A NAG New Year

Mark Guthrie

So, the New Year has come. A time of new beginnings and new resolutions. It is a time that we can start afresh, cleansed of the previous year, a year that was dirtied by the imperfections of sins too many to mention. And how did you spend this first day, this clean slate? That’s right, you were laid in your stinking pit, full of the remorse and pain of the previous night’s escapades, lamenting how much you drank, how much you smoked, and wondering from where the mystery pants on the bedroom floor came. You tell yourself that enough’s enough! There will be no more! The new you starts now! But the truth is that it’s already too late. The New Year is gone, sullied in its infancy, and there’s no turning back.

But it’s okay, you tell yourself. Everyone’s in the same boat. ‘The damned we may be, but damned we are together!’ Alas this is not true. You need but look to your Japanese friends and co-workers for evidence of this. They are not yet spoiled. They are as clean as a whistle!

Shogatsu (the Japanese New Year), is a holiday that has been celebrated for hundreds of years. Its exact date, however, changed in 1873 as the Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar, a tremendous feat of foresight predicting that, in years to come, the standard of the Playmates of the Month in the Chinese calendar would be egregiously diminished in the wake of the One Child Policy. (Either that or the Japanese saw the Gregorian calendar as an upgrade from their old one, like Betamax to VHS, Apple Lion to Mountain Lion or the Macarenna to Gangam Style. You know what the Japanese are like for getting the newest things. Or at least they were before the economy was fucked.)

The festival begins at midnight on December 31 when, rather than drunkenly bellowing the precious few known words of Auld Lang Syne (I bet you didn’t know that there’s five bloody verses of the thing!) before trying to cop off with as many people as they can, the Japanese head to their nearest temple. Here the Buddhist priests ring their bells 108 times (joyanokane), and in doing so, rid their followers of the 108 human sins that man can indulge in (one of which, presumably, being bell ringing, which any teenage boy can tell you is not only a sin, but can also turn you blind).

After the bells have ceased to chime, do the Japanese head straight to the nearest pub to get started on the first hangover of the year? Do they fuck! No, they get in their cars and head either coastwards or to high peaks to witness hatsuhinode, the first sunrise of the New Year. What’s that you say? You saw the first sunrise of the New Year too? Well, unfortunately squinting into the early light as you stumble from a club, as the sun ekes through the smog and over the city’s high-rises, pales into insignificance when compared to the view one has when reaching a sandy shore or the peak of a mountain as the new sun streaks across the horizon, breaking the last night and christening the new year. Doesn’t even come close.

Then it’s time to head home. Not to crash into bed like you though, but the opening of nengajō, New Year post cards. This tradition of sending greetings to distant loved ones, much like Christmas cards in other parts of the world, dates back many years. Once a time for showing off one’s calligraphy, nowadays it is a way of showing off one’s Photoshop skills as cards are decorated with favourite places, families or, increasingly, pictures of pets wearing funny clothes. No matter the decoration, it is important for the Japanese not to forget anyone from their nengajō list. Fail to send someone a Christmas card and they get miffed, striking you from a list of their own. Fail to send a nengajō card and they consider you missing, presumed dead.

As the day wears on, naturally thoughts turn to food. But rather than picking at finger-sandwiches curling at the corners, rummaging through bowls of stale crisps, or finishing off a morose and balding cheese and pineapple hedgehog left over from the previous night’s party, a more nutritious option is served for Shogatsu. While the exact ingredients may differ around the country, osechi is popular all over. This dish, comprising of seaweed, fishcakes, chestnut sweet potato and the ubiquitous kuromame (sweet, black soybeans), is often topped off with mochi. Whereas your New Year was probably littered with dangerous, drunken escapades – playing with fireworks, climbing scaffolding to get a better view of the countdown clock, snogging someone with a suspiciously herpes-esque wound on their lip – the eating of mochi represents the zenith of New Year danger for the Japanese. This sweet rice cake claims lives as the elderly choke on the sticky chewy treat. The death counts are listed in the press every year.

The New Year is not forgotten then. As the death toll rises and the days tick by, other firsts are counted. The first trip to temple, the first laughter and, this being Japan, even the first day back at work is cause for celebration. So, you can see, the Japanese continue to feel the benefits of the New Year for many weeks to come. Their souls are pure, clean and unblemished from excess which is certainly more than can be said for your liver, and the least said about that already dusty, hastily bought but never used, gym membership-card the better.

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