A Special Kyoto New Year Celebration

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Helen Winter

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Written by: Vicki Holman

As the last few minutes of last year slipped by, throngs of people and snowflakes collected together in the streets of Gion. Bustled along by the crowd and the atmosphere, my friends and I were eager to reach the lantern-lit Shinnyo-do temple in Kyoto, Japan for the stroke of midnight. It almost reminded me of a New Year’s Eve when I was a teenager in Guisborough, where everyone in town would crowd together under the market cross; though I didn’t see anybody climb up the temple and display a token pasty bum, as some juveniles were prone to in my home town in the UK’s northeast.

The new year food

With the practice of ‘hatsuhinode’ (seeing the first sunrise of the year), Kyoto – the old capital of Japan – felt like a good place to see in the new year, Japanese-style. Where the festival was once only for families, it is now slightly westernised in its appeal for young people and couples, as an opportunity to go out and celebrate in the city.

Traditional practices are still very popular though, when many families spend time together and eat a variety of symbolic foods. In the week before new year’s eve, intensive ‘spring’ cleaning and life laundry ensues. Special new year dishes, such as osechi ryoori, are prepared, preserved with strong flavours, and packed into ornate bento boxes that will last for those few special days when housewives are released from cooking duty. Sweet boiled black beans, shrimp, stewed vegetables and sea bream are popular in osechi boxes, whilst soba noodles, inventively called ‘year crossing soba’, are also symbolic of long life.

Our New Year’s Eve meal was a little different. After phoning almost every restaurant in Kyoto, we found ourselves at a tiny, Japanese eatery, where we had a set meal of meat and vegetable nabe, which is like a kind of stew. Unfortunately for the frugal backpacker, due to New Year’s typical price inflation, the compulsory set meal was expensive enough to make a girl cry, head down on the table, while the waitress scarpered into the kitchen. In fairness, our friend was under unrelated stresses that day, and our explanations of, ‘Well it is NYE, and you’d probably pay more at home,’ did little to quell the emotional avalanche. On the upside, the food was delicious.

The ringing bells

Later on, in the lively hub of Gion, where streets were lined with stalls of noodles, Japanese rice cakes called mochi, hot chocolate, and cans of beer. We decided to pick up an alcoholic beverage and look for the temple. The crowds that extended the entire width and breadth of the streets were high spirited and approachable. We asked two random guys, who we soon learned were called Hiro and Tomo, for directions, and found ourselves with escorts for the evening.

A few minutes later, we realised there was only five minutes to go till midnight. Unthinkingly I grabbed Hiro’s hand and began to run towards the temple. Running and weaving through the masses, somehow dodging everyone and picking up quite a pace, Hiro suddenly pulled my arm and pointed to his watch. I glanced around and all of the people had stopped walking, and were now hugging and cheering. I could hear the bells ringing at the temple but I couldn’t see my friends any more. Feeling a bit silly, I gave Hiro a quick hug, then we began to walk back to find my friends and wish them a happy new year.

In the distance we could hear the repeated tolling of the bells at the temple, ringing out to deliver everyone from the 108 evil passions humans suffer, such as hate, greed and jealousy. As the joya no kane- the bells of New Year’s Eve – began to toll, the atmosphere altered to a subdued hush, crowds walking more slowly now, though continuing to the Shinny-do temple, to ring the bell of good fortune.

The karaoke bar

Nipping into Starbucks to use the loo, queuing in the freezing cold streets and drinking beer from a can, was not quite the ‘Japanese cultural experience’ we had anticipated, but was probably quite close to the New Year’s Eves of many young Japanese people; there were certainly plenty there. Eventually tiring of queuing we gave up and went in search of a notorious karaoke bar. Although anywhere out of the cold would have been perfect.

Though very nice, Tomo and Hiro were not gifted with directions. After circling the same block for some time, they enlisted the help of another guy, who helped us locate a karaoke bar and joined us for songs and nomihodai (unlimited drinks).

A fantastic couple of hours spent singing and being silly suddenly became soberingly expensive when we had to leave. Our friend, having not been in a tremendous mood earlier in the evening, returned to being mildly hysterical, convinced we were being ripped off by the ‘helpful’ newcomer. It seems likely that he did pocket a few extra yen that evening, which is completely uncharacteristic of the Japanese people we had met previously.

The situation defused, though not entirely resolved, some friends headed to a nightclub with the Japanese guys while others returned to their hotels. I spent two draining hours trawling the streets in search of my friend’s lost money (she had dropped her purse somewhere earlier in the evening), before finally persuading her it was pointless. Heading back to the hotel, it seemed like our good karma had been left in the gutter with her mislaid money.

Final thoughts

One thing I have noticed about new year, wherever I have been, is that high levels of expectation (and alcohol consumption), often lead to a disappointingly fractious evening. Japan was beautiful, different, exciting and fun, but like anywhere else, if you have had a few beers and accidentally mislay your purse, tears are almost inevitable. I would love to return to Kyoto for new year one day, but next time I would definitely ensure I stayed at the temple to ring the bell and enjoy the atmosphere a bit more rather than running around after everyone else.

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