Tag Archives: New Year in Tokyo

Shop til you drop

new year decoration1Christmas is a largely commercial affair in Japan. Of course, there are plenty of decorations put up, and that starts in November, but I don’t expect it is truly celebrated by anyone except the 1% of the population which is Christian. However, I would say that people enjoy it, in the same way they enjoy Valentine’s Day or Hallowe’en. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year, and through some very clever marketing many Japanese people are convinced that a bucket of fried chicken from KFC and strawberry shortcake from the local convenience store are the perfect dinner on the 25th. Japanese people generally don’t exchange Christmas presents, and by the morning of the 26th all the decorations are gone, soon to be replaced with the traditional Shinto New Year decorations. For anyone newly-arrived in Japan, this sudden absence of all things Christmassy can be a shock, especially for someone feeling a little homesick and still getting used to the idea that December 25th is just another working day.

For Japanese people, the big celebration is New Year (正月). As shops shut down just before the end of the year, they put up New Year signs on their doors and kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations) on either side of the entrance.

new year shop entranceTraditionally, shops and other businesses didn’t open on the first three days (or sometimes more) of the new year, but every year more and more is open even on January 1st. As I did last year, I spent some time on New Year’s Day walking a 7 lucky gods pilgrimage, and was surprised at how much was open. Who wants to go to McDonald’s on New Year’s Day? The answer is, a surprising number of people. I enjoyed starting the year walking to shrines and temples, and this year walked with a friend, which was far more fun than doing it alone. She said her prayers at each stop, which made me slow down a little, and not just check off each one along the way and move on to the next one. It reminded me of what the route really was for. Last year I started earlier and so didn’t see so many people, but this year we waited in line several times.  Since I had already blogged about it I decided to do something different and posted on Facebook as I arrived at each temple or shrine, but if you would like to read about it, here is the link to last year’s post:

https://tokyopurplegirl.com/2013/01/04/starting-the-year-the-japanese-way/

Having spent January 1st in a very traditional way, I spent the afternoon of January 2nd in a way more recognisable to my students as a New Year tradition: the sales. January (or these days, end-of-December) sales are not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. In many countries one of the first things people want to do after Christmas is go to the shops to return or exchange gifts and spend money or gift tokens they have been given.  As I already mentioned, Japanese people don’t exchange Christmas gifts, but anyone under twenty can look forward to receiving otoshidama (お年玉) at New Year. These are small envelopes containing money; gifts from parents, grandparents and other relatives. Many young people save all they are given, the reckless few spend it all, but often there is a compromise; they save some and they spend some.

Shops re-open on January 2nd or a little later and are hoping that some of this New Year money is coming their way. For high school girls, there are two places which are a kind of mecca on any day of the year; Takeshita Dori (竹下通り) in Harajuku, and the 109 building in Shibuya. Yesterday I went shopping with someone visiting Tokyo, and we decided to go to the mothership, Shibuya 109. Before I went, someone told me they thought I was crazy even thinking about going there on January 2nd, but we were on a shopping mission, and nowhere else would do.

109 salesYesterday was the first day of the ‘7 days bargain’ and in the early afternoon it was absolutely packed. The noise levels were excruciating and there were personnel everywhere guiding people along, particularly near the escalators. There are eight floors, and each one is a collection of different shops. The escalators form the centre of the building, so the best way to see everything is to go up the escalator, then walk all the way round to see what you can find. Every shop was selling lucky bags or fukubukuro (福袋), sealed bags containing a variety of items. These bags are not cheap, most of the ones I saw yesterday started at ¥10,000, but you know that the value of the contents is more than that, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. At places like the Apple store you might get an iPad or a Macbook, and so some really determined people will camp out the night before (or maybe even longer) to ensure that they get their hands on such a bargain.

Back to the 109 building. Not only was every shop selling lucky bags, but there was at least one person, usually a young woman, shouting to attract attention. The crowds, the loud music, the screeching . . . you have no idea. We went up an escalator, round the floor, up the next escalator, round the next floor . . . we were on a mission for footwear, and so I can tell you that there are very few shops selling only shoes and boots. I think we found three. There was one on the first floor, one around the third or fourth floor, and one right at the top on the eighth.

It was an experience. The feeling of having all my senses bombarded was amazing, the only other time I have felt that was when someone took me into a pachinko parlour years ago, but this was even more extreme because of the crowds. Having successfully found something to buy, we headed straight down the escalators and emerged, gasping for air, into the afternoon sunshine. The Shibuya 109 building. Not for the faint-hearted.

