A belated Happy New Year's to all!
2008 is the Year of the Rat.
This is a little decoration given to me by a fellow teacher. It's actually soap.
New Year's (shogatsu) is the biggest holiday of the year in Japan. School was closed every day last week except Friday, which Joe and I happily took off to enjoy a full week of pure laziness.
Traditionally, the Japanese visit a shrine or temple on New Year's Eve so they can pray after the clock hits midnight. We got super excited to take another trip back to Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, which commemorates the holiday with the Chinkasai (fire subduing) Festival. I wanted to see antics like this in person.
With my five layers of shirts and puffy green coat to guard against the fine snow that started blowing as night fell, it was a wonder I was able to put my arms down.
The announcement we'd seen for the festival didn't specify what time the festival started and the couple teachers we asked didn't know. But we assumed the action would ramp up around midnight, so we arrived around 8 p.m. to avoid fighting the crowds. To our surprise, the place was practically deserted when we got there, save for all the food vendors who were busily cooking up squid, octopus balls, and other delightful Japanese fair cuisine. We weren't sure what was up, but we couldn't exactly communicate to ask anyone.
We wandered around the five-story pagoda while we waited, and then walked down directly beneath the famous floating torii gate while the tide was out. People began trickling in as the hours passed. We waited. Ate a hot dog on a stick and a mini candied apple and waited some more. The crowds thickened. 11:00 — a long line formed in front of the shrine, snaking along past all the vendors.
Midnight came...Joe and I kissed...and...
No fire, no drums, no cheers, no singing, no fireworks. What the heck? People continued to stream into the shrine to pray, but no one seemed to acknowledge the moment at all.
It was quite anticlimactic.
We later found out that the fire festival began at 6 p.m. It ended and everyone who was there to see it emptied off the island before we arrived. *sigh* Everyone who came later was simply there to pray at the shrine.
Disappointed at the complete lack of flaming hysterics, Joe and I plodded across the snow-covered sand on the shore and headed back to the ferry.
Back at the train station, the ride home turned into an ordeal. After taking one train to a connecting station, we realized we'd misunderstood the special train schedule for the night and the next train wouldn't be by for a few more hours. This was followed by a long cold walk to the Astram train line, which also wasn't running. We finally flagged down a taxi and shelled out the 2200 yen ($22) for a ride home. It was 4 a.m. when we made it back.
The night definitely didn't turn out as we expected, but hey... It was still cool to ring in the new year at a World Heritage site. Beats sitting at home with a glass of Asti in one hand and the TV remote in the other, anyway.
Here's a picture of the mochi that Joe and I ate on New Year's Day. This is a traditional food that all the Japanese eat on New Year's Day for good luck. They're pounded rice balls with sweetened beans inside, and they're kind of sticky and chewy. It's growing on me.