The holidays are finally over and it's nearly time for me to go back to school after winter break. Winter break here though is different, we have about a week and a half off of school before going back to do our finals.
This was my first Christmas without any family around. It was a strange feeling but nothing sad or anything along the lines. I misses everyone but I knew that everyone was together safe and sound which made me feel better about not being there. Christmas in Japan is not as big as it is in the States. In the states Christmas is about getting together with family and enjoying each others company. Here in Japan it's more of a holiday for couples and younger children. To be honest I kept forgetting that it was Christmas on Christmas Day. It just shows how much there really isn't a large Christmas spirit here in Japan like it is in America.
Christmas Eve I spent the night over at some friends' apartment; Sam, Nikki and Kristen. In the morning we opened presents and skyped with our families wishing them a Merry Christmas. Later in the evening a group of us went to go eat Shabu Shabu. Shabu Shabu is basically where you can eat as much as you want for a specific set of time, and there's a huge bot full of boiling water. You order a plate or raw, thinly slice meat (chicken, beef, or pork) and you dip a piece of the meat into the water and the water cooks the meat right up. You are able to put vegetables into the pot to cook them and eat with the meat, and there are sauces you can dip everything into. At this specific Shabu Shabu restaurant there was also unlimited amount of deserts which was only six different flavors of ice cream but it was all unlimited. I haven't eaten that much in a while!
New Years on the other hand is a huge
thing here in Japan. Way bigger here than in the states. It's definitely a situation where tradition is mixed within modern day life here in Japan especially hatsumoude
For New Years there was a big group of us that were planning on going to Kobe to celebrate the new year together. I've never been to Kobe before so Ellie (who is from the same university in the States) and I went out to Kobe five hours earlier than everyone else to spent time around the area looking around and seeing the sites. Especially Chinatown. Yes, they have a Chinatown in Japan too. By the time we had reached the Chinatown area all the lanterns that lined the street were lit and in the center of the community was a little place set up with a dragon in the middle to celebrate the new year because this year is the Year of the Dragon. Though it's not exactly the year of the dragon yet since the Chinese New Year calender is slightly different. The Chinese New Year this year is on Jan. 23rd.
On the 23rd there will be a three day celebration for the Chinese New Year that Ellie and I will most likely go and attend on the first day. But around this area there were stone statues of all the animals in the Chinese Zodiac which was really neat. Ellie and I spent some time walking around, eating food from the set up stands around the streets and trying to keep semi warm. By this time we decided to go to Kobe Motomachi, a shopping strip that we saw on the way to Chinatown.
We were looking around the first shop when I got a text message from Yuho who set up the whole thing saying that everyone was meeting up in Umeda instead. I'll be honest that I was a bit irritated that they sudden changed plans on us while we were all ready in Kobe. Not that I regret going to Kobe, but I'm the type of person who likes to stick to the plan when one is made. Around this time though Maxime and Tomoe had actually found us in Kobe Motomachi on their way back to the station. Apparently they had the same idea as us and arrived about an hour after we did. All four of us headed back to the station after picking up some more stand food.
The plan in Umeda was to go to the countdown party in the Umeda Sky Building which overlooks all of Umeda. It is the building to go see while in Umeda, something like Tokyo Tower in Tokyo. Our group of four met up with the rest of the exchange students with some Kansai students mixed in, and we all headed our way to the Sky Building. I've never been to the Sky Building so I was excited and tried my best to ignore the cold. I was all ready still frozen from Kobe since Kobe is a harbor down and the fierce sea winds can be felt.
We arrive and all went up in groups since there really isn't a way to fit all forty of us up an elevator. Up on the top floor there were New Year's decorations all around, especially a huge piece of traditional Japanese decoration for the new year (the picture above). It's to bring in good energy for the new year. There were various entertainers playing inside and outside. Outside you could climb up a few more staircases and stand on the top of the building where they had decorated it with black lights, letting the ground sparkle with the material stuck on the tile but everyone was light up too. The view though up on the roof was beautiful.
There was a group preforming called the Kobe Boys. There was a little stage below some of the railing where we could watch them preform. They didn't stay outside too long because it was very cold and not good for their voices.
Eventually some of the students wanted to leave and go find a bar to go drink at while half of us stayed behind and found a nice spot on the floor to play some card games until it was time for the countdown. We had about an hour left when we sat down so it wouldn't be much of a wait. But when it got closer to time all of us headed back up to the roof to over look Umeda and waited for the countdown. The countdown wasn't fantastic blast of lights, but joyous cheer for a good new year from everyone surrounding you, everyone starts saying "あけましておめでとう" (akemashite omedetou). But from where we were standing we could see the fireworks from Japan's Universal Studios.
