Japanese New Year – Retreat to the Countryside

Celebrating New Year in Japan is something special. Just as Japanese Christmas has different connotations from Christmas in Belgium, Japanese New Year has its own distinct unwritten rules. In Belgium, Christmas is for family and New Year’s Eve is for hanging out with friends. In Japan, Christmas is the most romantic day of the year, and is reserved for going out on dates. Around New Year, people massively migrate from the large cities that provide them with jobs and return to the countryside in which they were raised, in order to celebrate with their family. That is also how I chose to celebrate the old and the new: with my family, which currently consists of fellow travellers and a few fantastic hosts.

oume-01Satoshi seems very excited about his cup of heated sake

From December 29th to January 3rd, I stayed at a magnificent old Japanese-style house in Ōme. This was the place were Satoshi, one of my best friends here in Japan, spent a lot of his childhood. He invited me and 7 other travellers to the house in a small village about an hour west from Tōkyō. On December 29th, Satoshi, Taku, Shayla, Whitney, Alfonso and myself arrived late at night (we would later be joined by Reed and Andy), and immediately battled the cold with one of Japan’s awesomest inventions: the kotatsu. This table, built over a lowered part of the floor, hides a heating element under the blankets suspended from its sides. Any cold body part deposited in this blissful oasis of warmth will soon start blushing again. I had the delight of encountering one of these tables before, and I have sworn to build my own when I come back to Belgium.

When we woke up the next morning, the gentle sunlight caressing the rice-paper doors revealed a house rich in character. Old and battered though it may have been, seldom have I felt so pleased with my surroundings. I brought my camera on the exploratory walk I took through its many hallways and chambers:

oume-02oume-06oume-07oume-03 oume-04oume-05After exploring our surroundings and scoring some lunch at a local supermarket, we made our way to an onsen, a Japanese hot spring which functions as a public bath house. These have been quite popular in Japan for centuries, and as a result you can find them all over. Unfortunately, we had to embark on our relaxing journey to the bottom of the tub without Taku, as he was covered in tattoos from head to toe. “So?” you may ask. “A little hot water is not going to erase tattoos, Simon, you need to get your facts straight.” Indeed, it’s not the tattoos leaking ink into the crystal clear springs that is the problem. It’s what those tattoos stand for.

In the Edo-period, criminals that were caught and sentenced were often tattooed with elaborate markings detailing their crimes. Throughout history, however, these tattoos evolved from being something shameful to a source of pride for misfits and gangsters. As Japanese criminals started applying them themselves, these tattoos became more and more elaborate and colourful, and finally became a staple part of the yakuza look. The yakuza are estimated to be the world’s largest organized crime syndicate, with tens of thousands of members in most major cities across Japan. As public bath houses obviously can’t put up signs that say “No gangsters, please”, they have used the tattoo as the polite intermediary. How infinitely Japanese. Even when trying to keep organized crime out of your establishment, you embellish the truth and exert politeness. At any rate, almost every onsen in Japan sports a sign saying “No tattoos”. Everybody knows that this has nothing to do with tattoos, but everything with yakuza. Even the stickers detailing the rule of no tattoos show the person wearing them with an instantly recognisable yakuza haircut.

So while obviously no gangster, Taku’s tattoos ensured he had to find something else to do, while we soaked and boiled for a delicious two hours. After an elaborate shower (you better make sure you’re very clean before taking a bath), we traversed the icy cold of the night to enter a steaming hot pool surrounded by rocks. All the while, the moon shone down on us from the heavens. No wonder the Japanese have been doing this for centuries. I would gladly do no other thing until I die, and it would be a life well-spent.

oume-08As we spent most of the night talking around the kotatsu, we slept until the last rays of light on this last day of the year had almost faded. We soon embarked on the one hour and a half train ride to the apartment in eastern Tōkyō where we would celebrate New Year.
This too was a CouchSurfing event organized by my friends Satoshi and Kentarō, and so there were plenty of new people to meet. Our rag-tag international team included two German Germans, one Finnish German, a Polish bloke, an Australian, two Americans from California, an Indonesian Japanese girl, two Canadians, plenty of Japanese guys and a Belgian monkey.
I talked with all of the guests and the Polish man in particular was interesting to talk to. He started learning Japanese just one year before I did, and yet he knew 3000 Japanese characters, had achieved a near perfect score on the BJT (the Business Japanese Test, an even more difficult test than the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test) and worked as a professor of Japanese in Poland. I know I have spent as many years studying Japanese as I have forgetting it, but even so the difference in our abilities was quite staggering, to say the least. Rather confronting, though I wasn’t not too fazed about it. Wake up calls like these don’t mean I need to cry over time lost. It just means I have to work harder.

