A New Year of a Different Sort

Music so loud your innards feel like they might explode. The stink of alcohol and cigarette smoke. The push to find someone to kiss or go home with by midnight. It’s New Year’s Eve in America.

A half day earlier and 10,000 miles away, an old man, lips curling dryly over toothless gums, piles kindling of pine and cedar on top of struggling embers. He bends low to the fire, using it to light a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips. It’s 20 minutes to midnight, and it’s his job to make sure the fledgling fire erupts into a true bonfire by the time the bells begin to bellow from the shrine in the New Year. The deluge, switching back and forth between rain and heavy snow, isn’t making the task any easier.

Shinmei Fire

“Another 15 minutes,” the shrine’s crier, stirring a vat of sweetened rice porridge beneath a dripping tent, shouts.

The news that 2015 is still so far off is greeted differently around the fire. The wet wood now spews thick, gray smoke that causes attendees to cough. The fire-starter, apparently given up on the notion of a tower of excited flames, mumbles something about 2014 having been a good year for his son. A small girl, no more than three feet tall, coughs her way through a rendition of “Ari no Mama De,” the Japanese version of “Let It Go” from the globally ubiquitous “Frozen.”

She’s been dancing as she sings beneath an umbrella adorned with Elsa and Anna, the sisters from Disney’s musical and commercial phenomenon. She decides to change one of the song’s most important parts: its ending. Usually sung as “the cold never bothered me, anyway,” she’s clearly had enough of the ceaseless shards of snow hitting her exposed cheek like subzero bee-stings. “The cold is bothering me, anyway,” she chants. Her creative license is met with giggles from the ring of spectators around the billowing logs.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Over the next 10 minutes, the sound of boots pushing into wet gravel intensifies, as the parking lot fills with cars. Greetings of “congratulations,” meant in a way that sounds suspiciously like “so glad you didn’t die this year” seem to bounce like pinballs from mouth to mouth, reveler to reveler.

Weirdly, I think, no one walks with a strange slouch in their gait. The rush to get the next drink, the next infusion of mind-numbing buzz, is replaced by that to wash hands, get in line, and offer a prayer for health, happiness, and success. The  warmth of huddling families takes the place of the grasping hands looking for the nearest mouth to kiss.

The single strike of an unseen drum cuts through any conversation. The hiss of wet wood and the irregular popping of hot stones beneath the dying fire serve as background music for the silent scene. The crier, having left the rice porridge to someone else, begins to count down from 10. Each new number brings a hollow beat from that same unseen drum at a more rapid pace.

The crier runs out of numbers, and the drum goes silent. The metallic ring of wooden mallet on bronze bell rumbles lowly from the small building across from the shrine itself, only slightly illuminated by the orange glow of a single hanging lantern. It’s 2015 in Japan.

A prayer, a small donation, and a blessing later, and most are on their way back home to get out of the cold. There, they’ll talk of their hopes for the new year, while osechi ryouri, a selection of dishes reserved for the holiday, is enjoyed a la carte. Hot tea, warm conversations, and clear minds help to set the intention, the tone of the annual reset. No blackout or awkward morning farewell required.

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