David Chart's Japan Diary

January 6th 2007

Happy New Year.

Christmas Decorations Christmas decorations, Japanese style.

Well, it's been eventful, at least. First, it has been pointed out to me that I failed to include a picture of our Christmas decorations, so here's one. This display was largely selected and put up by Yuriko. The "tree" is actually made of fake lilies, which is appropriate as the Japanese for "lily" is "yuri". It wasn't big enough to put the presents under, alas, but it did make a nice Christmas-y feature. We put the Christmas cards I got up around it, including the one from Games Workshop (the ultimate publishers of the Warhammer books I write), which is the only Christmas card I can remember receiving with a skull on the front.

New Year Decorations Traditional Japanese New Year Decorations

On December 28th, when our holidays started, we took all the Christmas decorations down, and put the New Year decorations up. These are all Japanese style, and most of them were chosen and put up by me. On the left is a pretty plant with red berries, which is traditional, but I've forgotten the name. To its right, we have two boars standing on big sacks marked with kanji for "good fortune". The boars are because this year is the year of the boar according to the Chinese zodiac, and while Japanese people don't make a big thing of that most of the time, it is very significant at New Year. Big bags of good fortune are, of course, a fairly standard New Year thing.

To their right is the kagami mochi. Mochi are rice cakes. I may have mentioned them a few times before; they are not my favourite Japanese food, although I can eat them. They are very traditional at New Year, featuring in a lot of the recipes. The mochi in this case are fake, but the white, round parts are the mochi. The thing that looks like a satsuma on the top is a satsuma. The various bits of paper and greenery are also connected with good fortune in their different ways, as is the decorative string around the middle of the mochi. The knot is in the shape of a crane, again a symbol of good fortune and long life.

There are also decorations that go on the door and the entrance hall, originally to welcome in the O-toshigami, or god of the New Year, and ones that go in places with water (kitchen and bathroom), for reasons I'm not entirely clear on. These involve quite a lot of rice straw, probably because that was a material in good supply in most of Japan for most of its history.

Another Japanese New Year tradition is oo-souji, or big cleaning. For my part, I got all the books in my office sorted out. It's not quite a year since they arrived, so I think that's quite fast, really. Actually, they're still not all sorted into order, but they are split between the ones that will live in the cupboard and the ones that fit on the shelves, and the ones on the shelves are divided up by subject. It took a couple of days to do that, because I had to go through all the ones that were in the cupboard already to make space for the extra ones that were going in. I still need more spaces for my books.

On New Year's Eve we went to a Silvester Concert. (According to Silver, these are so-called because December 31st is St Silverster's Day.) It was in Muza Kawasaki, which is a new concert hall, opened a couple of years ago. It's a nice hall, with pretty good acoustics; at least, we had no problem hearing the music. The concert was entirely Western classical music, and all popular pieces, including La donna e mobile from Rigoletto. I tried explaining about the elephant's ears to Yuriko, but it really doesn't sound anything like "zou no mimi", so the joke doesn't translate. We might well try to get to some more concerts there this year; it's very close to Kawasaki station, which makes it an easy journey, and this concert was a lot of fun.

After we got back, I dived back into sorting the books, trying to get them sorted out before the New Year. I just made it, with about thirty minutes to spare. We then ate toshikoshi soba. This is another traditional dish, "Crossing The Year Soba", but we had to eat it quickly because we were leaving the house for hatsumode.

Hatsumode Hatsumode at Shirahata Hachiman Daijin.

Hatsumode (the final "o" is long, and the final "e" is pronounced) is the first visit to a shrine or temple of the New Year. This year 98.75 million Japanese people did it in the first three days of the year; Atsuta Jingu, a major shrine in Nagoya, had 2,350,000 visitors, and Meiji Jingu in Tokyo typically claims about 3,000,000. We went to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, our local shrine, for a more friendly and intimate atmosphere.

