January 04, 2012

The Year of The Dragon

I had the opportunity to join Mauricio's family and grandparents for the New Year festivities in Yourou, a small town situated on a mountainside in Gifu prefecture. New Year in Japan corresponds in many aspects to Christmas in the West: businesses shut down, people return to their hometowns to spend time with their families and visit temples to pray for good fortune.


We arrived with Mau's family to Yourou in the afternoon of New Year's Eve. The house was a traditional Japanese house and the location was quite remote, which was perfect for resting and spending a serene New Year. The grandfather and Mau showed me the surroundings of the house before we sat down to eat what the grandmother had prepared in the meanwhile: an abundant plate of sashimi from which we prepared sushi with nori and rice. Although the sashimi was enough to fill my stomach, we still had to eat toshikoshi soba (Japanese noodles), to my delight, before visiting the shrines. Toshikoshi soba is eaten on New Year's Eve and is believed to bring longevity because the noodles are long. We also watched a popular TV show called Kouhaku Uta Gassen, which is a singing competition between popular Japanese singers. 

My room.

Slightly before midnight we headed up a small and pitch-black path leading to a small shrine higher on the mountainside. We prayed, lit a bonfire and drank some sake to keep us warm. On our way back, we stopped at another, smaller shrine and repeated the same rite.

At the first shrine.

In the morning we revisited the shrine with the big bonfire.

Mau & me.

The next day we ate traditional New Year's dishes, altogether called お節料理 (osechi ryouri). The dishes included everything from roe to bamboo, so I won't even try to recount the innumerable amount of different things I ate. One dish that deserves a mention is ozouni, a soup with thick, viscous rice cake also known as mochi in it. The tradition of eating mochi results in several deaths due to suffocation each New Year, because the viscosity makes it extremely hard to swallow especially for older people. Unfortunately this year was no exception. In the afternoon we continued 初詣 (hatsumoude), the tradition of visiting shrines at New Year. This time we visited Tado Shrine in the nearby city of Kuwana. The temple area was overcrowded and the queue to the shrine was several hundred meters long, but the wait was shorter than I imagined (also, looking from the end of the queue it was impossible to tell how long it actually was, which probably made it easier... or not). The Japanese seem to have an endless patience when it comes to queueing, but more on that another time. We all bought an omikuji, a small paper that predicts one's fortune in different aspects of life. If the prediction is bad, the paper is folded and attached to a tree or fence at the temple grounds. This way the bad luck is believed to be left behind. Luckily for me, the prediction was good and I kept the paper!

Tado shrine & the beginning of the queue.

Food stalls in front of the temple.

The following day it was time to leave Yourou and start planning the upcoming visit to Tokyo, since I had still a few days of vacation left. More on that in the next post. I'm very grateful to Mau and Mami for this unique opportunity, which I will cherish for a long time. It was interesting to see the New Year traditions and experience them with a Japanese family. Thank you! 

 I'm a little late, but I wish everyone a happy New Year! 明けましておめでとうございます。

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