When people ask me: “When is a good time to visit Japan?” I instantly answer: “over New Year,” because that is the time I miss most. Now that I think of it, this may not be a very good recommendation for tourists. It is cold in January and many shops and restaurants are closed over the holidays. But you can see a whole nation undergoing an amazing metamorphosis from late December into a new year. It is the time each one of us looks at the past and bows for a fresh start. You can feel the heartiness, vigour, and positive energy in the air; although my husband laughs, “Is it not just your imagination?”
New Year’s is the biggest celebration for Japanese. We are notorious workaholics and we do not take long holidays, but over New Year it is different. The public offices close from December 29th to January 3rd and many private companies follow the custom. In order to embrace a fresh start in January, we start preparing in December. December is called the month of “even a master runs”, meaning people are busy rushing, trying to get things done, cleaning up and preparing for the coming year.
My father was a typical man of the old generation. When my mother was around, he did not do a thing around the house. He did gardening but that was one of his hobbies. But the end-of-year cleaning was different. It is an annual event for Japanese to wipe off all the household dust of the previous year. My father cleaned all the big windows facing the garden and waxed the corridor around the house. Somehow he decided that was his task. After spending a half day on cleaning, he went back to gardening, looking proud as if he had performed a significant duty for the year. Perhaps it was better he stayed away from the house since he could not be of much help in the kitchen. My mother was busy cooking all day long to prepare a special New Year’s meal called “Osechi”, which is a set of twenty to thirty dishes. These dishes are simmered for hours so they keep long because we eat them for the first three days of the new year, so that the God of the kitchen can rest, and mothers do not have to cook.
On a New Year’s Eve, when all cleaning and preparation for the new year is nearly finished, nearby temples started striking their big bells, one hundred and eight times. I was told human beings have one hundred and eight evil desires and by striking a bell, those evils are taken away one-by-one. I remember I was a bit put off to be told that I had that many evils in me. Certainly, I could not name them all. Despite my juvenile resentment, the long, deep sounds of the bells was calming. I imagined myself being purified gradually by the sound of bell and I felt ready to start the new year as a new-born me.
On New Years Day, we ate “Osechi” in the drawing room, not in the usual dining room, dressed in new clothes with a new set of chopsticks. We bowed to each other politely saying “Happy New Year” and ceremoniously drank “Otoso,” New Year’s spiced sake. I felt a little awkward to be so formal to my own family but I believed that was the tradition for every household in Japan.
“Osechi” was not very appealing to a little kid, but my parents explained that each dish had an auspicious meaning: Herring row to be blessed with children for prosperity, black beans to be diligent, sardines to wish for a good harvest… and they made me eat at least one bite of each. I doubted authenticity of the stories, but I did not want to miss a chance of getting good luck, either. May the coming year be full of fortune and good luck, I wished, while chewing on bitter-sweet caramelised dried sardines.
The weather on New Year’s Day was always fine in my memory. The sky was blue and the cold air was crisp and clear. New Year’s morning felt sacred, calm and peaceful. It was a total transformation from a fidgety December. The celebration lasted for three days and during that period, we tried to stay serene and tranquil, wishing the year to be the same.
Looking back, I am not sure why New Year’s Day was so special and little me was so eager for the big day. I have not experienced the same excitement for some time. I have lived overseas for the latter half of my life and New Year’s Day has become a “same, same, but different” experience.
I remember a feeling of puzzlement during my first winter overseas in England. They to sang “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve and celebrated the new year. But I didn’t see magical vibes in the air on New Year’s Day. Later in the US, I watched the countdown and spectacular fireworks on New Year’s Eve with the people cheering. They were making “New Year’s resolutions” just like we did, but the celebration did not last for three days. They went back to work on January 2nd. Back to normal, just like that…
I have lived in Thailand for twenty years and tried to create the same vibes for the New Year’s holiday because I wanted my children to experience the special feeling of metamorphosis of the day. But I do not think it worked. New Year’s Day is simply just another holiday in Thailand. My American husband was not so keen on initiating a year end big cleaning. There was no deep sound of bells to purify ourselves. I was not so motivated to cook “Osechi” since I knew my family would scream if they had to eat it for lunch and dinner for three days. I do my best to decorate our house with Japanese ornaments to celebrate New Year’s, but I do not think it has worked like a magic wand.
Gradually, I have realised each culture has different ways to celebrate different occasions, religious or historical and when the people pay heartfelt tribute to the occasion as a mass, it captivates the glamour of a nation. It is the New Year’s for Japanese, perhaps Christmas in England and Thanksgiving in the USA, and Songkran in Thailand. I have felt special ambience on these occasions. I say it is not my imagination to feel the vigour in the air over New Year’s in Japan. It is the will and intention of the people to give a special meaning to the day. I am sure you will see it as well.
Holiday season is coming. I see major shopping malls setting up big plastic Christmas trees with shining ornaments. You may feel the “same, same, but different”, while you listen to “Jingle Bell” under the tropical sun. But we are expats. There is not much we can do about it. I hope you find a way to celebrate your special occasions whatever they are.
I wish you a very happy New Year’s in Thailand.