There were still far more people than I expected. When we arrived, shortly before midnight, the queue, several abreast as you can see in the picture, already reached all the way down the steps, and out to the road. The shrine didn't let anybody in until midnight because, of course, you can only do your first shrine visit of the new year when it's actually the new year. So, we did our countdown waiting in line, and at midnight the shrine's taiko (drum) sounded, and the line started moving forward.

The actual process of hatsumode is pretty much the same as any shrine visit. I've probably described it before, but I might as well do so again here. First, you purify yourself with water. (Well, a few people do; the water tends to be quite cold at midnight in January.) You take a scoop from a trough, pour a bit over your left hand, a bit over your right hand, and a bit into your left hand, with which you rinse your mouth. You then rinse your left hand again, and hold the scoop up vertically so that the water runs down the handle. Ideally, you do all this with one scoop.

Normally, you then go straight to the Haiden (worship hall) of the shrine, but for hatsumode you have to wait for the queue to move along. Once we'd passed the inner torii, we dropped off our old lucky charms from last year. They're only "good" for a year, so you have to take them back and get new ones. (That was a brilliant piece of marketing by some priest.)

At the Haiden, you make a shallow bow, throw some money into the offering box, and ring the bell. Normally there's only one bell, but the shrine had three set up so that more people could do it simultaneously. Then you bow deeply twice, clap twice, and bow deeply once. And then bow slightly again before getting out of the way so that the hordes of people lined up behind you can have a go.

At least, that's what you're supposed to do. Most Japanese people only visit a shrine for hatsumode, and so only perform some vague approximation of that. Nobody seems to mind too much; it's like the people in England who only attend church for the carol service.

Apart from the number of people, another difference from a normal visit was that one of the shrine staff was handing out miki, or holy sake. Only a little sip, but it's a traditional part of a proper shrine visit, representing a common meal with the gods.

We also bought a fortune. These are always on sale, but obviously they are most popular at New Year. Ours was for "good luck", which is nice. I wonder how many "bad luck" ones they put out. (There are also "slightly good luck" and "really good luck" ones.) Then we got our replacement lucky charms, and said Happy New Year to the people we know at the shrine. We went and stood by the bonfire where they were burning the old charms for a while, and then set off home. By this point it was after half past midnight.

People were still lined up. In fact, they were lined up all the way down the steps, out of the shrine grounds, down the road, all the way to main road. Maybe 100 metres from the shrine. I knew that about 70-80% of Japanese did hatsumode, but I think this was the first time I got a real sense for what that meant. Shirahata is a small, local shrine. There are smaller ones, but no-one would travel far to get to it, and still it had hordes of people.

Shortly after we got back, we went to bed. It was quite late/early, after all.

On New Year's Day, we ate o-sechi ryouri. This is the traditional New Year's food, which Yuriko had prepared to balance my preparation of Christmas dinner. O-sechi is all food that you can prepare in advance, the idea being that everyone in the family, even the mother, gets a holiday on New Year's Day. Almost everything in it has some symbolic meaning. For example, there are prawns, which have long whiskers and are bent over, like old people, and thus symbolise long life. There are black beans, which represent being fit and active; you are supposed to eat ones with wrinkly skin, as that symbolises being fit and active when you have wrinkly skin. There are small fish, eaten whole, which symbolise good harvest and prosperity for your descendants. There is buri, a kind of fish written with a kanji composed of the characters for "fish" and "teacher", which represents success in your career. There are lots of vegetables with the syllabic "n" in their name, because that sounds like the word for good luck, "un", and so they symbolise having lots of luck. And so on. It is not, apparently, wildly popular with children, but I really liked almost all of it. I had to be a bit careful with the omelette bit, though. Still, I plan to encourage Yuriko to make it again next year.

Apart from that, we took New Year's Day very easy, watching a DVD ("V for Vendetta", which I thought was good) and looking at our first batch of New Year cards. In Japan, people send New Year cards, not Christmas cards. They are all postcards, and almost all are raffle tickets, with numbers on the back. If you post them by December 25th, the Post Office promises to deliver them on New Year's Day. We're still receiving them today; it looks as though Japanese people are as good at posting their cards on time as the rest of the world.

