Akemashite, omedeto

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a fun, safe New Year’s eve!
*sniff* another year, another Tarepanda calendar gone into storage…
Here in Japan, there are a variety of customs which are supposed to be observed on New Year’s day (oshougatsu). Feeling particularly “cultural” today, I decided to do my best to follow some of them. First of all, New Year’s day is a holiday to be spent with your close family and relatives. Seeing as how my family is on the other side of the world, and that my relatives live in frightening places such as the barbed wire barricaded ghettos of Panama and the bear infested backcountry of Northern Michigan, it looks like this is one New Year’s custom I’m going to have to wing on my own. So I did the next best thing. Gathering up my posse of panda and company, we all sat down around the heater and had a great New Year’s lunch!
What a grand time! Here I offer Kitty-chan some of my drink.
Wow! Ninja panda looks like he’s about to do some serious damage! But don’t worry, it’s actually just a salad fork – simultaneously being a panda and a ninja no doubt makes one hungry!
Traditionally, New Year’s food in Japan is termed “Osechi ryori”. Not only is it beautiful to look at, it’s also expensive… AND TASTES LIKE POOP!
Very few Japanese care for the taste of ultra traditional osechi ryori. And that’s saying a lot for a country where half the population claims to enjoy the occasional meal of rotting, fermented soybeans (natto)! Nevertheless, they either buy it or spend a lot of time making it, because it’s tradition. Fortunately, Panda, in his extreme unorthodox gaijin-ness, feels no such compulsion to spend money on things just because it’s tradition. (in recent years, this ‘down with the establishment’ philosophy has undergone some revision, resulting in Panda grudgingly recognizing the fact that paying to buy soap and do you laundry is a tradition which is worthy of some respect, much to the relief of his close friends and co-workers).
Traditional(ly disgusting) Japanese Osechi ryori.
While New Year’s day food consists of the awful collection of questionable products seen above, traditional meals on New Year’s Eve in Japan are comprised of soba and mochi. Most people are familiar with soba (buckwheat noodles) which Panda elected to eat today in lieu of the more traditional osechi ryori.
Convenience store soba. Note the unused packet of Wasabi to the side.
Mochi, on the other hand, may be unfamiliar to many Western readers. Basically put, mochi is a sweet, sticky, glutinous dumpling made from rice that just happens TO KILL HUNDREDS OF JAPANESE EACH YEAR… What happens is, many times the dumpling gets stuck in the throat on the way down, due to its sticky nature, and the more-often-than-not elderly victim chokes to death.
I was talking to M about this on the phone, expressing my refusal to tango with the deadly dango (hee hee, a little inter-language rhyming couplet for you. Dango is Japanese for dumpling) when she, in all seriousness, suggested that I have a vacuum cleaner handy in case I choke.
“errr…. what…!?” I inquired.
“oh you know! In case you start to choke, you can just stick the vacuum cleaner hose in your mouth and suck it out!”
“erm… have you actually ever heard of someone successfully doing this in real life?”
“oh, yeah, sure!”
Well, M’s confident assertions aside, a lifetime of people constantly telling me not to stick vacuum cleaners in my mouth, especially ones that were turned on…! took over, and I decided against taking her advice. I don’t know which is worse – dying because you choked to death on a rice dumpling, or dying because YOU SUCKED OUT ALL YOUR INTERNAL ORGANS WITH A VACUUM. (>_<)
So no mochi for me. It’s one thing to die from something exotic, like fugu (poisonous blowfish). I mean, then people will walk around your casket saying things like “that michaelpanda! Always the adventurer! Couldn’t wait to sample all the mysteries that life had to offer!”. Because going out in that way is sort of respectable in a cultural way.
One more picture, cuz’ I know you’d rather see them than me.
On the other hand, being taken out by a lump of sticky rice dumpling is nothing short of humiliating. Rather than the envious whispers of admiration at my eulogy, I can just hear my father getting up on the podium: “That dumb kid. Always sticking things in his mouth he wasn’t supposed to. I can’t believe he choked to death on a rice dumpling. I suppose if it wasn’t this it would’ve been a vacuum or something. No son of mine chokes on a rice dumpling. I disown him – I HAVE NO SON!!!!!!!!”
So to avoid being post-humously disowned, I refrained from partaking of the evil potentially panda pulverizing mochi. After Japanese are done sharing a traditional meal with their family, they then go to a temple to pray for good fortune for the new year. Seeing as how this is my first year in this city and there are no Panda temples in the vicinity, I had no obvious option for where I should go to beg god to stop toying with my life. So I did what I do when I have no idea what I should be doing.* I went outside and started wandering aimlessly.
A quiet night in a normally bustling shopping area.
* (laughs) The funny part of that incomprehensible sentence is – I’m an English teacher…!
I noticed that the streets of downtown were surprisingly empty. Normally at this time, they are bustling with activity – school kids getting off of school and meeting each other at the arcade, office ladies sharing a cup of coffee or shopping, salary men rushing off to close one last deal for the day, bartenders opening up their doors, hostesses re-arranging their hairdos and stepping out in preparation for the first of the evenings customers…
But it was quiet, almost hauntingly so. The clouds overhead, while not quite bright, were not quite overcast either, seemingly lit from behind with an ethereal glow that reflected off of the empty expanses of concrete below. As I walked, I mused over my resolutions for the new year, and marveled at the fact that I had actually successfully completed all of mine from last year. After about a half hour, I turned the corner onto a now dark street and came across a small temple I had never noticed before. Seeing a priest inside obviously waiting for someone to enter, I stepped over the threshold and entered.
