Saturday, November 17, 2007

Receiving the Year of the Bird

The Buddhists have 108 sins to clear at the end of the old year. Therefore, at the temples the gong is hit equally many times when receiving the New Year. At the Shinto shrines, there are no gongs. People just clap their hands twice and ring the bells that hang above the shrine gate by shaking the thick rope that connects to the brass bells hanging under the torii gate of the shrine. This peaceful coexistence of traditions and religions surely is one the reasons for the harmony that exists in the Japanese society, where 80 percent of the people profess to being Buddhist, while at the same time almost 90 percent of the people adhere to Shinto practices.

I had joined the long line of hundreds of people moving towards the main building of Hitaka shrine in Mizusawa, northern Japan. The Year of the Monkey was about to turn into the Year of the Bird. The temperature was well below freezing but as there was no wind the night didn’t feel too cold. The large snowflakes appeared to float in the still air reflecting the shifting lights from the fires. The thick snow cover dampened the sounds and all I could hear was the muted clattering of the bells and the soft crunch of the snow underneath our boots. There was wood smoke in the air.

Mine was the only western face amongst the crowds. Mizusawa is a small town of some 60,000 people in Iwate Prefecture about three hours north from Tokyo by the bullet train, shinkansen. It is located in the north of the main island of Honshu far from either coast between the two major northern cities of Sendai and Morioka. The only reason why the shinkansen even stops there, it is said, is that Mizusawa is the home base of one of Japan’s most powerful political figures, Ichiro Ozawa. Despite the stop, few foreigners find reason to get off here. My reason this time – and many times before – was that Mizusawa was also the hometown of my wife, Yoko, who was born and raised here before she moved to Tokyo to attend university at 18.

While the queue was snaking slowly forward, people would step out of it to take a sip of spring water from or wash their hands in the little well that we passed. Those who were hungry, could purchase mayo tako, minced octopus balls with mayonnaise, or hot cakes from makeshift stalls that had been established alongside the route. The heat and the fragrance from the cooking warmed up even those of us passing by who didn’t indulge. When we finally reached the shrine, Yoko and I bowed our heads, threw coins into the offering vessel, clapped our hands twice, rang the bells and prayed for a more peaceful future than the ending year had been. We then proceeded to do the same at a number of other altars at Hitaka.

Once the cold was getting to us, we joined the other people who had gone through the same route at an open fire that had been set up in the middle of the yard. We were served amazake, or fermented rice wine, from a stall. The fire and the sake warmed the crowd up. This was important as many of the young women arriving from parties with their boyfriends were dressed in very short skirts exposing their thighs to the cold midwinter air. The snowfall had halted and a pale half moon was seen through the hazy winter sky.

The New Year’s Eve hadn’t started quite as spiritually. Yoko, her brother Jun and I had gathered around the table at their parents’ house for a sukiyaki meal. The head of the family, Masayuki Takahashi, had started by grilling thin slices of beef on a hot plate that was placed on the table, adding various vegetables, mushrooms and tofu to the stew. He filled the pot with hot water, sake and soy sauce until all the ingredients were all well stewed. The hot pot sat in the middle of the table and we’d all pick up the pieces we wanted with our chopsticks directly from the pot and dip them into the raw egg that each one of us had beat into a cup next to our plates. There were side dishes, too: pickled cabbage and cucumber, salad with fried tofu. We were all sitting in the kotatsu: a square hole had been made in the middle of the tatami mats and the table had been fitted on top of it. Inside there was a kerosene heater and we would put our feet under the table to keep them warm. The room itself was very cold, as the buildings in Iwate were not built to resist the harsh winter weather that hit them annually (why this is the case remains a mystery; further north, in Hokkaido, where the winter is equally harsh the houses are generally better built and have proper heating).

