On into the New Year

Prays are offered in the hope of favours
New Year at Zeniarai-benten—people
wash money in the hope that it will increase.  Chains of
Origami cranes hang from the ceiling of this cave shrine.

As I sit here writing this at home on the borders of England and Wales, Japan has marched into 2015.  The New Year in the UK is still some nine hours away but already there are some people who are going to be disappointed.  No, not because it might be raining when the New Year fireworks are let off but because they may be unable to secure an ideal spot to watch the display along London’s Thames Embankment.  Last year there were so many problems with the crowds that the Ambulance Service was stretched to the limit.  So this year the best viewing area is going to be ticketed.

Thinking on this I am reminded of the hundreds of thousands people who are at this moment proceeding in an orderly and yet joyful procession toward Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo’s biggest shrines, along a wide path between the hundreds of mature trees in this green, city oasis.  Here in front of the Shrine after making a monetary offering they will clap their hands and bow with respect and pray and wish for health and happiness in the New Year.  Or they might even ask for success in an up-coming exam, or simply pray that their choice of partner in marriage was the right one.  Some will just hope to be a better person. The popular reason for ringing the bell is, by the way, just to remind the deity of their presence.

In the dark and cold, people wait in line to offer their prays.
These scenes will be replicated up and down the whole country, at major temples and shrines as well as at more lowly venues in the country-side, where a local temple or shrine still serves the faithful and even the not so faithful within the community.  On the Noto Peninsula, the crowds may not be so large but the spirit with which a visit to a temple or shrine is made is just the same.

Yes, at temples and shrines.  There will be a few Christian churches which hold midnight services, too, but on the whole it is to a temple or shrine and sometimes both that the majority of people in Japan wend their way at the New Year.

Temples for the most part are Buddhist.  Shrines are Shinto.  This means that as a matter of convenience as well as faith many Japanese will profess to believing in both at least in part if not accepting wholeheartedly their ideology and teachings.  As a result, the “religious” population of Japan can be thought of as being double the real population.

A shrine in a house is decorated with New Year rice cakes, bitter oranges, ferns and a shimenawa of rice straw.  All these are offerings to a guardian deity along with paper gohei, symbolic of cloth which was offered to the gods in the past.

There has never really been any conflict between Buddhism and Shintoism.  After Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the latter part of the 6th century, it was decided at the highest level that a shrine should be erected in the grounds of a temple in order to benefit from the powers of the local guardian deity.  So far from rejecting Shintoism as pagan or purely superstition, Buddhism was able to accommodate the indigenous religion and believes without spite or friction.

A family make soba noodles for a seasonal dish.
All major celebrations connected or unconnected with religion are generally accompanied by special foods.  Christmas time in the UK has its turkey, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding—rich foods to mark what is a special occasion.  New Year celebrations in Japan are no exception.  Before the preparation comes the buying of the ingredients.  To a hard pressed housewife the shopping for what is needed may be stressful but, the festive atmosphere helps to alleviate the strain.  The result, as we shall see, is yet another of art to delight the eye and palate.

Cured surimi fish in various colours and octopus
also play an essential culinary role.

Salmon too is another must-have at the New Year.

There seems to be a nostalgic desire to buy traditional toys at the New Year.
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All photos © Bill Tingey

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