The process of leaving the Sky Building was a slow one. Everyone had move in a line to get down and there were tons of people there, I'm sure it was a good 500 people or more. My ticket number was in the 700s but that doesn't mean that there were all ready 700 people from me. But even though it was New Years my night was far from over. A smaller group of friends; Yuho, Miho, Max, Tomoe, Oliver, and I were going to take the train to Kyoto and spend the rest of the night there to watch the sunrise.
The trains normally don't run all night, in fact usually the last train is around midnight (depending where you are too, it can be 10 pm in some places) but because it is New Years the trains were running all night. The train to Kyoto is roughly an hour even on the express trains. It was nice though to sit for a while. I sat next to Miho and we munched on some snacks that we had.
At Kyoto there were some taiko players playing by the station which we sat and watched them for a bit. It was just two men dressed in some traditional clothing playing the drums. I love hearing the taiko drums, they're so powerful and you can feel the vibrations in the air from the drums when they are beaten on. I always highly recommend seeing these drums if you ever have the chance. Around this time it was about 2:30 am, where we all took cover in a starbucks to warm up and have something to drink. By this time I'm exhausted and frozen from the cold. My feet hurt not from walking but from being so cold; it was really nice to get off them. The whole street that we were walking on to the starbucks was blocked off. Mass amounts of people were walking to the shrine at the end of the street, which we ended up going after our forty minute rest at Starbucks (I think it was that long, I did fall asleep a little bit).
I was told that the Yasaka Shrine is famous for women to go to and pray for beauty. I can't exactly recall why it's this shrine, I'm wondering if it has to do with the kami that is enshrine there, but I heard that many geisha and maiko go there to pray for success and beauty. But the shrine itself is famous and hundreds of people go here during the hatsumode period. When we arrived at the shrine it was around three o'clock in the morning, there wasn't a huge mass of people anymore. There were still a lot of people but it thinned out to a decent size.
We went to an alter were you throw coins in which is located at the front of the shrine itself. The best coin to throw in is a 5 yen coin which is said that how it is said sounds similar to bringing good luck or something along the lines. I luckily had a 5 yen coin and I tossed it into the holding. I clapped my hand two times before praying for good health for everyone, and wonderful year to come. After I was finished I bowed before stepping away. There are various ways of "praying" in front of a shrine but Miho taught me that one for the night.
Another part of hatsumode is getting an おみくじ (omikuji) which is basically a fortune for the New Year. Each omikuji has a level of "good" ranging from best of luck to worse luck, and roughly there are 12 levels. The fortune's are roughly 100 yen to 200 yen to buy. I followed Miho to the nearest stand that was selling them. I gave the omiko (a shrine priestess) my money and I was allowed to pick up a strip of paper from a box of fortunes. Everything was written in Japanese but I had my friends translate it to me once they finished looking over their own. I was a lucky one this year, I got something called 大吉 (daikichi) which is the highest level of the ranking. It literally means "Great Blessing" and they are rare to come by since there are 1/12 chance that you will get it. Yuho and Miho helped translate for me the various good things that are suppose to come my way and from the sound of it I could basically rule the world since the kami are on my side.
Everyone relatively got good fortunes except Oliver and Tomoe. But there is a way to counteract the bad luck. What people do is they take their fortunes and wrap it around a specific area for them or on trees. It's suppose to try and get rid of the bad luck from happening. Tomoe and Oliver went and tied their fortunes somewhere while the rest of us sat by a heater to warm up. Next up was to go to the next shrine where we were to go see the sunrise. Fushimi Inari Taisha.
We left Yasaka Shrine a bit on the late side and at Fushimi Inari Taisha we hurried up the mountain. There was no way that we were going to make it up at the top of the mountain with the amount of time we had. So we ran as fast as we could up the mountain and the levels of steps. I was actually sweating and getting tired really fast. We made it up maybe to the third level before we had to stop. The sun was starting to come but then there was a sudden realization. We were on the wrong side of the mountain, there was no way we could see the sunrise. We were bummed but at the same time, it was a cloudy day and we wouldn't have seen the sun anyway, so it was a good fortune for us not to go all the way to the top and be disappointed.
I didn't get back to my dorm until around 10:30 am and I slept for most of the day. I passed out right when I got home, I was so exhausted but it was worth all of it.
The first morning together.
(Miho and Oliver had all ready gone back down the mountain)