Saturday, January 05, 2008

What I did on my _winter_ holidays, 2007--2008

Usually, our year-end break of seven to ten days is spent in Saga, Kyushu, this being my wife’s home town. However, this time we stayed put, in Kobe, due to the tight training schedule applying to my youngest son. It was nice not having to drive half the length of the country for a change.

The holidays really began on Dec 27th, all my chores were done and I left the office mid-afternoon to go home and get cleaned up/changed/shaved and the rest of it, before attending a bounenkai (忘年会)or ‘Forget the Year’ party with some friends of mine at a Chinese restaurant in Rokko in the eastern part of Kobe. The ‘Milk of Amnesia’ used to forget the year is the same as is used the world over, so it was a somewhat groggy author who checked in at work late on Friday morning for the final time in 2007. Again I left early, wishing yoi otoshi o to the security guards and went down to the Head Office in Kobe to attend the final meeting of the year, known as a noukai (納会). This was just the same as the bounenkai, but held in the office, so there was no fee to pay. Arriving home somewhat tired and emotional, I resolved to spend the remaining days of 2007 in a somewhat quieter fashion.

Saturday was spent writing my New Year’s cards -- nengajou (年賀状) and Sunday out in the cold air on the motorcycle, to Suma-dera getting a new sandalwood Buddhist bracelet-- nenjuu (念 珠)to replace the old one that had been broken in the boisterous process of forgetting the year, to get a haircut and to visit the office to fetch something I’d forgotten on Friday. Monday 31st was spent rushing around doing last-minute things in increasingly crowded places, especially the post office, where the nengajou were finally despatched on time. At last, I settled down to begin a traditional Japanese New Year -- O-Sho-Gatsu (お正月).

This is the first in the Buddhist (or Taoist) 12-year cycle, the Year of the Rat. The story behind this cycle is rather interesting, it is said that the Buddha (or The Jade Emperor) was dying and summoned the animals to come and see him for a final meeting, and to do that they had to cross a wide river. The Rat was supposed to pass the message to them all, but he forgot to tell the Cat who kept on sleeping. In the event only 12 animals answered the summons and were given the status of a year for their trouble. The Rat hitched a ride between the horns of the Ox who was the best swimmer and so got across first, but the Rat jumped down and ran in the door first and so got pole position in the cycle. The Cat missed out altogether and never forgave the Rat and swore to hate him for evermore. The year just ended has been the Wild Pig, who stopped for a feed along the way and so arrived last. Pigs have been greedy ever since. So now you know! I can’t remember why the order of the other creatures is just so, but never mind.

It all began at about 23:15 on New Year’s Eve when I joined my son and his rowdy mates at the local Buddhist temple to take part in the joya-no-kane (除夜の鐘)ceremony of tolling the temple bell 108 times, starting out at about 23.30 and going on through midnight, ringing out the old and ringing in the new. Except it is not really ringing, the Buddhist kane bell has no clapper and is struck from the outside by a length of timber suspended on ropes, producing a truly sonorous BOONNGGG...

The purpose behind all this, apart from keeping all the neighbours awake, is for purification. It is a belief peculiar to Japanese Buddhism that mankind is beset by one-hundred-and-eight worldly desires which really have no value, and one really must be rid of these temporal distractions before the true Buddha-nature can be revealed. Each strike of the bell removes one more, ready for the New Year. It was very enjoyable and each participant was rewarded with a bar of chocolate for his or her BOOONNNGGG...

Presumably it was spiritual chocolate, but was still very tasty on that cold early morning.

The next day I was woken at 6.00 by my wife and after a hearty breakfast we ascended the hill next to our house to observe the first sunrise of the year -- hatsu hi no de (初日の出). For the inhabitants of the Land of the Rising Sun, this is obviously an important event, and about a hundred people had gathered to witness it. We were lucky to have a fairly clear sky with just a few clouds on the distant Eastern horizon and we enjoyed a small cup of sacred sake as we waited in the cold.

I have done this just once before, but this time it was truly spectacular and the delight was obvious on the faces of the onlookers.

After that, we made our way down the hill, got in the car and set off on our final votive activity, visiting three Shinto shrines in succession, the sanja mairi (三社参り). The first was our local shrine, Kasuga Jinja , not even important enough to warrant an office or souvenir shop, but bottles of sake and sakazuki cups were available for any who wanted to toast the gods. Here I reached into my pocket and withdrew a handful of low-denomination coins, a mixture of one-yen and five-yen pieces, and cast them into the offertory box or the Shinto version of it. Someone told me once that if the gods see you flinging a lot of money into their box, they will consider you as generous and reward you accordingly, even though the actual amount may be minuscule. For this reason, I collect these small coins in a small piggy-bank all year and try to con the gods -- all part of the fun.

The next stop was just up the valley of the Akashi river, at Sumiyoshi Jinja, the shrine of the local farmers. They had temporary wardens on duty to direct us to the car park and make sure we didn’t burn ourselves when dumping the previous year’s talismans onto an enormous bonfire. I deposited my second load of coins, made my wish and went to seek my fortune for a fee of ¥200 at the souvenir stall. I drew Great Fortune -- Dai Kichi (大吉), the top of the line fortune, so maybe 2008 is going to be a banner year after all. I also bought a new sacred arrow -- hamaya (破魔矢)to drive away evil spirits from our house in the Year of the Rat.

The final stop was on top of our nearest mountain Mekko-san at Kande Jinja, which affords a spectacular vista of the eastern countryside.

The final coins were deposited and prayers said and it was off home to arrive at 09.15--just in time to call England and wish them Happy New Year.

The rest of the day (and the next 2 days) were spent doing very little and eating a great deal. Not a small amount of alcoholic beverage was imbibed too. I did go out and fly a kite on the afternoon of Jan 1st, to get some fresh air but only one other person was doing so. This traditional children's activity seems to have been supplanted by playing with radio-control cars and model battle-tanks, to judge by our neighbourhood...

This was the first time I have done _all_ of these traditional things at New Year. I have made a resolution to try and do them all every year from now on.

May the Year of the Rat bring health, wealth and happiness to you all.
I have borrowed a JPeg nengajou from a friend of mine to greet you with.