AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Greeting the new year the Japanese way

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 30, 2008

YEAREND IS THE ENGLISH WORD used to describe both the end of the business year and the period during which New Year’s holiday events take place. The same word is used in Japan, but more frequently to denote the end of the business year. When referring to the period during which the holiday events take place, the Japanese tend to use the term nenmatsu nenshi, or year-end, year-beginning.

sento-new-year-ceremony

That’s because there are as many New Year’s events after the year begins as there are before it ends. Often, these events are held to mark the first occasion in the New Year people will perform a specific activity.

Everyone knows about the custom of the daily bath in Japan, for example, so it will be no surprise that one of the New Year events would be the first bath of the year at the Arima hot springs in Kobe (first photo). Naturally, they make a point of using the first bath water of the year.

This year, about 400 people were present to watch the tribute to the hot spring founders and the offering of a prayer for future prosperity. There was also a parade with mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines, and combined Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies.

Legend has it that the Arima hot springs were discovered by two gods, O’onamuchi-no-mikoto and Sukunahikona-no-mikoto. No one seems to have pinpointed the date of the discovery, but there are records of Imperial visits to the bath in the 7th century.

The facilities later fell into disrepair, but were restored by the monk Gyoki in the 8th century. It also was destroyed after an earthquake and rebuilt by the monk Ninsai in the 11th century. The spa waters of Arima must be superb for people to keep bringing the place back to life!

karuta-2

During the event, which is roughly 300 years old, employees of a local ryokan, or Japanese inn, and monks in ancient dress carry the mikoshi from a temple to a local elementary school. There they hold a ceremony to cool the water until it’s the right temperature for bathing. And by way of honoring tradition and thanking the people who made the spa what it is today, they also splash water on statues of Gyoki and Ninsai!

Karuta

Since the start of a new year is a holiday, there’s no better way to spend one’s free time than by playing games—or in this case, cards, or karuta as they are traditionally called in Japanese (second photo).

The Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, held the first karuta competition of the year early in January with the help of the members of a local association called the Nihon Karuta-In. The women playing the game— dubbed the karuta princesses—dressed in the clothing of court nobles during the Heian period (794-1185).

This is not the Japanese version of gin rummy. Instead, the game is a fascinating blend of the artistic and the competitive. It is sometimes called hyakunin isshu, or Single Poems by a Hundred Poets. That name is an apt description because the poems used are a collection of 100 waka, or verses consisting of 31 syllables. These specific poems are thought to have been written by 100 different people during the period from the mid-7th century to no later than 1242. Here’s how the game is played.

There are two sets of 100 cards on which the poems are written. One set is used by a reader, and the other set is used by the competitors, who face each other with the cards lying on the floor between them. The reader recites the first three lines of the waka, and the two contestants compete to be the first to take the card on which the full poem is written.

Don’t let the costumes fool you—those ladies have lightning fast reflexes, and by the rules, they don’t have to grab the cards. All that’s required is to be the first to flick them to the side. Simply watching a match can be engrossing, as it combines elegant historical clothing and knowledge of poetry with the steely gaze, calm demeanor, and cobra-quick attack of seasoned competitors.

first-ikebana

Flower Arranging

Those women who prefer artistic pursuits without the head-to-head competition might have chosen to participate instead in the first flower arranging ceremony of the New Year on the 5th at the headmaster’s dojo of the Ikenobo school of flower arranging in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward (third photo). A total of 1,400 people ranging in age from 11 to 97 came from around the country to create their own floral works of art.

The event dates back to the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when people met to exchange New Year’s greetings and pledge to promote the art of flower arranging. The practice soon became an annual custom.

The 11-year-old girl who participated, Yamane Ayaka, told an interviewer she visualized a flower garden during the creation of her work, and that she hoped to continue flower arranging as a junior high school student.

It’s likely that Ayaka got her early start in flower arranging because her parents are involved in the art. The two characters used to write her first name mean “brightly-colored flower”.

Archery

Read a Japanese newspaper early in January, and you’re almost certain to see photographs such as this one in which the practitioners of traditional Japanese archery take aim for their first shots of the New Year in their own ceremony (fourth photo). The archers shown here gathered on the 3rd at a site in Otsu, Shiga, to demonstrate their resolve to improve their skills in the coming year.

new-year-archers

It was sponsored by the Shiga Archery League, and about 80 members ranging in age from 16 to 83 participated. The head of the organization conducted a formal ceremony called the yawatashi, or “handing over the arrow”, to open the event, and then 10 people formed lines to shoot two arrows at a target 28 meters away.

Firefighting

Most of these events are derived from centuries-old Japanese traditions, and the participants are usually serious hobbyists. One exception, however, was the first firefighting drills of the New Year conducted by the Tokyo Fire Department with 2,800 firefighters on the morning of the 6th at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. The participants also included personnel from regional fire departments and corporate firefighting teams.

fire-department-firsts

This was a full-scale drill, complete with entertainment. A total of nine squads were mobilized, and they used 130 trucks and four helicopters. Tokyo Fire Chief Teruyuki Kobayashi started the morning off by remarking that Tokyo area firefighters were given a reminder of the difficulty of their work last year by their struggles to contain a fire resulting from an explosion at a Shibuya bathing facility. He urged the men to use their training and experience to protect the lives and safety of the citizens.

Then they showed off their firefighting and rescue skills in exercises based on conditions they might expect to deal with when confronted by fires in buildings and ships, or collapsed buildings in earthquakes.
 
The event closed with the acrobatic display shown in the fifth photo of the traditional ladder-climbing techniques firefighters used during the Edo period (1606-1868). Some of those moves seem as if they might have been performed more to impress the audience than to demonstrate actual techniques that were used to fight fires!

Dondoyaki

Many different decorations are used during the New Year’s holidays, as we saw in this previous post, and most of them originate with Shinto. Because some of these decorations are thought to be associated with the divinity—or even considered to be a divinity’s temporary dwelling–they are not casually tossed in the trash when the holidays are over.

new-years-burning

Instead, Shinto shrines conduct a special ceremony known as the dondoyaki to ritually burn these items. This particular New Year’s burning took place on the 7th at the Takayama shrine in Tsu, Mie, with a prayer for peace, health, and safety in the coming year (last photo).

The priests held a special fire-lighting ceremony at 8 a.m., after which they started the fire at the site for sacred incineration with 15 parishioners helping.

After all the decorations were burned, the shrine thoughtfully distributed nanakusakayu, or rice gruel with the traditional seven spring herbs, to visitors.

It’s worth remembering that these events are held by and for members of the general public with an interest in traditional activities (except for the firefighters, of course). In Japan, at least, there are still pleasant and rewarding ways to spend one’s time during a time of year that for some is just dead space to be filled by watching television.

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