New Years in Japan


Everyone has their own way of celebrating. My elementary school principal wrote this on just about everything he could get his hands on.


Just to get it out of the way: あけおめ!今年もよろしくお願いします

There are many ways to call in the new year. You could, for instance, have a calendar-burning ceremony. You know the kind, where you sit around in a circle, tearing off each month, trying to remember something that happened that month. Telling stories. But not too slowly, or else the fire will burn out. It’s a good time. I mean, probably. I’ve never done it.

Or, how about getting together for a New Year Game Jam. Getting together to make a game somehow related to the next year. Maybe because it’s the year of the monkey, it’s a monkey story. Or a game about the upcoming elections in America; very technical, like the original SimCity. I don’t know. I didn’t do it. Not even sure it’s a thing.

December 31st

I spent this New Years much the same way I spent last New Years, with my girlfriend’s family in a house in the countryside. I arrived around 5pm with a big bottle of Kubota (久保田), a karakuchi (辛口) sake, because that’s the type the dad likes. Turns out it was the second bottle of the stuff, but I’m sure nobody’s complaining. Right after I gave it to him, we went to the family’s personal shrine, put it next to the other bottles, clapped twice, bowed, and clapped again. Last year I was semi-flustered, doing it for the first time. This year it felt like the 20th year I’ve done it.

The otaku brother who works at Honda came up from Tochigi with his wife and newborn child, while the sister came with her husband and newborn child from Sendai. I’ve seen the sister’s baby a few times in person, and countless times in picture form, as my girlfriend is a little obsessed. On the other hand, it was the first time I’ve seen the brother’s baby, which the family sometimes calls “ugly”. His actual name is Ayumu, named after Goromaru Ayumu, the famous Japanese rugby player whose pose it all the rage these days. We collectively think that there’s some problem with his vision or, perhaps, his mental situation. This, naturally, is hard to bring up in conversation.


This guy (五郎丸歩) is pretty big. His pose is even bigger.

It’s not long before I’ve had more alcohol than I should, enjoying both Hirouki (飛露喜) and Yamato-den 大和伝, the latter of which might be one of my favorite types of sake. The father asks if I like shouchuu (焼酎), which, of course, I have to say “yes”. I mean, I don’t have to, but it would be remiss to miss out on some nice expensive potato liquor. I’m not sure what type it is, but I drank enough to embarrass myself by the time the sun set.

Drinking is a popular part of Japanese activities, and especially so when nobody has any obligations. Only the new mothers and their babies were without poison in their blood. I was happily following the father and brother in downing tiny cups of devil water while eating sushi and trying to dig the innards out of surprisingly full crab shells. The sister’s husband Mune had made some curry-flavored item, but nobody seemed to be eating it. I ate some, in equal parts out of enjoying the taste and feeling bad for its creator. Not sure which drove me more.

On the TV was kouhaku uta gassen (紅白歌合戦), a yearly concert on TV with all the biggest Japanese pop stars of the past year. There was some enka, Sekai no Owari, one of those 48 groups, and about a hundred other people whose name I was unsure of. All sounded good, though. Occasionally the channel flipped to some boxing matches or waratte wa ikenai (笑ってはいけない), both shows where people get hit a lot. Not sure who changed the channels, but the TV never stayed on the same thing for very long.


That’s Japan. That’s Kouhaku. That’s 紅白歌合戦 for ya.

By 10, both mothers and their babies were asleep in the other room. In the common room, only a handful of people remained. I pledged to wake anyone up if they wanted to be around for the New Year. Shortly after, only me and two others remained awake. Everyone else was either asleep in the other room, in the shower, or passed out. Last year we spent the final hours of 2014 playing Mario Kart. This year, we watched TV and played games on our phones.

In the last 5 minutes, I woke up those few who were passed out. We counted down with those people on TV. Not quite a ball drop in New York, but still fun. After 2016 arrived, I quickly went to my room in the separate house. In the brief moment I was outside, I heard some bell-ringing. It felt pretty Japanese.

January 1st

The next day, I woke up semi-leisurely and went back to the main room for breakfast. On TV were a bunch of black men running in the New Year’s Ekiden, a kind of relay-race run with each team coming from (or at least representing) different big companies. Curiously, in the second (of seven) section of the race, nearly every team’s racer was Kenyan. In the remaining six sections, including the first and last, the runners were Japanese. I was cheering for Honda (because the brother works there) and DeNA (because they work on Final Fantasy Record Keeper). Toyota took first place.

During breakfast, a mailman came with a stack of New Years cards called nengajou (年賀状), with a giant rubber band around them. I’d actually never seen so many. The most I’ve ever received before this was about 3. They had at least ten times that. This year I got 8, a new high score!


Some of my own New Years cards.


At one point, the news came on TV showing an accident in western Japan that left some college kids injured or killed, probably from drunk driving. Another showed an image of rowdy Shibuya, which the news implied was the result of a lot of foreigners there. Indeed, they did show a foreigner on someone’s shoulders. The men climbing on the McDonalds however looked pretty Japanese to me.

After breakfast we went to the local supermarket to get some large sushi platters for lunch. Looking around, most of the platters were gone, but we managed to snag the last two. At the checkout isle, we got what looked like lottery cards. The mother encouraged me to scratch it, and I actually won 1000 yen. It was a nice surprise.

I was planning on not drinking and heading home in the evening, as I’d done last year, but I was soon convinced to imbibe more toxins. The father’s brother came over with his family, same as last year, and we all started drinking while the food mysteriously appeared before us. The uncle’s two kids were both very antisocial, but I can’t blame them. I only wish I could watch them play Puzzles and Dragons, which they were probably doing. The youngest one, who was in his last year of college, received the last otoshidama (お年玉) he’d ever receive.

Eventually, after a half dozen hours, they left, and I went with the girlfriend to a local temple to do hatsumoude (初詣) and get our omikuji(おみくじ). I got a shoukichi (小吉) saying that it would be hard to find things I’ve lost this year. She got a chuukichi (中吉), saying some other fortunes, and we both decided to tie our fortunes up and put them on the temple wall because fate is in our own hands. Or, something like that.


Not mine, but it looked pretty much the same. Incidentally, this person needs to believe in love.

On our way back we got these great ice cream / brownie sundae-like things from Mini Stop and some chicken for dinner, alongside a pack of 8 Häagen-Dazs cups in case the former ice cream wasn’t enough. Japan doesn’t have the big tubs, but instead a bunch of tiny, individual-size offerings. Can’t complain. Everyone got their own ice creams.

As the day came to a close, we watched some more TV, looked at the brother’s nice new car with a huge trunk that could open both ways, ate a little more food, and fell asleep. And 2016, and whatever will come with it, had officially been 1/355th completed.

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