These days, a lot of people make their own, buying blanks from the Post Office and then printing them at home. Indeed, Apple did a Japanese "I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" advert in which the Mac made his own New Year's Card. We made ours on a Mac as well. Personally-made ones often have family photographs on; we made some with wedding photos, which is somewhat traditional for the first New Year after the ceremony. For those people who don't do that, boars were a common choice of design, and you can also buy cards with various boar-ish patterns on.

On the second, we went to Nagoya to stay with Yuriko's parents, another Japanese tradition. The Shinkansen was fairly full, but not too bad, as most people head out before the New Year. Still, it was nice to have reserved seats, as it meant we could go from Shin-Yokohama and still sit down. We didn't go straight to Yuriko's parents', because her uncle and invited us, and other bits of the family, round.

Thus, I got to meet a few more members of Yuriko's family. The two uncles there, I had already met at the wedding, but I got to meet a new cousin, his wife, and their two children. We ate sushi and cream cakes (sequentially), talked about various things (wedding, what it's like for me in Japan), and played bingo. I think that was the childrens' idea, as they did the honours, but as there were prizes for everyone their parents obviously helped; the children are seven and four. I won the first round, which just goes to prove my amazing skill, and won a set of silk pyjamas, which I gave to Yuriko. Well, they had roses on...

It was a really nice afternoon, and towards the end Yuriko and I visited the butsudan to pay our respects to Yuriko's (dead) grandparents. Not every home in Japan has such a Buddhist shrine to the ancestors now, but a fair few still do.

One thing that long-term foreign residents of Japan often say is that the Japanese never really accept you. I have to say that I've not experienced that at all. I mean, I'm sure that there are racist Japanese people, because there are racist people everywhere, and I'm sure that a few Japanese are simply misanthropic, but it doesn't seem to be a large proportion. Certainly, Yuriko's family have never made me feel uncomfortable about being non-Japanese, and have generally seemed genuinely friendly. They do typically ask whether I eat Japanese food, but in one case (a while back), after I said I really liked sushi, they ordered sushi for dinner. And I've married their daughter/niece (as appropriate), which is about as invasive as it's possible to get.

Now, Yuriko's family are all nice people, nicer than average; you'd get more reserve in some all-English families. But still, "the Japanese never really accept foreigners" appears to be simply false. Some Japanese might not, but there's nothing general about it. It does make me wonder about the level of Japanese competence of the foreigners saying this, because I have noticed that being able to just chat with everyone over dinner makes a significant difference. If you don't speak the language, there's almost bound to be some distance; it's hard to fully include someone you just can't talk to. This is one reason why, speaking as an immigrant member of an ethnic minority, I think it's idiotic for immigrant members of ethnic minorities not to learn the dominant language of the country where they're living.

Another reason came up on the third. When I woke up on the third, I didn't really want to get up; I had no appetite, and I felt out of sorts. However, the plan was to go to see "Letters from Iwo Jima" (which was good, but rather grim), so I stirred myself. I made it to the film, and part of the way home. Unfortunately, by the time we were getting off the underground train, I was feeling very bad. So bad that I collapsed and threw up on the platform. (I didn't actually pass out, but if I'd tried to stay standing I would have done.) Kouji, my brother-in-law, went to tell the station staff, and they called an ambulance. So, I got taken to hospital in an ambulance. Had it been entirely up to me, I probably wouldn't have bothered, but I can see their point; I did, after all, collapse and throw up.

The Japanese ambulance service is affiliated to the fire department, not the hospitals. When they pick someone up, the first thing they have to do is find a hospital to take them to. Only Yuriko could ride with me in the ambulance, so her parents were told to wait, and that the crew would tell them which hospital once they'd picked one. Meanwhile, one of the paramedics was doing a quick diagnosis on me, which basically came to the conclusion that I was definitely unwell ("your face isn't a very good colour"), but it was probably just a stomach problem.

