New Year's Day in Japan

If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/v8XPQo4xESA

How are you doing there? I'm glad to see you survived Christmas. If it isn't the trials of present shopping or the overstuffed belly of turkey, turkey and more turkey, there's always some dangers around the holidays, but those who survive get to celebrate the coming of New Year's day. It's a hallowed time when cheers are cheered, beer is beered and boopily mcscooby doo. Yeah, that kinda got away from me there.

2013 then, the year that "no one" thought would happen!

New Year can be split into two parts. The night before and the morning hangover, I mean, morning after. It's a lot like that here but with a little more emphasis on the new year itself rather than the countdown.

The night before, people will go out drinking, if they are old enough. Everyone else likely stays at home and watches the TV. Every year they have a grand music show with all the country's top music acts and some foreign ones too (sometimes) and they play all their best songs. Kōhaku Uta Gassen it's called. Then at midnight, live from famous local and national temples and shrines, there is the ringing of the bells. The bells chime 108 times for the New Year to cancel out the 108 evils of the human soul, and then one more time to usher in the New Year on it's first second. Many people stay up to watch this and it's the equivalent of the ball dropping or the countdown in London. Though it is more traditional, as can be expected of such a country. The practice seems to be on the way out though. Many local residents near the temples have complained that they are trying to sleep at this time and so many places aren't allowed to ring the bells anymore! No respect!

While back out at the bars, people stagger into the streets and cheer in the New Year like any other country. Here in Sendai, they have the christmas illuminations we showed you in the previous video. As the clock counts down, they flash. Then turn off for a full second and then back on again precisely at midnight. This is accompanied by hundreds of car horns and people cheering "Akemashite Omedetou gozaimasu!" which basically means "Happy New Year!" So it's not that different.

The main difference is in the morning. On New Year's day everyone traditionally goes home, and they get together with family. The older members of the family give money to their grandchildren in a special envelope, but it's also traditional for the parents to take it and say "I'll look after that for you". And the parents look after it so well that the children never ever see it again.

Sometime during New Year's everyone eats soba (buckwheat) noodles as they are supposed to symbolise longevity. So it's a wish for good health. It tastes ok, but it's a bit boring for a meal and I'm hungry again right after.

The main activity, though, is that everyone goes to a temple to make a wish for a happy new year. This sounds simple, but when you consider that everyone is doing this you soon discover you have to wait in a very long queue to throw money in a bucket, ring the big bell and clap three times before you make your wish. People queue for hours. So long that there are festival and snacks stalls that open up along the line and they sell their goods and food to people waiting. So, people like to get up early to try and get to the front of the queue. They also pick up a fortune on the way out. You pay a small fee to the temple and they give you a fortune on a piece of paper. It's like the fortune in a Chinese fortune cookie but it is more detailed, covering different aspects of your life. I've had at least three of these but I don't think they have ever come true. Some places will do an English one for you, but these are usually only the popular tourist destinations. Whether the fortune is good or bad, they usually take them to a fence or a tree and they tie them into a knot. This is supposed to bind the future it predicts, and stop it affecting your life, but people seem to do it with not only bad ones, but good ones too. I like to keep mine. There are also different types of fortunes. You can shake a box with sticks in and then pull one out. A mark on the stick corresponds to a fortune the clerk has and they give it to you.

Finally, there is one more thing they might do. At the temple, they can leave a message on a special wooden board and hang it up at the temple so that it may come true. Some people go all out with this, and it is not out of the ordinary to see some awesome manga drawings on these boards. They can also buy lucky charms to help it come true and these are specially made for different needs. They have everything from 'good health' to 'good exam results'.

So that's it for the day itself, but soon come the New Year's sales, which are a little special in Japan. That's for the next blog entry. In the meantime, check out our video and if you have any questions or comments, or there is anything you want us to cover in a future blog, please let us know.

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