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Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2002


Not much cheer for new year

A search for New Year's shenanigans may be fruitless.

Not long after arriving in Japan, I managed to make it to Nara for New Year's Eve. "Man," I thought, "this'll be the mother of all parties."

Before setting off, a couple of (foreign) friends and I jammed cans of beer and Nihonshu in self-heating containers into our knapsacks and headed to the magnificent Todaiji Temple. We were in a party mood and raring for booze-soaked fun and festivities.

Immediately after lining up for the ritual ringing of the temple bell, I popped open a beer, the contents of which shot up like a geyser, and then cascaded onto the kimonos of a couple of young women in front of us.

Having made my apologies and in search of the nearest party, I scanned the massive wave of humanity that had formed in front of the temple.

Yet the scene alarmed me -- among the thousands of tightly packed young people on the eve of the most important holiday in the land, there was nary a sign of outward celebration or even levity. To my amazement, the crowd was quiet, obedient and, more to the point, sober.

Little did I know then that this scene was being repeated throughout Japan on that night before New Year's Day.

Nearly everywhere else on the planet, New Year's celebrations are boisterous events, from the raucous parties in Times Square or Trafalgar Square to the bombastic dragon-dancing parades in Chinatowns worldwide.

But not in Japan. Here, the new year holiday period, which officially runs from Jan. 1-3 but extends a few days longer, is marked by an almost eerie quiet. Normally bustling streets, neighborhoods and downtowns become empty, as if they had been hit by a neutron bomb.

Businesses, including such essential ones as supermarkets, are closed for several days in a row, while the population either stays at home or returns to their hometowns.

In short, the vast majority of the population spends the vast majority of the holiday lounging around indoors. This state of mini-hibernation is in stark contrast to nearly everywhere else in the West and Asia, where people head out for noisy celebrations, either to parties or street festivals.

Yes, there are the traditional temple and shrine visits, called Hatsumode (first visit of the year). But these are rather solemn affairs, involving an hour or two of ringing the temple bell, praying and tossing coins in a box.

One New Year custom is about as mundane as you can get -- housecleaning. The lead up to new year's has long been considered a time to spend long hours scrubbing every square inch of the home. It's not a prospect I would pop a cork over.

Once the cleaning is done, the main center of attention in the household is the TV set, which is invariably switched on permanently throughout this period. This, of course, means a ratings bonanza for the television industry.

Every season, the major TV networks roll out a plethora of special programs for new year's.

One of these programs, "Kohaku Utagassen," a singing contest produced by NHK, which pits male and female entertainers against each other, has become nothing less than a national institution.

The rituals and customs surrounding the new year, or shogatsu as it's called in Japanese, are by all appearances thoroughly traditional and Japanese. Yet a closer study reveals a mishmash of different cultural and social influences, some a lot more recent than you might think.

There's the date to start with. Celebrating the new year on Jan. 1 is a custom adopted from the West in 1872, when the government started using the Gregorian calendar.

Before then, the country relied on the Chinese-based lunar calendar, according to which the new year got under way from the second new moon after winter solstice. The next time that date rolls around will be Feb. 1.

What's more, the ancient Japanese regarded the new year as the beginning of spring, rather than as a winter holiday.

These days, Japan is one of the very few Asian countries to celebrate new year's on Jan. 1.

One spot in Japan, however, has been bucking the trend. In Okinawa, particularly in fishing and farming villages, the celebrating is done on the lunar new year.

Apparently, many locals believe this date somehow feels more like the real start of the new year.

Yet, however you plan to spend the holiday -- whether it be popping champagne corks, ringing the local temple bell or watching videos while dining on konbeni bento -- I hope it's a happy one.

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