A season of firsts

Monday was my first day back at work after a lovely long week of relaxing my way into the new year.
Fushimi shrine on New Year's Day
After days and days of preparations, the new year began with the bells at the Buddhist temples across the city tolling at midnight, 108 times for the 108 delusions that affect humankind. Many people stay up till dawn to see the first day break of the new year, some even hike up the hills surrounding Kyoto to view dawn from a mountain top. And then comes family time. New Year’s is a family holiday in Japan. I’ve been told that at breakfast on New Year’s day, many families have a ritual of thanking each member for what they have contributed to the family in the previous year.

First prayers of the New Year are also significant. A visit to one of the many shrines and temples is often the first outing of the New Year. Japanese ema 2008 Fushimi Inari with its famous pathway under a succession of orange torii gates is a favorite site for New Year’s visitors as shown by the sea of people crowding the path in the photo above. During the New Year’s holiday, several million people visit Fushimi Inari. While there, people write their hopes and wishes on small decorative wooden plaques called ema, shown at right. Being an inari shrine, many of the wooden placques are shaped like a fox head, since foxes are regarded as a spiritual messenger of Inari. But for New Year’s, each shrine will issue a limited edition of holiday ema featuring the animal that represents the new year, for 2008 a mouse, and some image that reflects the shrine, in this case the path of torii gates. Each shrine offers their own special ema and often they become collectors items.

New Year's Tea 2008 For those who practice Chado, the way of tea, another important “first” is hatsugama or “first kettle”. One of the most colorful and festive of Tea ceremonies, it is a time for using the most auspiciously decorated tea bowls, tea kettles, and other tools to create an elegant and welcoming celebration of the New Year. The lobster design on the cup at right serves as an indication of the luxurious sentiment that accompanies the first Tea of the New Year. Guests will dress in their finest kimono and the tea master will prepare the most elegant foods to accompany the Tea drinking.

Of course, there are also many many gatherings that are less formal than Tea. Called shinnenkai (New Year ‘meetings’), they represent the first time friends get together in the New Year and will continue to take place throughout the month as people re-new and re-fresh contact with various circles of friends, colleagues and associates.

But for now, as we come to the end of the first week of the new year, we arrive at kotohajime, the first day of work. For me, that was January 7th.

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