The second time around. For every experience there is a first time - your first day of school, your first goal in a soccer match, your first kiss, etc. Everything that follows is always slightly less dazzling because it is already familiar. But with familiarity traditions and rituals are established.
Last year I celebrated the new year at Matsunoo Taisha just up the river from my home. Because I was so moved by this experience I decided to do the same again this year. After breakfast I walked the 3 1/2 kilometers from Katsura to this Shinto shrine. The long walk along the river through the mostly fallow farmland was quiet and meditative. It's easy to drift and become reflective in such an environment.
Matsunoo Taisha was bustling, families eating, drinking and enjoying the New Year's Day customs. Like the people around me I went through my own ritual, more or less mimicking last year: washing my hands at the chozuya (ablution fountain), buying an omikuji (fortune), drinking kinpaku miki (blessed gold leaf sake) from a masu (square-shaped wooden cup), eating yakisoba, grilled mitarashi dango and bebīkasutera from the many yatai (food stalls).
Again, I found myself drawn to the bonfire. The heat of the fire and the sake had a mesmerizing effect. The smoke and ash swirled around; so too did my thoughts.
I don't believe any ritual however solemn or reverent can alter the course of one's life. While life’s trajectory remains a mystery, we can nonetheless take comfort in these customs. God only knows how long I'll be in Japan. But as long as I am here I'll spend every Ganjitsu (New Year's Day) at Matsunoo Taisha.