New Year, Japan Style
When I was a child I always looked forward to the end of the year. First Christmas, then New Year, and best of all, no school for two and a half weeks!
Everything in Glasgow went into a kind of semi-shutdown from December 22nd or 23rd and normal service wasn’t resumed until about January 7th or 8th. For many, the whole holiday period was just one long excuse to indulge in too much food, a lot more drink than is ordinarily healthy and a blissfully lazy, static lifestyle. I still miss it to this day in what is becoming an increasingly hectic modern world, with ever lengthening working hours, and ever shortening holiday entitlements.
Photo: katsuuu 44 on Flickr
However, my perception of Christmas and New Year in Scotland is of two distinctly different events. For me Christmas was always the family time, the time when we would all each and drink together, share presents and good conversation. Growing up, my father was a chef, my mother a cook. Working times were erratic and irregular, with family mealtimes at an absolute premium, especially during the holiday season, which as anyone who works in the catering trade will tell you is the busiest and most intense time of year.
And yet, somehow, we always found the time and the money to enjoy a huge, rich and satisfying Christmas dinner, of multiple courses and in a large enough volume that the leftovers could feed us right up to the end of the year.
Of course, turkey was a given. You can’t have Christmas dinner without a turkey, can you?
Photo: chriscrowder_4 on Flickr
Well actually, in Japan, I don’t really have much of a say on the matter!
New Year was a completely different animal. In Scotland, New Year consisted of watching the annual comedy TV specials on BBC Scotland in the run-up to midnight.
I still reminisce on you tube occasionally with classic shows like “Only an Excuse” and “Scotch and Wry” and of course the unforgettable Reverend I.M. Jolly.
If you’ve never heard of any of these shows, I strongly recommend getting online and looking them up. I’d be interested to hear if the comedy translates to other countries and cultures beyond Scotland or not.
Photo: Isabelle on Flickr
At the stroke of midnight, we would raise our glasses, a single malt whisky, on the rocks, for the men and either a champagne or a white wine for the ladies.
Once the new year toast was out of the way, my personal highlight of the night came along, the huge pot of homemade Scotch Broth soup, with freshly baked bread, followed by the main event: stew with sausages and beef, and puff pastry.
After the late-night banquet came the tradition of the first footing. A first footing quite literally means being the first to set foot in the house of a family member or friend after the start of the New Year. From there a party would begin and continue until the next morning, sometimes beyond. The whole spectacle of the Christmas and New Year holiday was rounded off by watching the traditional New Year “Old Firm” soccer derby between Celtic and Rangers. Sadly this fixture will never happen again, since Rangers ceased to exist in 2012. Still, coming from a family of Celtic fans, I have to say I’m not losing any sleep over that!
Photo: Ginny on Flickr
So, you’re probably wondering why have I wasted half of this article going on about my nostalgia for Scottish New Year customs, this is, after all, supposed to be a blog about Japan isn’t it?
Well, in truth, there really isn’t that much difference in how we approach Christmas and New Year. Many of the same kind of things happen here in Osaka too, albeit with a distinctly Japanese flavour.
Like in Scotland, there’s an annual comedy special on Japanese TV too. Known as “Downtown” the show runs for several hours on Hogmanay (I refuse to call it New Year’s Eve, sorry). The premise is so simple that even someone of my limited Japanese ability can follow it easily. A team of comedians are dropped into a series of increasingly ridiculous scenarios and are subjected to steadily more and more bizarre games and stunts. Their mission is simple, don’t laugh or face the consequences, beatings from on-site “security officers” armed with comically oversized foam batons.
Photo: Kentaro Ohno on Flickr
Come New Year itself, my Japanese friends will also drink a toast to the New Year with family and friends. It is here that things diverge slightly from the Scottish accepted norms. Whilst at this point we Scots would be cracking open the next bottle of whisky and getting stuck into the soup and stew, the traditional Japanese custom is somewhat different. They wrap up warm, grab the whole family, and head out to a shrine to get a New Year blessing. The positive side effect of this for non-religious, New Year party lovers like me is that the trains will run 24 hours on this one day only, to help people get to and from the shrines more easily.
As the early morning approaches many Japanese enjoy the traditional dish of New Year Soba. It may not be quite as satisfying as a bowl of my mother’s homemade soup, or as nourishing as her beef stew, but in in its own peculiar way those quaint little noodles have become every bit an equal part of my new year experience.
Photo: John Nakamura Remy on Flickr
At the beginning of 2015 I also partook in a distinctly Osakan New Year tradition. Close to my apartment in Osaka’s Minato Ward is one of the tallest bridges in the region. Soaring above the city, this bridge connects Taisho Ward to Minato Ward. At the highest point of the bridge one can enjoy panoramic views of the entirety of Osaka City.
Photo: m-louis .® on Flickr
There is no better place in the region to view the first sunrise of the New Year as it ascends over the eastern mountains of Wakayama and casts its first, furtive beams across the city to the west.
Wherever you and your family spend this New Year, I hope it’s a good one and all the best for 2016!