Of course I remember the typical New Years holiday celebrations in the U.S.!
The shots of Buttery Nipples, Afterburners, and White Gummy Bears, the beer chugging contests, DUIs, the streaking of police patrol cars, mooning at McDonald’s drive-thru, the totaled rental cars, 72-hour hangovers, the arrest warrants, getting herpes from kissing some stranger at midnight, the Rose Parade, lying in the den in a puke-soaked Kurt Cobain sweat shirt through 12 hours of football — Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Tangerine Bowl, Toilet Bowl, Oxycontin Bowl.
It’s impossible to overstate how different New Years is for me here in Japan.
Granted, there might be some revelry in the big cities like Osaka and Tokyo. Compared to what typically goes on in America, even these are more like Thursday afternoon bingo in Butte, Montana or octogenarian shuffleboard in Sun City, Florida.
Fasten your seat belts, people, to keep from falling off your chair when you nod off reading this. A pot of hearty espresso is recommended if you’re serious about making it to the end.
New Years Eve day, Masumi, her daughter Azusa, and I, climbed a mountain I’ve written about twice before. It looks like a mountain but it’s really not that high. It has steps and trails, so we left the GPS, emergency flares, ropes, and rappelling gear at home. What I like about it, besides offering a decent work out, a couple hours in nature, and splendid views of the valley which contains most of my home town, Sasayama, is that by bike it’s only about five minutes from my house. It couldn’t be more convenient.
This time, we also brought Azusa’s Black Labrador puppy too. We all headed over — Azusa on foot, Masumi and I on our bikes — to the trail head, which is situated right in front of a small shrine. Of course! Shrines are as ubiquitous here as fire hydrants are in the States. Anyway, about 45 minutes later, we were on top the small mountain, had a picnic lunch, then returned via the same trail.
Masumi and I had the option of visiting the grounds of a local temple to “ring in the New Year”. They have a No Theater performance, a bonfire, and serve free non-alcoholic sake. This is a real family affair for all ages.
But we decided it was just too damn cold!
So we stayed home, falling asleep before midnight. We missed the tofu cannons, whale juggling, sky diving ninjas, and laser holograms of Godzilla eating the Moon. This was prudent. We needed to rest up for the next wild and dazzling phase of our extended weekend, Land of the Rising Sun New Years extravaganza, set for next morning.
That would be at べんてん神社 (Benten Shrine), the Shinto shrine which belongs to our village. We live on the very east end of Sasayama proper, in a village called Noma. Each village of several in our city of 50,000 or so typically has its own shrine and community center. Living in Japan is about community life and getting to know your neighbors.
The motif at the shrine was similar to what we missed at the big temple downtown the previous evening. There was a small bonfire, free kelp and squid snacks, and sake. This sake was the real stuff but only dispensed in thimblefuls, so no one exactly got rowdy.
This being a shrine and to the rather meager extent that Japanese indulge in religious services, there was singing. Mind you, this bore no resemblance to Handel’s Hallelujah chorus or a medley of tent revival spirituals. In fact, what we apparently were singing was the national anthem, which is why my lovely, principled wife was not singing along. She is categorically and staunchly opposed to nationalism, even superficial celebrations of what has not served humankind very well over its blood-soaked history. Which explains why I had to burn all of my American flag Hanes boxer shorts right after we got married.
Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I am joking. All of my American flag undies were long gone decades ago. I believe they were used as rags to stuff Molotov cocktails at some street protests in Berkeley back in the late 60s. I can’t say for sure. It’s difficult to track where things end up after you drop them in a Salvation Army collection box.
Let me add that Masumi thought the idea of singing the national anthem on this special occasion was very strange, a total anomaly. Somebody certainly made a very odd choice. Personally, I found it to be a rather doleful affair, not the stuff of conquest and plunder.
Anyway, here’s a very short video clip of my neighbors singing at the shrine.
Okay . . .
Enough is never enough, especially when it comes to wild abandon and revelry. Sure, we were exhausted from all the whoopee. But driven by relentless surges of hedonism and the insatiable urge to party like its 2099, as soon as we got home we decided to go to Kaibara, the town both near to where Masumi grew up and where we officially got married.
柏原八幡宮 (Hachiman Shrine) is a beautiful place at the top of a hill. It maybe takes ten minutes to walk up the stairs.
People step to the front of a shrine, make a contribution, sometimes light incense, ring a very dissonant, clanking bell to get the attention of whoever up there might be listening, then make an appeal for some desired improvement in their lives — new husband, better job, health, long life, happiness, money — the usual things. They also write these requests on pieces of paper and tie them to a tree on the grounds.
Personally, I find this all very calming, informal, charming, especially since I mercilessly was subjected to the tortures of the Catholic Mass for way too many years. What can I say? Buddhism and Shintoism rock!
I’ll end this account on what I find an interesting note. While there is some god, a spirit entity, associated with each shrine — our local shrine described above is in dedicated to Benten, goddess of art, music, literature, especially appropriate for Masumi and I — the Japanese, and most Asian people, especially Buddhists, don’t pray to a specific god, saint, angel, virgin. At least not the way Christians do. The Catholic Church has a precise org chart for all of its holy representatives. St. Christopher was assigned assuring safe travel, St. Anthony unobstructed breathing passages. Then there was the Virgin Mary, who had what could only be called a cult following of her own, rivaling that of Jesus, who of course was the Savior, source of salvation. Asians just send their prayers out there, as Masumi quite patiently tries to explain to me. Buddhists are very much into flooding outer space with prayers.
You may find this interesting. When you visit Buddhist monasteries, you see prayer wheels, hundreds of them, all different sizes, from ones which could fit in a bowling bag to ones that are taller than a human. Each prayer wheel contains hundreds — sometimes even thousands! — of sacred inscriptions from holy Buddhist texts. Again we have appeals for peace, harmony, long life, etc. Spinning a prayer wheel, it is claimed, sends these good messages out into the universe, inundating it with the highest spiritual content and aspirations.
While from what I can tell, it’s not working, it’s most certainly an admirable enterprise, and so different from the Western framework of a person’s relationship with God and his heavenly ecclesiastical staff. Take a moment and picture those televangelists, furrowed brows sweating, faces bulging with the power of the Lord, yelling: “You want that new car? You want your bills paid? You want that ugly goiter to disappear? To be able to sing along with Mariah Carey and slam dunk like the Shaq? Well, just put your hands on your television screen! I say, put ’em both right here on my face, and FEEL THE POWER OF THE LORD FILL YOUR LIFE with money, success, happiness! Ask and ye shall receive! PRAISE GOD!”
Just something to think about next year during half-time of the Rose Bowl.