Tokyo Does New Year’s: 東京 (Pt. I)

Since four of the six Americans in Taigu decided to go back home this winter for at least part of their vacation, it was up to me (and James) to decide how we would spend our two months outside of the states. Though a part of me also yearned to go home, I knew that it would ultimately be best to stay in Asia for a couple of reasons. The first was the lack of adequate funds. I am determined to finance any and all travel during these two years with my own money—money that I’ve either earned from teaching or that I am getting in the form of In-Asia travel grants from Shansi. The money that I’ve saved so far could have taken me back to New York, but I knew that I would get more mileage financing two months of exciting (and comparatively inexpensive) travel in Asia rather than simply the cost of that roundtrip ticket. The second reason was that I already knew that I wanted to go home this summer, thus making a winter visit something of a moot point. The half-way mark was the time that I promised friends and family I would return home, and it is the time that makes the most sense logically. “Summer in the city,” as it were, has become both the highlight and saving grace of my pre-college friendships, as I’ve reliably been home for every summer for as long as I can remember.

But deciding to travel to Japan in January was nothing if not a small concession to make. Being in a first-world country, where I can drink water out of the faucet, sit on a toilet seat, and occasionally eat food off of the floor is a country as good as any to whet my appetite for all of the comforts of home. I wanted to return to Japan this winter for a few reasons. The first was to see some of my friends who currently live here for one reason or another—Shansi, JET, otherwise employed, or studying abroad. It would follow that a disproportionate number of my friends have since moved to Japan from their various residences in America. But I guess this is a somewhat logical revelation, considering that I took Japanese at Oberlin with a number of now-graduates, and studied abroad in Osaka with even more. The second reason was to get a glimpse at a parallel universe of sorts—a life path that I gave up in my move to China. After studying abroad in Japan in the fall of 2007, moving to Japan, potentially teaching English, and continuing to study Japanese was the track I had set myself on. But though I didn’t end up returning to Japan, it was that experience, and that desire to teach and learn in a new place, that I would later relate to a panel of board members in the living room of Shansi House just less than a year later.

And so it eventually fell to me to make that pursuit a reality. I booked my ticket to Japan for New Year’s Eve, the hands-down low point in a succession of costly flights for days on either side, slated to get into Tokyo at 3:30pm from Beijing. This was surprisingly fortunate, though, because unlike China, Japan celebrates its New Year according to the Western Calendar, thus giving me a good reason to be in Japan for its biggest event of the year, and one that I had missed during my last time in the country. When I arrived, I was met with the kind of culture shock best exemplified by first-time visitors to New York being air-lifted into the center of Times Square. Tokyo, a city I had visited twice previous but only for a few days each time, was a remarkably different Japan than the one I remembered from two years ago. But then again, Tokyo is a remarkably different place from most other cities on earth, not to mention much of the rest of the country. Spending New Year’s here would certainly prove to be worth its metro fare in experience.

As one might expect for its most important holiday, New Year’s carries with it a lot of customs in Japan. Businesses all over the country are shut down, as the New Year is traditionally a time to spend with family. There is no shortage of traditional foods—the two most famous probably being soba, noodles that symbolize longevity, and mochi, sweet, sticky rice cakes. Sending New Year’s Day postcards is also an extremely customary practice, similar to the American practice of sending Christmas cards. Homes and clothing are supposed to be cleaned by New Year’s Eve, providing the New Year with a fresh start. To that end, all responsibilities must also be completed before the New Year, leaving worries and troubles behind, so that January 1st is free of work and stress. January 1st is an extremely auspicious day, traditionally believed to be representative of the whole year that has just commenced.

Hatsumode, the first temple visit of the yearanother Japanese tradition on New Year's Day.

2009 hasn’t been the best year for me in many respects, but it has been invaluable as a time for growth—seeing me through two distinct benchmarks in my life: graduating from Oberlin and moving to China. If I were one for sentimental monikers, this past year would almost certainly be entitled “My Shansi Year” in the hardcover bound, sepia-toned photo album of my life, as the fellowship has carried me through most all aspects of it—from the Winter Term TESOL class to the summer of intensive language study, all the way up to providing me with the funds necessary to take me to Japan this winter. But what it didn’t prepare me for, with five hours left in 2009, was what was about to happen next.

Upon arriving at Narita airport, I took a series of trains totaling close to two hours to my hole-in-a-wall guesthouse, centrally located on the Yamanote metro line that runs in circles around the heart of the city. After depositing my bags and with no phone to avail me, I fired up my computer, eager to uncover what could possibly be done alone on New Year’s Eve in Japan. I knew that some of my friends already had plans—Sam was doing it big with visiting Oberlin friends, Jazmin was most likely spending time with her host family, Liz would be bustling around the Tokyo area—but in my limited frame of reference, I had no means to contact them (I later learned that the pay phones in Tokyo are surprisingly effective). I relegated myself to the thought that perhaps I should visit the Tokyo Tower to see its New Year’s Eve countdown—Japan’s rendition of the ball drop in Times Square. It hardly mattered that it was a tradition that I turned my nose up at every time I saw the festivities on TV at home, smugly remarking that I would never be one of those disillusioned foreigners, freezing to death in the crowded cold, waiting simply to see a ball drop. This time I was that foreigner, and with that, I was content.

