Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year in Tokyo

Happy New Year!

Here I am, in my room in Tokyo, and it's 2010! In a week it will be exactly two years since I first arrived in Japan at the beginning of 2008. And my life is quite different now! A lot changes in two years. But I suppose the years when you first leave home and fly halfway around the world to start a new life for seven months, and then start University, would be a quite life-changing time.

2009 has also been a big year for me, probably not as big as 2008, but it's seen me finish my first year of University in Britain and return to Japan. So I wanted to give the noughties the best send off I could.

I arranged for six of us to go to Kichijoji (吉祥寺), which is probably the biggest centre in Western Tokyo, and is only 10 minutes by train from my guesthouse. I had asked a couple of Japanese friends if there would be Shrines or temples there that had things going on for New Year (お正月, oshougatsu) and they all said that even small places would be doing something.

There was the option to go to Meiji Shrine (明治神宮) in Harajuku, but I knew that it would be ridiculously crowded, being the biggest Shrine in Tokyo. Apparently it's busy on both New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, as people go to pray for good fortune in the coming year.

I took the train to Musashi Sakai to meet Matt. The trains were all so quiet! Tokyo as a whole does get quieter around New Year, when lots of people leave the city to visit their families in the countryside.

I waited for Matt at the ticket gate, as I was there my Mum rang me to wish me a Happy New Year, which was very nice. Matt and I got on the train, which stopped for a while at Mitaka where it waited for a Special Rapid (特快) train to pass. As we were stopped, Rob stepped into our carriage, at the door where we were standing! What a coincidence!

So we carried on together to Kichijoji and met Katy and her friend Nola at the station. We then checked an area map and found a small collection of Shrines and temples about ten minutes walk from the station. Kichijoji was very quiet, but it was only 9pm, so it wasn't going to be very busy yet. I imagined lots of people were going to be watching Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), a very popular music contest programme broadcast on NHK every New Year's Eve. This time Susan Boyle, a finalist in Britain's Got Talent, which for some reason is very popular in Japan, performed one of her songs live. I saw some of the programme before leaving the house, and it looked like a lot of fun for New Year, but I wanted to do something more traditional.

We followed the festively lit streets to the Shrines.

We found one Shrine that was open to public, but there was no one there! I was expecting a crowd of people eating and keeping warm. (It was the coldest night of the season so far last night, reaching -2C, which is typical!)

We prayed for good luck in the coming year by throwing coins into the box and clapping twice, and then bowing to finish.

We wandered around the Shrine area for a little bit.

I was really worried that the evening was going to be a bust, because there weren't enough people to get a proper celebratory atmosphere going.

But we walked back to the station to meet Kaz, and then got some food and drinks and went to the park. It was very cold, but I think that made the evening feel more authentic, as it hadn't really felt like Christmas as it was still over 5C!

This illumination was outside Kichijoji station.

We stayed in the park for an hour or so, and Katy, Rob and I did Soul Run to keep warm. After getting sufficiently cold, we walked back to the Shrine for midnight. The Shrine we went to was busier, but still very quiet. Kaz asked one of the security guards and he told us that they weren't going to ring the New Year bell there, but they would at the Buddhist temple next door.
We walked round and joined the queue for the temple, and the atmosphere became increasingly energetic.

They opened the gate at 11.45pm and everyone poured in, most people lining up to ring the bell. We did the same.

As people, starting with the monks, began to ring the bell at 11.50pm, some of us left the queue to see it closer up. I was taking this video, when halfway through lots of people cheered. I thought it was because someone important had just rung the bell, but then we realised that it was midnight! It was 2010!

We all cheered too, albeit a couple of seconds late, but it was New Year!
We joined the others in the line and continued to wait for our turn to ring the bell.

It was about 12.30am when we got to the front of the line and all got to ring the bell and pray for good luck in 2010. Unfortunately, half of us didn't know we had to stand on the left side of the hammer that you swing to hit the bell, so we ended up looking like typical foreigners, doing it the wrong way! But never mind, we'll know for next time.

After the temple, we walked around for a bit and found a restaurant where we could eat soba noodles, as is traditional at New Year. We left at about 2am and headed for the station. Over New Year lots of main JR train lines run all through the night so we didn't have to worry about missing the last train.

When we got to the station, we saw that the illumination had changed from 2009 to 2010!

And that was New Year the traditional Japanese way! It was definitely one I'll never forget, saying goodbye to the noughties, and saying hello to the teens with style. Let's hope that 2010 is a successful year!

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