Stranded in Manga – Chapter 3: New Year in Japan!
A freshly minted New Year is here! Like an empty sheet of paper, shivering with anticipation of the mangaka’s ink brush, 2018 is ready to be lavishly painted with entertaining adventures, both on and off the page. A brand, spanking new year, awaiting your ‘HELLO’ for a future full of promise. That’s what New Year is all about here in Japan, greeting everyone and everything, from the incalculable number of Japanese gods to the very New Year morning itself. But more importantly, it is a time to say hello to FAMILY.
I’ve lived in Japan a while now, and every day brings new experiences, along with constant reminders of how different my adoptive country is to my native Britain. For me, New Year’s Eve is party time!! With pubs so packed it makes the rush hour, Tokyo Chuo Line look roomy, where unabashed jollity ensues. Then, a New Year’s Day spent in bed/sofa/around the toilet bowl, as your body decides to cash in on the previous night’s revelries. Family time is solely reserved for Christmas, and then begrudgingly. (N.B. In Japan, Christmas is for lovers, old and new, parties with friends and “extended family size buckets of KFC”…seriously, you have to pre-book those golden, secret recipe covered hunks of chicken WAAAAAY in advance!)
So Family awaits, and with my other half, a Kansai native, we pack our bags and jump on the Shinkansen to the cold southern reaches of Honshu for my first Japanese NEW YEAR!!!
To Kansai!! Cloud obscuring view of Fuji-san from the Bullet Train.
Now dear reader, Japan does winter. Japan does winter well. So well, in fact, I genuinely yearn for Japan to be locked in perpetual winter all year round. The reason? The Kotatsu! For the uninitiated, a Kotatsu is a perpetually heated low table, for dining, working and sleeping (though this is optional). Suffice to say, the Kotatsu is very hard to leave. So upon arriving within the warm embrace of my second family, I quickly spot this pinnacle of human invention and proceed to stake my claim to wait out the striking of the bells.
Once in, you’ll never leave!!
Safely ensconced within the warm, womb-like embrace of the Kotatsu, the Japanese New Year’s Eve festivities can finally begin. Like everything in Japan, food is all important, and this auspicious evening is no different. So here I patiently sit, eagerly awaiting a veritable feast. What will it be?? Deliciously fresh sashimi? Golden fried meats? A pyramid of sushi?? My mouth is watering with anticipation when suddenly, a solitary, simple bowl of steaming soba noodles is planted before me.
“This is the starter, right?” I beseech my beloved.
“Nope, that’s it” she pithily replies.
It would appear that this particular custom, the eating of Toshikoshi soba, is none negotiable. The easy to cut noodles represent letting go of the hardships of the past year, clearing the clutter from your mind and readying overenthusiastic manga editors for the new year ahead. So, with my mind successfully decluttered (and my stomach yearning to BE cluttered), we settle in for, arguably the most important custom of New Year’s Eve in Japan…the 67th NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen!
Japan loves competitions, as any Mangaka who’s entered Silent Manga Audition can attest to, and the NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the granddaddy of music competitions. The official translation is “Year-end Song Festival”, a combination of music, from traditional Enka to migraine inducing J-Pop, comedy and downright bizarreness, the Kōhaku Uta Gassen is staple New Year’s Eve viewing. Divided into the White Team and the Red Team, the selected collection of pop, rock and Enka acts battle it out for their respective teams, to reach the dizzying heights of Japanese musical glory!
Never too many omamori to ensure a good year ahead!
The bonanza of entertainment draws to close at 11:50 and gives way to several, solemn live feeds of Japan’s most prominent shrines. From Hokkaido to Okinawa, the population of Japan collectively hold their breath for…BONG…BONG…BONG. The bells of the shrines and temples shatter the expectant silence, prayers are said and the weary populous (seriously, sitting in the same position under a heated table is more exhausting than you’d think) crawl their way to bed. I can say, hand on heart, this was the earliest, and soberest I’ve ever crawled to bed on NYE in the past 20 years! 2018 has begun…the White Team won btw…
Awaking early and clear headed on New Year’s Day, another first, it’s proudly announced that we are to visit the local Shinto shrine to perform the Hatsumode. With the infuriatingly catchy music of AKB48 still rattling around my head, we head out to say hello to the local gods on this fine, New Year morning. After thoroughly washing hands and mouth (got to scrub up for the gods!), we join the procession to the alter. Now, there’s a very specific way to pray to a Shinto shrine, and if anyone of a certain age remember’s frantically plugging in the speed up cheat on Street Fighter 2 like myself, this should be easy…Throw in your monetary offering (can be any amount, but include a ¥5 coin due to it’s hole, guess its a ‘holy’ offering – natch!), ring the foreboding bell, then bow twice, clap twice, bow once and then offer your prayer…then quickly get out of there.
Make sure you scrub up well.
What was that combination again…?
…clap once…no, twice, bow twice…Anyway, what turns out to be my favourite part of the Hatsumode, is receiving my fortune (looking good) and buying omamori! These brightly coloured charms, dedicated to a shrine or a particular god, offer protection for the challenges of the new year. They also come in every and any guise you can think of, from traditional designs to eye wateringly bright little bags featuring everyone from Hello Kitty (appropriate for New Year!) to Goku. With a staggeringly packed year ahead for SMAC!, I stock up on as many “fortune in work” omamori as my greedy little hands can grasp…
Well, I’m assured it’s a good year ahead.
Content the gods heard our greetings, we make our journey back to the Kotatsu…I mean welcoming family home, for the final tradition of the Japanese New Year, the devouring of the Osechi…and my Mother-in-Law did not disappoint with this year’s New Year feast! Two beautifully lacquered boxes containing mouth watering delicacies such as Nishiki tamago (egg roulade), Kamaboko (broiled fish cake) and the fattest, juiciest prawns I’ve ever seen stare back at me. Every delicious morsel is steeped in New Year significance. I look around me and muse on the past year, and the year ahead, feeling thankful. Thankful for the family I have here (and at home, sorry Mum!), thankful for my adoptive country and thankful for a future Stranded in Manga.
With that, my first Japanese New Year draws to close, fully refreshed, energised and ready to grab 2018 by the….well, let’s just say I greeted my first day of work with the loudest, most positive “HELLO” I’ve ever mustered.
So in the spirit of Japan, here’s a BIG New Year HELLO from me…
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!!!