Goodbye 2012

Tokyo is slowly shutting down as the New Year approaches. To a visitor the city might look crowded, but the trains and buses are not crowded at all and instead of the usual rush and bustle there is a more relaxed, but still purposeful sense of activity. People are stocking up for the next few days, since everything except convenience stores will be closed tomorrow. As with many other countries, every year more and more shops open earlier and earlier so by January 2nd there are plenty of places to go if you fancy a bit of retail therapy.

Many years ago, everything closed for 3 days, and everyone spent time with family. In the days leading up to New Year, everyone pitched in to do a big clean and special New Year dishes collectively called ‘osechi’, each with a symbolic meaning, were prepared. These days, at least according to the Japanese people I know, people do clean but not necessarily with the fervour of yesteryear, and the osechi dishes are eaten on the 1st but not in vast amounts. They are very expensive if bought in a department store, and hugely time-consuming to make at home.

My version of Japanese New Year is quiet, but since I have only just come back from the UK the whole Giant Cleaning binge is lost on me. I haven’t the energy or the time; I prefer to do my spring-cleaning in spring when I can open the windows and let fresh air in without freezing.

Despite the general air of winding down, I was surprised to find a noisy demonstration taking place outside Shibuya station. There were dozens of people standing there with large Japanese flags and placards, listening to a very angry man on top of a campaign truck who was very exercised about NHK, the national broadcaster. His comments and the placards were the same; that NHK is anti-Japan, anti-emperor and pandering to China. In the course of his screeching, Mr. Angry announced that later in the afternoon they would all march to the central offices of NHK and demonstrate there. Not everyone was winding down, it seemed; he was very clearly winding up himself and everyone listening.

NHK protest

Continuing the general theme of angry shouty Japanese men, Japan has wrapped up the year electing the right-wing LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), is still embroiled in territorial disputes with China and South Korea, and the economy is looking shaky. The new government seems keener on keeping nuclear power than the rest of the population, but just to reassure us all Prime Minister Abe has appointed a Minister for Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, Nobuteru Ishihara,  spawn of former Tokyo governor Ishihara. So that’s all right then.

Today’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper has a centre spread of the Top Ten Domestic news stories of 2012. They are:

1. Yamanaka wins Nobel Prize for iPS research                                                                                 2. Tokyo Skytree opens                                                                                                                      3. Uchimura, Yoshida shine in London Olympics                                                                              4. LDP wins Lower House poll, retakes power                                                                                  5. Japan-China ties sour over Senkakus                                                                                           6. Annular solar eclipse seen from Tohoku to Kyushu                                                                       7. Ceiling panels fall in Sasago Tunnel, killing 9                                                                                8. Giants win 1st championship in 3 years                                                                                        9. Final Aum fugitives arrested                                                                                                        10. Multiple murder mystery linked to Miyoko Sumida

I wonder how many of those made the news outside Japan; I think I can only say with confidence that four did. Plenty to blog about then.

I bought some sushi and came home, posting my New Year greeting cards on the way back. To be delivered tomorrow they should have been posted by the 25th, but I didn’t get my act together before I flew back to the UK and so they will be delivered a couple of days later. I also bought a bag of mikan, or mandarin oranges, and plan to do very little for the next few days.

As I walked home I saw a lot of traditional New Year Shinto decorations on windows, gates or doors

DSCN0521and some businesses already had the pine and bamboo decoration called ‘kadomatsu’ (門松) outside

DSCN0524The sky was pink as the sun set and the neighbourhood seemed very quiet.

Dec 31stAs I write this, I can hear the neighbourhood volunteers walking down the road, warning us to be careful about fire hazards in our homes. On TV I have just watched an advert for dietary supplements for women, made from pig placenta, and the BBC, bravely ignoring all of the above news stories, have once again broadcast one of their ‘Japanese obsession’ stories, this time about a supposed obsession with cuteness and a school where you can train to be a mascot and spend your days inside a large furry suit. Sigh. As I have written this I have made a mental note to write more about a lot of things I’ve mentioned, but for now this is my snapshot of the end of the year.

Goodbye 2012. You were an improvement on 2011, but you could have been better. Let’s see what 2013 brings us. Now I am snuggled up at home, it’s time for sushi!