北の方から明けましておめでとう A Happy New Years from up North (Part 2)

The lone picture I have from the New Years

So I said that it was going to be before the end of the month when I posted the second half of my new years experiences and well, I made it almost.

As we last left off we were at around New Years Eve. However, I would like to delay the ride and steer back a few days before that to explain a few more things.

One of the big mysteries I was wondering about even when I first visited my host family is how in the world do they keep their house warm in the winter? A better question to answer first would probably be why this thought came in the first place. Having a fairly traditional house, sliding glass doors surrounds the two front sides of the house and the rooms inside are partitioned by more glass and paper sliding doors. Well to answer the first question is you put a portable heater in every room. It was sort of cold but luckily I came prepared.

I had brought a toothbrush and everything but I was at the store with my host mother when she asked me if I wanted a new one. One of their family traditions is to buy new toothbrushes for the New Year, which I though was kind of strange. However I noticed there was a high amount of TV commercial ads for toothbrushes and wondered if it wasn’t a more widely spread custom.

I guess you could say this was part the thing that was talked about with a reluctant anticipation was 大掃除 (oosouji) or roughly “big cleaning”. It takes on the meaning similar to spring-cleaning although instead of taking place in spring it usually takes place on the days before new years. In other words, things that only get cleaned once a year get cleaned. From their explanation it sounded like we were going to be head to toe in dust, washing windows, and polishing old trinkets. Thankfully the cleaning wasn’t nearly as severe as it had been explained. The only really cleaning I had to do was change the paper on the sliding doors (襖、fusuma) to the kids bedroom, which were pretty tattered from what seemed like past fighting or fits of anger. The kids had fun punching out holes in the paper before we ripped it off. It is actually really tempting to poke a hole in one every time I saw those sliding paper doors in the house. As if I needed to test the strength of paper.

So on the rare occasion when the kids got the chance to obliterate their bedroom doors I could only stand back in awe as they completely destroyed the paper on four sliding doors within seconds. What moments before were almost perfectly good functioning doors (almost) turned into wooden frames leaving absolutely no privacy between the room and the hallway. I started thinking how fragile these fusumas are and that they’re design makes for a minimalist approach to privacy. They also come with a sense of openness and versatility in that you can easily move the sliding doors out of their tracks and there’s no way of locking someone out of the rooms. Well after four hours, a lot of flying paper, and some serious scrubbing to get the glue off from the previous paper we finished our cleaning.

Anyways, back on track to new years. On New Years Eve I was told that there would be some events and that lots of people and patrons to the temple would come and visit to literally “ring in the new year”. The night came and the snow started to pile up. I was asked to shovel the walkway to the temple and the house so people could easily access the temple. I noticed that there was a huge pile of wood in the middle of the grounds and around 11:00 a bonfire was started. People walking by proceeded to throw items into the fire and there was a huge container of items next to the temple that people fetched from and threw to the flames. I wasn’t able to figure out if there was a particular name for this fire but apparently it is tradition to burn charms and good look mementos purchased from shrines and temples over the past year. I had a lot of fun throwing things into the fire and threw a few of my own charms and fortunes I had purchased from various adventures. It looked like some one had thrown a computer into the fire which didn’t make sense; then all of sudden I’m helping to throw the giant container into the fire as well (apparently they had made a new container for next year). I stood there basking in the flames watching the snow swirl down not knowing what the exact time was and not really caring.

Soon, as more and more people began to gather the crowd started shifting away from the fire and towards the temple bell where my host father, dressed in his traditional priest robes began to recite Buddhist scriptures and those who knew them joined in. What I think is amazing is these sutra or scripture readings are not done in Japanese but in a completely foreign language. The bell is then rung 108 times. Everyone got a chance to ring the bell at least once. I’ve done a lot of research as to why this is and asked my host family but its somewhat complicated and multi layered in its possible meanings. From what I’ve gathered it is a counting up and renewing or banishing of all the earthly human desires of your past, present, and future life based on the teachings of Buddhism (trust me to come back to this some day and correct/improve this explanation). We then drank sake and I talked with old men about how they believed Hokkaido is a foreign country.

It was a really interesting new years and it was probably the first one I experienced in recent memory where I was not chained to the temporal countdown or the ever-aging Dick Clark. I have to say that the western idea of New Years revolves around a single moment. A calculated event where 12/31/xx 11:59:59 crosses over into a new 1/1/xx+1 12:00 am and Hooray! I won’t say that doesn’t exist here but it seemed that throughout my stay New Years in Japan is much more decentralized by preparing for the new year and then in the days following New Years expressing thanks for the previous year and best wishes for the year to come. It is definitely a holiday for family seeing that everyone I know returned home for New Years (but not necessarily for Christmas).

In addition I saw some familiar faces like Hashimoto Sensei who taught Japanese and Yoshi, the English teacher at the High school I visited two years ago. Yoshi took me out to a shrine, as it is customary to visit shrines in the days proceeding new years as a “first visit of the year” type ceremony. Again shrines are different from temples (shrine=Shinto Temple=Buddhism).

I spent the days after New Years playing with the kids (sledding in a graveyard anyone?) and helping with chores. When it came time to say goodbye I was really unsure of whether I’d see them again but it didn’t matter because the train wasn’t going to allow for elaborate farewells. It was great like always and it felt like home away from home.

Speaking of which, as of this writing I realize I have exactly two months until I will be traveling back home. Guess I could make the best of it.

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