprise, my host mom runs upstairs yelling, “行こ、行こ！” (“Let’s go, let’s go!”). Rather disoriented, I put on my coat and shoes and followed them out the door at 12:30am to the local shrine, where everyone was out and about like it was the middle of the day. We waited in a long line to the shrine altar, and when we finally made it to the front, I threw in a coin, bowed, clapped my hands, and bowed again, too concerned with messing up the order of things to pay attention to what I was praying to the kami for. Afterwards we went over to a booth where priests were giving out free sake and mochi, and then stood for a while by a roaring bonfire before heading home. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget, and something that I will only be able to experience in Japan.
During New Year’s, or “Oshōgatsu,” all stores and businesses shut down for the first three days of the year. Families prepare food to last for those three days beforehand (which is a big deal, since Japanese people tend to buy their food fresh and cook it themselves every day). The food is very traditional, which I’m having a difficult time with considering that today we ate a large amount of vegetable jelly, herring eggs, and unidentifiable grayish potatoes (boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew). Surviving the next few days will be a challenge, but at least I have a lot of time to write my papers and study, right? …Right?