Holidays are usually an important of my life. I am a big fan of Christmas, my stomach starts craving turkey weeks before Thanksgiving and Easter is my gateway into the spring. The one holiday I have always hated, however, is New Year’s. More so than even Valentines Day (which really shouldn’t even be a holiday, but I will respect that it’s a time to think about the ones you love).
Why do I dislike New Year’s? I hate the feeling that I need to go out to either a bar or party. If it’s a bar (which it usually is), there is always some kind of drink deal that costs way more than I or my fiancé would (or could) drink. It’s just not worth it to me. The television broadcast is the same year-to-year and most of the time, I would rather watch a movie than Ryan Seacrest interview B-Level celebrities.
Anyway, in 2012, I was fortunate enough to travel with my Mom and Sister to Japan, where we spent a week traveling the country. During this trip, I spent my New Year’s holiday in Kyoto, Japan.
Kyoto is one of Japan’s oldest cities and was the capital for over a millennium. Untouched during WWII, it is home to 17 UNESCO world heritage sites, essentially making the city as a whole one of the worlds urban gems. You get the feeling that every building in the city has been there for hundreds of years. The people are extremely friendly, the city is very clean and streets are (for the most part) easy to navigate.
The most practiced religion in Japan is Shinto, the Japanese devotion to invisible spiritual beings and powers called kami and to various rituals. These rituals are usually practiced at the thousands of shrines that are dispersed throughout the country. During New Year’s in Japan, there isn’t an Asian version of Ryan Secrest talking to celebrities in downtown Tokyo. The Japanese celebrate Oshogatsu, or the Japanese New Year.
It’s traditional at New Year to visit a shrine. People go to thank the kami, ask to be blessed with good fortune in the coming year, and make their New Year resolutions in the presence of the kami. Just before midnight, at pretty much every temple, families line up and a large bell is rung at least 108 times (if there are more than 108 families, they allow the bell to be rung more). The families then say a prayer to the kami and return home.
During our trip to Kyoto, we went to the Ninnaji Pagoda. We thought we would do our part and ring the bell. We got in line with the rest of the Kyotoites. Unfortunately for us (and everyone that was in line with us), the temple decided to ring the bell on its own and didn’t allow people inside. In America, people would probably be up in arms about this and complain to the friends and family about how mad they were. In Kyoto, people just shrugged, said a prayer and went home with there families. We did the same.
On New Years Day, we made the trek up to the Shimogamo Shrine in northern Kyoto. Built in the 8th century and contained within the Tadasu no Mori, “the forest of truth,” the Shimogamo Shrine is one of the oldest Shrines in Japan. When we arrived, we noticed a really long line through the forest, under the magnificent orange Torii and up to the actual shrine. The line was moving somewhat quickly, so we hopped in. After about a half an hour, we were finally next to perform the Shinto ritual. We are Catholic, but the Shinto religion isn’t God-based, so we didn’t feel like we were being blasphemous in any way. Basically, it is custom to toss a few yen into a collection area near the shrine, say a prayer to your ancestors and move along. The collection area was near a small creek over a bridge. There was the smell of incense in the air. We tossed in our yen, thanked God for having the opportunity to be involved with this ritual and kept the line moving.
As we moved our way back to the “forest of truth,” we noticed a festival taking place right outside the shrine. We made our way to the festival and were treated with some of Kyoto’s local dishes. After saying their prayers, families and friends got together to enjoy food ranging from smoked pork to grilled snapper. At this time, we were introduced to Takoyaki which is essentially a bread ball filled with Octopus and other vegetables. We tried everything. Fish, Beef, Chicken, Pork, Vegetables. Everything was delicious and the atmosphere was nothing like I have or ever will see again. Celebrating the New Year in Kyoto was something I will never forget. It wasn’t about drinking until you can’t remember anything or having someone to kiss at midnight. It was about family, reflecting on the fortunate events of the prior year and great food.