A Half Bubble of Plum
Importing Japenese traditions into my Sanpete New Year
By Randal B. Thatcher
Whenever a New Year rolls around, I like to swaddle myself in my old Japanese winter housecoat and harken fondly back to the handful of times I’ve been lucky enough to ring in a New Year in Japan. (Four times, so far; and longing for a fifth.)
New Years is at the very apex of cultural significance in Japan, and their biggest celebration, by far.
In Japan, as a New Year approaches, families gather to collectively perform Oosouji (big cleaning) of the house, in order to start the year out fresh, with a spick-and-span dwelling.
Then it’s off to the local noodle house to eat a bowl of soba noodles—made extra long for the occasion—while exclaiming to everyone around the table, “Long noodles for long life!”
Generous feelings abound at this time of year, and decorative envelopes are stuffed with cash and presented with affection to children and young adults.
At midnight, on the very threshold of the New Year, every Buddhist temple in the country rings an enormous bell 108 times, representing the 108 wanton desires we humans are all possessed of, including, among others, anger, lust, and jealousy. Each strike of the bell is believed to cast out another of those unsavory desires from any person within earshot. (And no matter where you might find yourself, virtually anywhere in that country on New Year’s Eve, the tolling of one of those bells will invariably reach you.)
Next morning, most everyone adorns themselves in their finest winter kimono for a visit to the neighborhood temple or shrine, tossing coins into a collection box, before clapping their hands—exactly twice—and petitioning the gods for a happy and prosperous year ahead.
While there, you’ll encounter people pounding boiled sweet rice into sticky mochi cakes, with large wooden mallets, and offering them to anyone and everyone to enjoy (if “enjoy” is the right word for that act of chewing eternally on bland hunks of sticky rice).
There are numerous stalls set up on the grounds of these same shrines, selling other, more palatable, fare, along with the small Shimekazari (entrance decoration). Literally everyone buys one of these, and for very good reason.
This decoration—consisting of a strand of ceremonial rope, rice straws, pine twigs, fern leaves, and paper strips cut into a zig-zag pattern—is designed and blessed to ward off evil spirits.
When hung above an entryway, it provides an entire year’s worth of protection for all who dwell within, by absorbing and entrapping any evil spirits that might attempt to enter. (Something akin, perhaps, to keeping an open box of baking soda in your refrigerator to absorb any offensive odors.)
Then, at the end of the year, you need only to remove this dutiful decoration (now presumably chock-full of evil spirits), take it to the local shrine during New Year festivities, and hurl it into the roaring bonfire you’re sure to find there. A new decoration must then be purchased, taken home, hung over the door, and…viola! Another whole year of anti-evil!
As I’ve contemplated all these wonderful New Year traditions and rituals of that exotic far-eastern land, I’ve considered which of them I might incorporate into my own symbolic celebrations.
Should I undertake to bang loudly on a bell 108 times at midnight, my wife is going to demand that I cease and desist before I’ve cast out even my first dozen devils.
And, as for those extra-long soba noodles, such specialty items are not easily found around these parts; but perhaps an instant ramen might become a sufficient “long life” substitute.
A traditional end-of-year house cleaning is something I definitely could—and should—adopt.
Doling out cash to children, however intriguing, seems unlikely, since every kid I know has already been showered with plentiful gifts just the week prior; so maybe a donation to the local food bank.
Pounding boiled rice into sticky mochi cakes is certainly possible (substituting an old croquet mallet for the more ceremonial Japanese version), but not really worth the effort.
Praying for a healthy, happy and elevating New Year is something I could do… and should do… and have done.
But, what of that ever-protective decoration above the door of my domicile? I discovered, a few years ago, that these can be ordered for a mere $20 from Amazon. (Just name me something that cannot be ordered from Amazon!) A mighty cheap price, wouldn’t you say, for a whole years’ worth of defense from myriad evils? (I actually do have one of these things strategically hung, though it’s several years old, which means it must already be overloaded with a plethora of unsavory spirits.)
And, while I find this idea of protecting ones home from various evils, I am resolved, in this New Year, to do so in the more prosaic and everyday manner of simply striving to police my own thoughts and words and actions.
And, supposing I fail, now and then, in this self-policing? Well… then perhaps that old Shimekazari that’s been hanging over my front-door for years, can somehow manage to absorb just one or two more ills…HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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