Our friends Seiji and Yayoi invited us to their family house in Kyoto for New Years. New Years is special to the Japanese as it is linked to a northeast-Asian lunar calendar event, known in Japan as 正月 Shogatsu held traditionally in February. Although since the Meiji era's modernization program Japan is out of step with the rest of Asia and celebrates New Years with the European Gregorian calendar. However the event has retained many of its traditional aspects and we were more than happy to have it coincide with our New Years.
During this holiday the Japanese eat only preserved foods in bento boxes, known as osechi-ryori お節料理. These sets include slightly sour preserved vegetables, mashed sweet potato/chesnut paste, rubbery fish cakes, boiled seaweed and sweet black soybeans. Most of the reasoning for this comes from the fact that Japanese people are too busy cleaning for New Years (a must do for everyone, and I mean CLEANING EVERYTHING) to cook and their tradition of not being able to shop during the New Years period (especially in the days before refrigeration) so everything keeps for a while. There are many specificities and special days during the shogatsu period but we got to witness the most important ones at our friends`place in Kyoto.
New Years is a bit strange in Japan as they all seem to watch the same television program called kohaku each new years, which we were obliged to watch. Look up "Enka" and "J-Pop" on you tube if you want to see what it is like, neither of us were fans of it at all. I was a fan of the family pilgrimage to temples and shrines for new years wishing and cleansing, the highlights of which were a wooden stilt temple named Kiyomizu-dera, built only with joist-work and no nails, and the ringing of the second largest bell in Japan (fourth heaviest in the world) at Chion-in temple. The bell ringing was interesting as Japanese buddhism has the year rung in with 108 clangs of their massive bells at each temple to chant down the 108 evil intentions man may have in their ontology. The Chion-in bell required 17 monks to pull the hammer back to ring the bell each time! Needless to say multitudes had gathered and the bell was very loud, but I do not think my evil intentions were hampered by the bell.
Seiji and clan were most hospitable, at least as hospitable as the Japanese can be, letting us stay for 3 days right in the middle of family ritual and visiting relatives. The house was amazing! It is located in central Gion district, the geisha area of Japan to you laymen, and at 100 years old and wooden construction it was an amazing place to be nonetheless stay in. From our bedroom you could see an incredible 5 storey pagoda and a large temple in the distance. The house also featured a bathroom made of wood that opened onto a traditional garden which was expertly carved out from a sliver of land surrounding the bathing area. Needless to say, this was the Japan of legends and it was the perfect place to ring in the New Year and our start in Japan.
Seiji showed us some of the most amazing temples, shrines and streetscapes we had seen in Japan as of yet. Much of it was wooden as this is the choice building material in Japan. Much of it was also made of hideous concrete and polyfill walls, it seems there is no halfway in Japan, they either do it up to the nines or just build an area with no care for aesthetics or public access. Kyoto is odd this way, you can be on an amazing street full of shops and culture, smiling people and the odd Geisha or Maiko and then around the corner sprung onto one of the most hideous factory ridden, wire strung, eroding rusty building, concrete covered river districts you have witnessed. Anyhow, this all made the place more interesting to me as I hate smoothed over tourist trap towns or towns that are ALL concrete such as Tokyo.
Here are some of the photos of our new years vacation, if you want to see a more complete set of pictures check out Josh's album on facebook!