Postcard from ... Japan

The debts are all paid, the rooms are swept clean. Soon someone will be preparing the special kind of noodles known as toshikoshi. Shady men are arriving at my in-laws’ house, waving cash at them. Long-silent cousins are sending emails with the same intent. When my wife grew up in the shadow of Fushimi Inari, the most talismanic “fox shrine” in all Japan, its 10,000 red torii gates leading magnetically up into the hills, the location seemed a blessing. Now, as more than 2.5m people prepare to flood the tiny lanes around the shrine in southern Kyoto for New Year, and criminals (even cousins) try to set up stalls outside her parents’ shop, it can seem something of a curse.

Anyone who thinks the Japanese are sober and reserved – and cut off from their traditions – should come here over New Year. January 1 is the most important day of the year in Japan, and from December 29 until January 4 a nation that doesn’t like to take time off all but shuts down as people return to their ancestral homes to share the first sunrise, the first poem and even the first laugh of the dawning year.

On New Year’s eve, families gather round what is often the most popular TV show of the year, in which the best-loved musical stars in the country divide into two teams for a four-hour singing competition that concludes a little before midnight. Then, by the million, people flock to the nearest great Buddhist temple – Chion-in, say, in Kyoto – where chanting monks ring a 70-tonne ancient bell 108 times, to wipe away the 108 earthly desires that lead to suffering.

Then, through the early hours of the morning and especially during the all-important sunrise, they try to go to a major Shinto shrine (like Fushimi Inari) to pay their respects to the gods. They collect folded papers on which their fortunes for the year are spelt out (and hang the papers on trees in the shrine if the fortunes prove bad). They greet others with “Akemashite Omedetou!” or “Happiness at the Opening!” At a central shrine like Yasaka, in Kyoto, they collect small flames, on strands of rope, from a sacred fire lit at 4am, the hour of the tiger, on December 28, to take back to altars at home.

New Year is, most of all, about gathering the clan (including the great clan that is Japan) at home, over sake and rice cakes. The postal service delivers stacks of cards on New Year’s morning to every household, on which every old friend or close colleague sends news from the year just past with a drawing commemorating the new Year of the Dog (or Monkey, or Horse, or whatever). Not so many people nowadays follow the New Year poems delivered by the emperor and his family on January 2, and tens of thousands see in the auspicious occasion at that secular shrine known as Tokyo Disneyland. But New Year remains the one time when a busy nation can catch its breath, gather around the collective hearth and recall what it is and what it has been.

Four years ago, I happened to be flying from California to Varanasi on January 2, with a layover at Narita Airport, near Tokyo. I had a few hours to kill before my connecting flight, so I took myself by free shuttle from my airport hotel to the town.

The narrow lanes of Narita were so jam-packed I could hardly walk. Girls, chic in their best kimono, with stoles around their necks, were strolling in and out of shops with their beaux, dashing in traditional kimono, too. Families – close to 3m people in all – were converging on Narita Temple, the 1,000-year-old compound that turned out to be one of the major pilgrimage sites in the country. The air of ceremonious festivity and unguarded delight was infectious, especially under the deep blue skies that brighten the Japanese winter.

When my plane took off, for Varanasi and then Mauritius and Jaipur and Sri Lanka, I somehow knew that none of those remarkable places would be quite so exhilarating as New Year in the airport town. In a country always hungry for the next new thing, and unexpectedly rooted in the old, the days to come are the rare time when you can see both impulses celebrated in the same invigorating breath.

Pico Iyer is the author of ‘The Man Within My Head’

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