A Very Japanese New Year's

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Well – mostly.

Hard to believe it’s my second New Year’s in Tokyo already.  I actually have a TV this time, so I decided to start out with the classic Japanese New Year’s Eve tradition – the Kouhaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Song Competition) on NTV.  It would be very hard to adequately describe this to someone who hasn’t seen it – it’s a song competition between two teams of musicians, but so much more.  If you imagine the writers of Kakumeiki Valvrave writing a music contest (which is fitting, as T.M. Revolution appeared doing the Shingeki OP, as well as a joint performance with Nana Mizuki – “Kakumeiki Valvrave SHOUT!”)  that comes close.

This thing is so charmingly bizarre, so inexplicable – in other words, it could only be Japanese.  Obaa-sans and Ojii-sans in ¥100000 suits and dresses waving glow sticks to anime theme songs in NHK Symphony Hall?  Perfume, AKB-48, Arashi, traditional Japanese and J-rock…  It’s a cultural mash-up of epic proportions, and pretty much everyone watches it.  For the record, White won again this year – for the 8th time in 9 years.

Last year I rang in the new year at Kanda Myojin, so I thought I’d literally ring it in at a temple this time with the Joya-no-kane – the ringing of the temple bell 108 times to symbolize the 108 sins of humanity.  After I’d had my soba I headed down to Zojo-ji – which I chose because I wanted a big temple near a major shrine, which I could visit afterwards.  It was a beautiful night, chilly but warmer than last year, with little wind, and the crowds were huge.  Zojo-ji, in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, is a beautiful complex.  Sadly due to its proximity to Roppongi and a major hotel, close to half the crowd were foreigners, which detracted from the experience a bit.  You don’t applaud after the Priest gives his New Year’s blessing, Folks.  Nevertheless, it was quite a scene – that giant bell ringing out on the hour of Midnight, and then over and over (people arrive hours early to get a ticket for the privilege of being one of the ringers).

Afterwards I strolled over to Atago Jinja, about a KM away.  This shrine is famous because of it’s approach of 81 steep steps, known as the “Steps of Promotion“.  Tokugawa Ieyasu (on his way home from Zojo-ji, in fact) ordered his samurai to ride up the steps and gather him some plums from the shrine’s famous ume tree, and only one was brave enough to do so (it took his horse 45 minutes to carefully descend the steps).  As a reward, he was made a Daimyo.  The once-expansive view is now blocked by skyscrapers, but it’s a lovely place still – another island of antiquity in the sea of modernity that is Tokyo.

I’m always fascinated by the atmospheric differences between shrines and temples.  The mood at Midnight was quite different, and the aftermath is much more of a festival feel at a shrine.  As the bells from the adjacent temple continues to ring out there was a taiko group furiously pounding away at Atago, a remarkable aural contrast.  The line to pray at the main shrine was enormous, so I decided to offer my Hatsumode at the small Inari Shrine on-site (I usually visit the Inari Shrine whenever I go to a jinja).  Afterwards I strolled over to the Shrine window where the Miko were selling amulets, and was greeted by this*.  It was a pretty cosmic moment for me, another of those Japanese kismet incidents that make me believe there’s something truly special about this place.

* I’ve since discovered that Gingitsune is officially partnered with the Tokyo Shrine Association to help promote their cause.  Here are the details (in Japanese):

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  1. K

    I recall streaming Kouhaku online a couple of whiles back during my early teenage years. It was truly a mirthful experience anticipating some artists' performance, particularly when they're from an anime's OP/ED sequence. Alas, I gradually lost my keenness in watching the annual fete as the number of absurd idol groups heightened.

    In any case, your blog has always been a marvelous aid in my comprehension of the Japanese culture. I do hope that you'd continue to maintain your prolific posting in 2014. A happy new year, Enzo. 😀

  2. Thanks, Kleefy. This was my first time so it was all mirth for me – glorious Japanese inexplicability. I only regret I have to leave before it was (4.5 hours worth) over to get to the temple for Midnight.

  3. i

    Just once I want to go to Japan for New Years (maybe next year…)
    Enjoy a white Christmas
    Shrine visiting
    And then play baseball in a sandlot

    Happy New Year Enzo, 2014 has the World Cup but I think anime can top it this year.

  4. t

    totally agree.

    this is impressive. I was moved seeing those videos and pictures.
    thanks Enzo.
    happy new year to all of you, everyone.
    2014 has world cup indeed. still I look toward what anime has to offer HaHa. I am glad to be in LiA (:

    it's lovely to see how gingitsune partnered with Shrines.
    this isn't the first time in japan where anime and real-life collaborate.
    PA studios did some work for tourism somewhere in japan.
    anime 'free' is helping in tourism for the small town that inspired all the backgrounds of the anime..and there are many examples of this in other anime.
    I really like seeing those kinds of collaboration.

  5. L

    I saw a few of the new year specials, though the highlight has to be the Gaki no Tsukai annual batsu game for me. I'm still looking for the Kouhaku uploads, though.

  6. R

    Akemashite Omedetou. Wishing you a happy, healthy and successful 2014, and look forward to another fun year with LiA.

    I think I might have watched Kouhaku Uta Gassen when I was a kid. My memories are so fade now, but was it a singing competition between the male singers and the female? Is white the male or the red?

    Those photos are so grand and atmospheric — they show a very different kind of new year's experience. Your photos and write-up were brimming with joy, and that's the best part of reading this post. We didn't go out yesterday (New Year's Eve) — it's a bit too chilly, and our mom didn't have the mood to. Did you make your prayer at the Inari Shrine? Did they hand out any amaze at the shrine?

  7. Pretty much every shrine or temple I went to that night had amazake. Sadly I find it kinda gross, but you go with the flow… Yes, I did my pay 'n pray at the Inari shrine. Gintarou in my thoughts.

    Happy new year to you too, and sincerest thanks for all your support!

  8. And BTW, the Red and White teams are mixed-gender. At least they are now.

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