The television was open during the dinner and we were surfing the channels while eating. Mostly, though, we watched the annual New Year’s kohaku, or prize show in which numerous singers competed. In between, we did spend time between Pride and K-1 fights in which great stars, like the …, fought each other to the enjoyment of the spectators. Both of these “sports” share the same general idea: use any means possible developed by Eastern martial arts or Western fighting to batter your opponent to submission. Back at kohaku we shared in the joys of contemporary Japanese musical performance. ..
At some point of time during the dinner the beer had been switched to sake and its stronger version shoju. Jun was most obvious victim becoming increasingly rowdy as the evening wore on. At some point of time he tired of the admittedly endless succession of big and lesser starts crowding the kohaku stage and moved to the piano in the adjacent room. This was his piano from his Mizusawa childhood before he had moved to Tokyo to eventually become a successful stage manager for opera and ballet. For the coming hour or so, my brother-in-law’s rather avant garde improvisations interspersed with primeval grunts would accompany the more sedate enkas crooned by ladies in kimonos on television. Having just arrived from New York the day before, these sounds would intermingle in my jetlagged mind drifting in and out of sleep on the tatami mat.

Finally just before midnight we would all straighten up, put on our winter coats and boots, and wander off to the snowy night to join the crowds at the shrine.

The first day of the Year of the Bird dawned cloudy. Numerous sparrows were chattering on the clothesline in the garden waiting for their turn to partake in the feast on feeding tray. They looked like soft little balls with their feathers puffed up against the cold. We had our feast behind the window, again crowding our feet into the kotatsu. My father-in-law – or Otoo-san, father, as I called him – opened a bottle of French Champagne as we descended for the late breakfast consisting of innumerable small dishes to share. There were beans and mushrooms of different kinds, pickled onions and daikon radishes, prawns, and the fantastic pork boiled in sake prepared by Otoo-san personally. It melted in the mouth. The cold bubbly champagne lifted the spirits from the effects of last night indulgence and soon we were all feeling fresh again. The final part of the lengthy brunch introduced the o-mochi, the traditional New Year’s fare in various forms. O-mochi is white sticky cake that is made of thoroughly pounded rice. It is so chewy that every year many people, mostly elderly, die suffocating in mochi that sticks to their throats. But this is a decent way to go, eating delicious, traditional food in the beginning of yet another year. To me, the best o-mochi my mother-in-law, Okaa-san, was serving that morning was in a thick brown bean soup. I washed it down with a clear broth of vegetables and pork.

We spent the New Year’s Day and the days following it visiting various shrines and temples. Yoko and I spent time at Komagata Jinja, the Shinto shrine where we had been wed less than ten years before. It had been during sakura, the cherry blossom season. Hundreds of people were lining up to make their offerings and ring the bells at the main shrine. We started from the smaller ones, making our offerings to the war veterans and for familial bliss. The different shrines all had their own target deities with their own special features. Despite the crowds, the atmosphere was enormously peaceful. People of all ages, from small children to the elderly, were taking in the blessed spirit of the New Year. Nobody was making noise, although the mood was distinctly upbeat. Mostly, people followed the direct paths to the different altars but many were also trudging through the thick snow across the courtyard. Snow hung heavily on the pine branches shadowing the shrine.

At the booths that lined the square courtyard, many teenage girls and boys dressed in white and orange robes were selling charms for the New Year. Visitors could write their hopes on strips of white paper and tie them to specifically constructed stands and leafless tree branches within the confines of the shrine. Again, amazake was served and impromptu stalls were selling hot foods to the worshippers. Particularly popular, it seemed, was okonomiyaki: a special kind of omelet with many herbs, vegetables and ginger. An old farmer lady with a shawl wrapped around her head above a coarse coat huddled by the open fire her back bent as a result of decades of hard work. A middle-aged man in wireless spectacles was warming a dachshund inside his bright purple windbreaker.

At this latitude so close to the winter equinox the sun never rose high in the sky. It shone its white light through the pine trees whose branches were weighed with thick slabs of snow. As we wondered towards to the town centre from the shrine, the last rays were already colouring the western sky. It was time to retreat back to the warmth of the kotatsu and a glass of clear rice wine.

© Juha I. Uitto, 2005

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