The temple I stumbled upon while walking on the back streets…
Once inside, I threw some 5 yen coins into the specially designated box (in Japan, the five yen coin in particular is thought to bring good luck) and rang the bell as per custom. Having had my little commune with whatever deity I happened to be praying to at the moment (not being familiar with the various temples can have unexpected side effects – once when I was walking with M near the Niigata area after visiting a friend, I spied a little out of the way temple and made an offering, feeling all cultural at that moment. After observing in silence, M piped up: “you do know you just prayed at a temple dedicated to helping pregnant women have a successful birth, right?”)
I turned to walk away. As I turned, I happened to pass a different obosan (priest). For whatever reason (primarily to avoid angering another patron god of pregnancy or whatever) I decided to ask what the temple was dedicated to.
To my surprise, the priest was very forthcoming. Immediately picking up on my gaijiness (it’s strange that way. Some Japanese can pick up on the fact that I’m foreign straight away. Others have no clue, even after I start rambling on in my very-obviously-not-native broken Japanese. I have been mistaken for Ainu or Okinawan more times than I think should be reasonable. :P ), he took me inside the temple (to that point, I had just been standing at the little offering box by the entrance) and started explaining the various details of the assorted religious paraphernalia scattered around the room. The other attendants picked up on this, and I got treated to a full scale performance, complete with banging drums, smoking incense and chanted mantras.
To my surprise, the kindly priest turned out to speak a little bit of English, a surprise which was further elevated when he started busting out words like “separatist sect”, “metaphysical” and “hindu mysticism”. Intrigued, because his level of English was nowhere near the level where one would know such words, I questioned him on it and found out that in addition to being a part time buddhist priest (monk?) he happened to be a professor of Western philosophy and Buddhism at some Tokyo university (not Todai), in town to visit his family for the holiday season. Which explained nicely the random SAT-level words popping up then and again in our little conversation. :)
What is that thing hanging on my wall? Read on to find out!
After finishing with the main buddha, I was taken to another room containing a smaller, but much more elaborate altar display. A screen obscured the main statues located in a semi-hidden backroom, and all around lay various vegetables and fruits, most notably gigantic daikon of all shapes and sizes.
Thinking this buddha perhaps dedicated to prosperity or abundant food, etc. I inquired as to what “type” of buddha he was. So the priest starts rattling off – “this buddha is a buddha for health, success in work and … ”
suddenly he turns all red and starts stammering.
“ano… uhh…”
Intrigued by what great mystery of buddhism I’m about to uncover, I press on. Finally, he comes out with:
“dansei to jyousi no… kankei… ano… yoku naru no tame” (lit. “to ‘improve’ the ‘relationship’ between a man and a woman”)
Something about the way he said it tipped me off.
“So, you’re saying this is a Buddha to pray to for good sex.”
Flushed, he nods in affirmation. “But just one of his many purposes!” he quickly asserts. Now I begin to understand, seeing as how this particular shrine was located only a couple blocks from the red light district of town.
Anyway, afterwards, my guide very kindly and patiently explained the meanings of the various scrolls hanging around the temple walls. Just as I finished thanking him and started to leave, he came out after me and gave me this:
It reads “Ganbou jyoujyu” – “the fulfillment of your wishes”
It’s an omamori or “good luck charm”. It’s supposed to bring good fortune for the next year. Usually temples make their money by selling various chintzy trinkets like plastic good luck charms, paper fortunes (omikuji – sort of like what you find in fortune cookies, only much more in depth, written in unreadable shodo calligraphy, and unlike fortune cookie fortunes, sometimes portending not so fortunate fates (daikyo)) and other assorted goods, like the, err.. good luck, uhh… rake…? I just received. I had noticed on my way out that they were being sold for 1200 yen, but I got mine for free. Gaijin privilege strikes again :) You can see a picture of it hanging on my wall above.
Anyway, exhausted after my little journey into the confusing teachings of an obscure buddhist sect, I came back home and eagerly checked my mailbox to find a bunch of nengajyo waiting for me. Unfortunately, my elation at receiving 20+ cards quickly turned to disappointment when I discovered that about half of them weren’t for me. Unless my last name has suddenly become Takahashi and I’ve moved into my neighbor’s apartment. :(
So while I debated keeping them in order to feel special and loved by complete strangers, I eventually decided to do the right thing and stuffed them in my neighbor’s mailbox. Hmmph…
As you may have gathered, it’s the year of the (effeminate) monkey.
Above you can see what regular Japanese nengajyo look like. You’ll notice that while they’re colorful, they’re also either pre-printed or stamped. They have nothing on the time consuming TLC that went into making each and every uniquely numbered and signed limited edition panda nengajyo. Hallmark best watch out, I think I’m on to something here. I hope all those who received a panda card treasure it forever!
And if you don’t, I’m going back to that shrine to curse you with bad sex for the rest of the year! :)
Now listening to: “The Roc Project feat. Tina Arena – Never (DJ Tiesto remix)” (vocal trance. my secret, shameful addiction.)
8:44 am

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