What I missed out on on New Year's Eve in Tokyo (photo courtesy of Reuters).

But upon further consideration, standing alone in a dense crowd on New Year’s Eve among flickering flash bulbs and balloons didn’t seem like the most uplifting predicament to find myself on what is said to be the most auspicious of days for the coming year. I sauntered into the adjacent room of my guesthouse, and, after paling it up with a couple of other loners—Andy, a white Japan native with missionary parents, and Nimrod (yes, that’s his real name—he showed me his passport to prove it), an Israeli on a two-month journey around the world—we decided to go to Shibuya and check out the club scene there.

Let me preface this next segment by saying that I am nary a man who enjoys going to da club in the states, let alone in Japan. In fact, clubs for me in many ways are the antitheses of a good time. I spent too much of my study abroad experience at the abysmally sketchy, foreigner-saturated Club Pure as the all-night weekend entertainment option of choice. To be fair, I have fond memories of it now simply in the retrospective sense, and there have been some other gems in my time, but for the most part, house parties and bars have always been my preference. To that end, I was a little unenthused about the choice of locale, but I decided it best, in a foreign land with foreign people, not to make waves on my very first night.


It is a bit ironic, in recounting the night’s events, the mere chronology of the previous two days. On the day before I flew to Japan, I watched the movie The Hangover with Jordan at his apartment in Beijing. And when I woke up on New Year’s Day in the room of my guesthouse in Tokyo, I had a déjà vu moment from an experience that wasn’t even my own—perhaps due to being blind-sided by the very same affliction. The night’s turning point can be traced to ungodly-long lines to get into the club (there were three separate ones), and the proximity of a convenience store selling alcohol three and four times cheaper than that sold inside the club’s doors. Once there, we met up with a few of Andy’s other insta-friends who had also stayed at the guesthouse, and after that, it was club, KFC, karaoke (in roughly that order), before I was tucked neatly into bed at about 5:30am the next morning. I did know unequivocally, though, that by the end of the night I had already spent close to $100 of my allotted $1000 for three weeks in Japan—$60 for four nights at my guesthouse (the absolute cheapest boarding establishment in the city, I might add, in my eternal bargain-hunting), $4 on transportation, and $30 for the club’s entrance fee (decidedly not a bargain in any way).

Incredibly long lines and throngs of people at Meiji Shrine on New Year's Day, so much so that police barricades had to be enforced.

If the Eve celebrations then were in some ways off-color (though to be sure, the club was absolutely brimming with other young Japanese and foreigners), I was determined to do New Year’s Day the right way. New Year’s Day in Japan is traditionally a time of firsts. Hatsuhinode is the first sunrise of the year, and Hatsumode, the first trip to a shrine or temple. My first sunrise was at about noon, if you don’t count the dim haze that dotted the sky by the time the trains started running again and I was walking back to my guesthouse in the morning. But my first temple visit was right on the money. I chose to go to Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, largely because it was one I did not have time to fully experience when I was last in Tokyo, and it is also touted as the most popular, attracting several million people during the first three days of the New Year. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed and lively, as people bustled around the large park and delicious food vendor stalls were set-up all over the place. As expected, though, it was insanely crowded, and I spent about two hours in line—long enough to eventually see the sunset—waiting for my chance to pass through the temple’s gates and give my wishes for the year.

Meiji Shrine was lined with lottery booths where for a 100 yen you could get your fortune told on a slip of paper. Those with unfavorable ones were instructed to tie them to a mesh of fence wiring, effectively nullifying them.

Surprisingly, and in something of an aberration, I decided not to make resolutions this year. In years past, there have been the usual staples of “write more,” “get stronger,” and “work harder,” not to mention the overarching “no McDonald’s or Burger King” ever since I first saw the movie Super Size Me over five years ago. And it’s not that I want to give those up (in fact, I’d probably add “cook more” to that list too). But I’m learning more and more that I’m my own harshest critic. I hold myself to standards that are needlessly unrealistic sometimes, and I feel that this year, I had better allow myself time to feel good about what I am doing rather than constantly fret about what I’m not doing well enough. If anything, my resolution this year will be to do more things that surprise me, that scare me, or that flat-out throw me for a loop. And I feel that this vacation—getting lost, not knowing what’s coming next, and subjecting myself to the follies of adventure—will be a great first application of that.

(More on Japanese ryokans, Boo Radley, provisions to survive a nuclear fall-out, lifestyles of the young and the thrifty, the Batcave, and pachinko debts in Pt. II of this post).