There are a couple of other Japanese New Year's traditions which I neglected to relate in my last post, but my good buddy Shiga has since brought me up to speed. One is the consumption of osechi, a collection of a bunch of different snacks, decoratively arranged and often quite colourful. Picking up a less elaborate package from a convenience store is popular among we young singletons, but Shiga, who still lives at home, got some from his mom. He also informed me of the existence of holiday grab-bags, ranging from a few hundred yen on up to 3000 or more, filled with a mystery assortment of toys and other goofy items. If you buy one and get something you'd hoped for, it is a day of triumph, but if you find it filled with naught but less desirable possibilities, the weight of your misfortune is crushing. Or so I had it described to me.
That said, the most important ritual of all is, of course, the New Year's shrine visit. Shiga, Security and I got in a couple of visits of this type, preceding a karaoke session but following lunch at a place called 先通入ル...so, uh, “sakitsuunyuuru,” maybe? Somebody with better kanji knowledge than I would have to tell you. Anyway, this place, found in a department building on the corner of Shijou and Kawaramachi, serves spaghetti made with Kyouto vegetables (supplemented with your usual Kyouto beverages and confectionaries). Kind of a strangely specific theme for a restaurant, but it was pretty all right.
|That's me on the right, positioning my chopsticks using my other hand, like some kind of simpleton.|
We first stopped at a smaller shrine, about as wide as a doorway and directly off the Shijou sidewalk. Shiga was ecstatic to find that all of us happened to have a five-yen coin on us, which was apparently quite fortuitous due to “goen” sounding similar to a phrase for “good luck.” Characteristically, he prayed for a girlfriend. Not much one for prayer and feeling the crowd of old ladies behind me growing by the second, I couldn't think of anything to ask for. But if I'm lucky, maybe whatever kami I was supposed to be praying to will take my five-yen coin, get a gist for my general emotions and sort things out for me, like the officials at the Immigration Office when you've gotten your papers mostly right but still a little out of whack.
From there we proceeded to Yasuka Jinja, the largest and most auspicious shrine in central Kyouto. The crowds going to and from it were so thick they occasionally held up traffic, oblivious pedestrians chattering away as they thronged agonizingly across the street. On-site, it was like a small matsuri, except with ten times the usual amount of people. The crowds in front of the main prayer-place were so thick that people were flinging coins over the heads of those in front of them and offering a sort of prayer by distance, holding the same relation to their prayer as a puppeteer does to a marionette. Shiga prayed for a girlfriend again. This time I just went with the first thing that occurred to me and wished to improve my Japanese. Only later did I realise I should have prayed for something that actually requires a bit of luck: Getting into Japanese grad school! By then it was too late, though. I'm not very good at this.
To compound my worries, I only used one yen in the transaction. Would the kami be satisfied with such a paltry offering? Well, going by the people around me (when in Rome and all that), one yen should do just fine. In fact I've never seen anything go in there that was bigger than a ten. So the question of the day is, does the limited amounts of money used represent a tacit admission that it's all just for show? If your sister was sick and you wanted a supernatural being to help you out with that, wouldn't you be thrusting 10,000-yen bills in its face, rather than a near-worthless coin? Either the significance of the coin is not tied to its monetary value – which is totally possible – or nobody wants to “waste” money on something they know is perfunctory.
The Japanese have what seems like more than their fair share of superstitions, but in reality the majority that I've met are pure atheists or close to it. Japanese people live their lives amidst a mixture of Buddhist doctrine and Shinto ritual (“Birth rites at a Shinto shrine, wedding at a Christian church, funeral rites at a Buddhist temple,” as they say) while, it seems to me, not actually believing in any of it. Not that I'm going around striking up theological chats, but I've never had any Japanese person, besides the very very very occasional practicing Christian, tell me that they believed in anything other than that death is the end, and when I asked the extremely callous and probably misinformed question, “Do people really believe that Buddha is going to save them?” I got the answer, “Sure, a few people.” When I followed up with a question on the faith rate among young people, I got the answer that maybe some girls pray and seriously believe it, so draw from that what you will. Maybe ultimately the true purpose of religion in Japan is simply to derive a little comfort out of a harsh world, which you could then argue is the real purpose of all religion, but I'm not going anywhere near that one.
|Some slightly more formalized prayers. At least two-thirds are relationship-related.|
There was also a little fortune-telling booth run by some miko, those red-and-white-wearing shrine maidens that I know you've seen somewhere, don't even tell me you haven't. You shake up a bamboo canister until a rod falls out, pay 200 yen, tell the miko what number you got, and receive the corresponding slip of paper. In this case, there was a “general” prediction and a “love” prediction, with Shiga leaping upon the love canister and forbidding Security from taking just the general one. She already has a boyfriend, but upon inquiring I learned that the prediction can tell you if they will get married, or fight a lot, or, as I suggested, break up (and start dating Shiga?). Shiga was disappointed to find that he has almost no chance whatsoever of landing a girl this year, although if somehow he does the relationship is slated to progress quite nicely.
Security refused to show us her results, but I didn't even try. Truthfully, I was afraid that if I gave a pull and didn't get anything good, I'd get depressed. On the other hand, when this happened at the Nomikai That Shall Not Be Named, which I mentioned before, a girl from my Foreign Policy told me that I should just ignore any bad predictions. In that case, should I also ignore any good predictions I get? No, those are ok to believe! In that case, is it ok if I go ahead and regard the whole practice as fucking meaningless? “It's Japanese style!” I consider her a good friend of mine, but (ergo?) she's also a bit of a whitewashed weirdo, so again, draw your own conclusions. Although admittedly these were fortune cookie-style predictions offered on the sheaves of paper our chopsticks came in, but I think it's still exemplary of the overall uranai attitude. Maybe.
We topped off our visit with some mochi, which, if you don't know, is rice that's been pulverized into a sticky paste with a giant hammer. That's kind of cool, right?