New Year's in the States is a fairly debauched affair - champagne, fireworks and kissing total strangers. In Japan it is a much more sober and spiritual event heavy with ritual and ancient traditions.
My New Year's Eve was a clueless and random meander around Yasaka Shrine and its neighboring temples in southern Higashiyama. Without any guidance I could never hope to fully participate in Omisoka (New Year's Eve). I followed the crowd, made observations, and then, like a monkey, did what they did without understanding the whys or wherefores.
Ganjitsu (New Year's Day) was, like so many New Year's Days in the past, a massive hangover - too much sake, too much beer. I watched the snow fall from my bed and didn't really move. Sometimes one needs a hangover to remember how good one normally feels.
I generally greet the day after a severe hangover with a renewed determination to live life more fully, to get things done, as well as to stop drinking. It is a sort of penance for wasting the previous 24 hours. I woke at dawn and witnessed a pretty spectacular sunrise, the pink, orange and yellow caressing the blanket of snow that covered Katsura.
Everything looks better in the snow. The streets and buildings with which you are so familiar are suddenly different, as if you are seeing them for the first time. There is a freshness to the world, everything is softened, everything is quieted.
I dressed and ate breakfast quickly. I stopped at the neighborhood shrine (Gosha-jinja) and said a prayer for the New Year then headed to the Katsura River. The morning light played on the snow-covered mountains in the distance and the deep burgundy of the Hankyu train looked particularly handsome against this backdrop as it traversed the bridge over the river. I was alone except for a few joggers and one or two shutterbugs like myself.
The mountains grew closer as I made my way up the river. Before long I was on the edge of Arashiyama. Then I saw the gate for Matsunoo Taisha. Funny and fitting that after my rough New Year's Day I would find myself at the shrine favored by sake brewers. I was soon drinking a cup of kinpaku (gold-flecked) sake from a masu (square-shaped wooden cup). It smelt of fresh cypress.
Near the center of the shrine a great fire was burning. I was transfixed by the flames and smoke and heat. Fire is a purifying element in many religions. Shinto is no exception. This fire was not only a way to keep warm on this cold winter day, it was a receptacle for wishes past and present. Apparently any talismans from the previous year must be burned in the New Year. The people gathered around the blaze were tossing omikuji (printed paper fortunes), ema (wooden plaques upon which wishes are written), hamaya (decorative arrows), and sake cups into the flames. Then with hands pressed in prayer they made a slight bow. This was a remarkable and moving ritual, to see even small children throwing their beautiful, brand new hamaya into the fire.
I left Matsunoo Taisha and wandered the narrow roads hugging the mountains. It wasn't long before I came across another shrine, then a temple. The mountainside seemed to be dotted with them.
At Suzumushi-dera I was ushered into a large washitsu (traditional Japanese room) packed with people sitting at low tables arranged end to end in long parallel rows. A thin zabuton (cushion), a cup of ocha and a paper-wrapped sweet were waiting for me. A charismatic gentleman in a somber kimono was speaking to the crowd. What have I got myself into now? And how do I bow gracefully out? The shoji door slid shut behind me. There was no escape. Being the only gaijin in the room I desperately tried to be invisible. I can't remember feeling quite so out of place. At the conclusion, 30 minutes later, I slithered out.
I made my way back to Matsunoo Taisha for some lunch. The path leading up to the shrine had been taken over by food vendors and various booths offering carnival-like games. I went from stall to stall sampling the wonderful New Year's fare.
I was told the Japanese New Year celebration is not to be missed. Though I was lost and confused much of the time the sheer spectacle of these ancient customs kind of makes Times Square in New York look like a barroom brawl.