oume-09Tōkyō at midnight is not the all-consuming madness you might assume it to be. Except for some rowdy partying going on around Shibuya and Shinjuku, the rest of the city is remarkably peaceful. We too, watched not some crazy show with bells and whistles around midnight. No, instead we watched a monk ring a giant bell in a temple on the television. Soon afterwards, we went out and wandered onto the grounds of a local shrine, where New Year’s celebrations were underway. We checked out the proceedings, took some pictures and were met with cheerful and friendly people organizing the festivities. They were roasting imo (large sweet potatoes) in the central fire on the temple grounds and even handed us the largest sample to share among our group. That’s what I love about Japan: when the people see you’re interested in their culture, they will just keep on showering you with explanations, friendly bows and gifts. And then, suddenly, Poland chipped in. Here is how he used his impeccable Japanese: “Hey, old man. What do you think you’re doing? Look at us, one potato is not going to be enough, don’t you think?” As I was the only one around that spoke enough Japanese to understand what had just happened, I pulled him back, immediately apologized and thanked them for their kindness. The Polish guy looked at me as if I was insane. “Well, it’s not going to be enough, though, right?” Here again, I’ve come to find that you can have all the credentials you could desire and still not know a thing about what makes Japan go round. Politeness, for one thing.

oume-10After a bout of karaoke that wasn’t half as horrible as I imagined it would be, we gathered at Zōjōji near Shiba kōen, to watch the first sunrise of the year.

On the first we slept in so late we barely missed the sun go down. As the house was cold and it was Shayla’s birthday, Satoshi and I went grocery shopping to get her some birthday cake and food for the night. When we returned, we got under the kotatsu and only left for the occasional potty break, or to boil water for tea or cup noodles.
Shayla had found a toy robot called Pino in a room adjacent to the one where we were sleeping, and so Satoshi got her some batteries for it. After turning it on, the little rascal gradually become more active and fun to watch, until it finally marched around the table singing ‘Happy Birthday’. Reed joined us for the night, and we stayed up until the early hours to listen to his amazing adventures. One of the most legendary no doubt being the one where he camped out on a clearing in the woods, and woke up lying on top of the grave of a 400-year old dead samurai. As he himself so elegantly put it: “I’m going to Japanese hell”.

oume11The second day of the year was a partial repeat of the first one: sleeping in and eating with our feet under the kotatsu. Feeling at least slightly guilty about our recent inactivity, we went for a long walk in Ume no Kōen (Plum Tree Park). We took a train deeper into the mountains, where we visited another onsen (hot spring). All clean again, we picked up Andy, an Australian with Greek roots, who would join us for our last night in Ōme.

On the last day Satoshi’s mother came by with two boxes of exquisitely gift-wrapped Japanese treats. She also brought us some mochi which her husband had made. She roasted the mochi, which was then presented to us with a nice crust and still warm. It was delicious, but we were still very cautious while eating the mochi. Let me explain to you why that is.

Mochi is a chewy rice cake which is used in many types of Japanese sweets, and is especially popular during the New Year’s celebrations. Because it is so chewy it’s sometimes hard to swallow. Combine this with how much the Japanese love eating this stuff, and you’ll find that a lot, and I mean a lot of people get mochi stuck in their throat. In fact this happens so often that every year people die from mochi-induced suffocation. So the more macabre among the Japanese always say “Ah, more mochi?” when they hear ambulances drive by during the first few days of January.

We survived long enough to have another Japanese couple bring us yet more gifts. And here the ultimate in Japanese gift-giving was initiated. Satoshi, who had just received two boxes of sweets from his mother, decided to give those to the couple in return. Swapping of unopened presents is quite a common thing here, apparently.