In autumn in Japan, people say that the “sky is high.” It means that the sky is so clear and blue it seems to stretch forever. This “high sky” continues into the winter, and it is one thing that makes the cold months an enjoyable time for travel in Japan-no long days of low-hanging clouds and drizzle that typify an English winter. Rain and drizzle do, of course, occur, and in northern Japan and on the Japan Sea side, there are endless snowy days, when the snow piles up for several meters, making wild coasts and dramatic snowscapes. But across most of the country, especially along the Pacific coast, you can expect generous stretches of fine, sunny days.
In Western countries, the year-end seems to be when everyone winds down, but in Japan, it’s when people wind themselves up a notch. There’s much to be done. To welcome the new year with a clean slate, all great affairs must be settled by the year’s end. Thus the month of December is known as shiwasu, literally “the season when teachers run around.” Not only teachers, but everybody runs. All outstanding bills are paid, and everything that has been used in the past year is returned as closely as possible to its pristine state. In the West, we talk about “spring cleaning,” but spring cleaning gets done at year’s end in Japan. You’ll see chairs and tables piled up outside restaurants while the staff scrub all corners of the shop, and you’ll know that the same is going on in every house.
It’s also the season of year-end parties. Everyone takes stock of the year just passed, gets a little drunk, forgives others and is forgiven his sins of the past year. “Well, we made mistakes, but the new year brings another chance.”
Then, when all is clean, and the running around is over, pine and bamboo decorations are placed outside doorways, and sacred ropes hung on portals, cars and bicycles. The pine and bamboo are symbols of longevity and vitality; the lobster, fern and bitter orange on the sacred rope are for longevity, expanding good fortune and prosperity from generation to generation. It’s beginning to look like New Year’s on the streets, and in most households, there’s an excellent activity as women prepare the New Years’ foods. They make enough food so that they can take a rest from cooking for the first three days ofthe New Year. These foods- prawns for long life, beans for diligence, kelp for happiness, herring roe for fertility, and many more, are also well balanced in nutrition. Though most families have had quite enough of them by the third day, New Year’s wouldn’t be New Year’s without them.
The traditional household will spend New Year’s Eve, not at a wild party but watching television with the family and waiting for midnight, where, at temples across the country, the temple bell is rung 108 times. These stand for the 108 attachments to our ego, which we are reminded to rid ourselves of. You can go to a temple and join the queue to be one of the people to ring the bell or pray at a shrine. Accept a cup of sweet sake. Or forget the shrines and temples and join the more energetic mountain climb somewhere to greet the first sunrise.
It’s New Year’s morning. Children receive gifts of money from their parents and grandparents, and everyone’s served a little sweet sake and a bowl of soup containing a rice cake along with all the other New Year’s food. If you haven’t gone to the shrine or temple yet, go now or on any day for the next week. At the shrine, people might buy a good luck talisman, such as a “lucky arrow,” which is said to keep the devil from the door, or at least invest in a bit of fortune-telling in the form of slips of paper called o-mikuji, whose divinations are based on the Chinese I-Ching.
Since New Year is a time for families, visitors to Japan will find most businesses closed and the streets quiet during the first three days of the year. The action is all at the temples and shrines. Because the heavy industry has ceased, the best views of Mount Fuji can also be seen on January 1, 2 or 3.
Everyone’s back at work by the 6th; then on January 15th, you’ll see young women in elaborate kimono and fluffy stoles and young men in their best suits on trains, in shops, and the streets. There’s no secret to how old they are-each and every one of them is 20 years old. They are going to Coming of Age ceremonies held by their municipalities, and parties with family or friends will follow this. Some women wear long pleated trousers over their kimono-the traditional dress for women students in the Meiji period. For many, Coming of Age Day is one of only a handful of occasions in a lifetime when they will wear kimonos, and they wear them with self-conscious pride.
The next big winter celebration in Japan comes on February 3rd. On the old lunar calendar, this was the first day of spring, and it was and still is celebrated with a fun festivity in which people throw soy beans at make-believe devils. The family head, wearing a devils’ mask, performs this role. The bean throwers shout: “Out with the devil; in with good fortune!” In rural communities, this festival carried with it the prayer that nothing bad would come to befall them before or after planting the new crop of rice.
Bean-throwing festivities are held in temples and other public places, so you are pretty likely to run across one if you’re out on this day. 1997 is the Year of the Ox on the Oriental Horoscope. Sports stars and personalities born in the Ox Year will be throwing beans at shrines and temples everywhere during this period. Expect good luck if you can catch some. Above all, the first three months of the new year for people in Japan is a time for buckling down at school or work. This is good news for the visitor, for it means it’s one of the most comfortable times to move around-there’ll be seated on trains and have plenty of elbow room wherever you go. And though the days might be nippy, the “high skies” go on.
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