They had to radio my details ahead to the hospital, and before saying my name the paramedic said "a foreigner who understands Japanese, called..." The compliment to my language skills was nice, but as my name is clearly foreign, the aim was obviously to prevent any panic at the other end; it was telling them that they didn't need to find an interpreter or anything. We headed for the hospital with the siren going, and presumably the lights as well, but I couldn't see those from inside. The inside of the ambulance was quite interesting, with lots of gadgets and supplies racked up along the sides. I've never been in an ambulance in the UK, though, so I didn't have much to compare with.

The stretcher bed they used to get me out of the ambulance was impressive; the transition from in the ambulance to out of the ambulance was absolutely smooth. They could even adjust the level to exactly match the examination table in the hospital, so that I could easily move across. So, at that point I was in casualty, ready to get examined.

The doctor recapped some questions, measured vital signs, and prodded my stomach a bit. And then she went off-shift, and was replaced by a male doctor. That was a bit weird, but it's good that doctors go off-shift on time. The second doctor also did some prodding, and the conclusion was that it was all a stomach problem, although he wasn't clear on the cause. Food poisoning would be the most obvious option, but it was just me, so the best guess was a combination of things, none of them bad enough to cause problems on their own.

So then they put me on an IV drip. This is standard practice in Japanese hospitals, and doesn't mean you're dying or anything. They just like their IV drips. Unfortunately, it proved to be a bit of a performance. My circulation was very bad, as all the blood had rushed to my gut, so it took them several attempts to find a usable vein. They stuck needles in four different places before finally getting me connected. It was tempting to say "I suddenly feel much better, maybe I don't need the drip...", but I resisted. Best to let the doctors get on with it, really.

Once the drip was connected, Yuriko was called in to talk to me, and she got the explanation. We also got the doctor to look at my feet; they aren't in a good way, and we wanted to make sure that it wasn't connected. He decided that it probably wasn't, but commented that you didn't want feet looking like that, and that I should go to a specialist. (I have; more later.)

I actually dozed a bit while the drip was in, despite the crying baby being seen to beyond the curtain. It took about two hours for the full contents of the drip to enter my system, and at that point I was discharged. Yuriko was given the job of picking up the medicine, and paying the bill.

The bill was a little complicated, for two reasons. First, I didn't have my health insurance certificate with me; I wasn't expecting to need it. That's doubtless fairly normal for casualty, though. The second problem was that, during the New Year holidays, the registers weren't working and they couldn't actually work out how much money I owed them. The ambulance is free, but the treatment isn't. So, Yuriko handed over 10,000 yen as a deposit, and we faxed her mother a copy of my insurance certificate yesterday. In the end, we got money back, because the total cost to me was about 4,500 yen.

We went back to Yuriko's parents', I went to bed, and slept for 15 hours. I can't help thinking that lack of sleep may have been part of the problem.

So, that wasn't exactly a fun experience, but it was an interesting one. I'm feeling much better now; my appetite isn't quite back to normal, but it's getting there. Once again, the Japanese health care system worked pretty well. But, again, I was very glad I could speak Japanese.

On the fourth, we took it easy. We did go out for a walk around the area where Yuriko grew up, which was interesting, but we didn't do much before getting the Shinkansen back home. It was even more crowded coming back, but reserved seats meant that it was pretty relaxed for us.

Yesterday, I went to a skin doctor for an opinion on my feet. He said that my circulation was very bad, and that some of the tissues were dying off. I have medicine for better circulation, and have to bathe my feet in warm water two or three times a day. We can see how that works out; obviously, it's not had a major visible effect since yesterday. I have to go back in a week, so I hope it's a lot better by then. I wonder why it's done this this year?

So, anyway, that's my New Year. As I said, it was quite eventful. Here's hoping that the rest of 2007 will be a bit quieter.