The New Year holiday is over in Japan and with just three deaths from choking on mochi, I think we can say it’s been a great success. The good citizens of Perth (and in this case I use the word good to mean its opposite) like to ring in the new year with a tasty knifing or glassing treat. I note in my mother’s blog she reports the crowd walking past their place was jovial enough, then follows it up a day later with news of a stabbing on their corner that night. I suppose a good stabbing does bring cheer to the masses but here in Japan there is a different method for weeding out the weak .

If you get some rice and pound the bejaysus out of it, it’ll turn into a glutinous paste which the Japanese traditionally eat in the New Year period. A lot of Japanese sweets use a softer kind of mochi but the New Year’s one is bought in a solid block and often eaten in special New Year’s soup. The heat of the soup softens up the mochi a bit but it’s a gooey mass that can be quite hard to swallow. Every year a handful of old folk get some caught in their throat and lack the strength to cough it back up. I imagine their last thoughts would be along the lines of: “oh dear, how embarrassing”. The newspapers like to report this tally and Kazuko tells me this year it sits at three. I’m glad to report Kazuko and I came through the New Year’s Day mochi rite of passage ritual unscathed and even probably managed to get a few other New Year’s cultural traditions under our belts.

We started our New Year break with another trip to the zoo. This isn’t a New Year tradition, but we had the day off and we’ve got annual passes so off we went. We started with a walk through the park:

Snow and trees.

Trees and snow.

Kazuko and snow and a temple gate.

A shrine. Or is it a temple? I never know.

Another shrine.

We finally made it to the zoo where the seals have been given the run of the place.

Feed me.

I think this one is trying to rush me.

But our New Year’s break was not all snow and zoos. A tradition even more important than death by mochi is the tidying of the house. I’m told the gods view unclean houses most unfavourably on January first and punish the residents by withholding all good fortune for the entire year. This was somewhat distressing for me because the noise of Kazuko’s vacuuming occasionally disturbed me while I was trying to watch Doctor Who on my computer. Also there was nearly an incident because she cleaning the toilet at the wrong time. Sadly my free ride came to an abrupt end when Kazuko was advised by her elder sister that the house’s mini shrine had to be cleaned by a man or the good fortune would not be forthcoming. As I happen to be a man, this became my responsibility. I adopted my usual tactic of working very slowly to both create the illusion that I am also working carefully and because while I am busy I can’t be given even more to do. It was pretty hard work making dusting the top and changing the candles seem like a long job but I’m confident I at least managed to look incompetent.

Does it look clean to you? I couldn't get the curtains down to take to the dry cleaners. They've faded a little I think.

We replaced the trays of rice and salt with fresh trays of rice and salt, filled up the water urns with water and the sake container with sake. Then we put some sake in a glass for ourselves, clapped twice and demanded the gods present us with at least a million dollars this year (well, I’ve only ever made modest demands in the past and they all seem to have been ignored – why not shoot for the moon?) and then downed our portion of sake.

With the house cleaned and the gods appeased, we headed out to spend our New Year’s Eve at the convenience store where it turned out they didn’t particularly need our help. I stocked the fridge as usual and Kazuko apparently hadn’t done enough cleaning for the day so she mopped the floors and cleaned the back room and the office which may well have been the first time that’s ever been done. Sometimes Kazuko’s mum forgets that I don’t speak Japanese and she told me to read some magazines if I was bored. I had to point out that the only ones I stood a chance of understanding were the porn and they are all sealed anyway. And they’re a bit weird. If the covers are anything to go by they’re mostly about tying up schoolgirls. And there was one called Boyish Girl magazine. If you buy that, does it mean you are gay or not? I decided to avoid the dilemma and spend half an hour leafing through the book of maps to plan cycling trips for next year.

By about eleven o’clock I had had my fill of New Year’s Eve and would have much preferred to be at home in my nice, warm bed but instead I had to hang around for another half hour before Kazuko and I headed up the road to Odori Park in the middle of town to see if there wasn’t going to be some sort of countdown. As we were walking there, we noticed it was actually about as quiet as we had ever seen the town – no traffic and almost no people. At Odori Park, there was a handful of people hanging around but it was also a bit chilly so we decided to keep walking to stay warm. We walked up to the clock tower which I don’t think is a particularly extraordinary building but it was one of the first buildings in town, is one of the few remaining western designed buildings and the clock tower has become something of a symbol of Hokkaido. It is now a museum.

Here it is from one angle.

And here it is from in front.

Note how the clock tower resembles the north star. They are both familiar motifs around town and you can see the star on bottles of Sapporo beer. There was one small group of people with a bottle of champagne at the ready to celebrate the new year. They had a young boy with them who sensibly went off to sit in the nice warm car. We walked around some more and at about five minutes to midnight, suddenly hordes of people came out of the woodwork to watch Sapporo’s TV tower tick over to midnight.

Waiting for midnight.

Note the man lying on the ground and the yound lady who is refusing to allow sub-zero temperatures interfere with her commitment to her mini-skirt collection.

0:00 - Happy New Year!

If it’s true, as some like to assert, that the new decade doesn’t actually being until the first day of 2011, does that also mean that the new year doesn’t start until 0:01 or even until the end of January the first?

Snowmen huddling together for warmth.

Happy New Year scenes at the bottom of the TV tower.

And just as quickly as they came out for the countdown, everyone cleared off somewhere warmer. Or to a local shrine to get the gods’ blessings for the new year. Or, finally, to the convenience store, which was the busiest it had been all night when we got back. We had been going to go to a shrine but there was a very long line so we went home instead. The next morning, we changed the rice, salt and sake at the mini-shrine, prayed yet again for easy wealth and fame and started the new year with a glass of sake first thing in the morning. We followed that up with a bowl of special New Year’s soup, containing mochi, which, in a feat of strength, we managed to eat without choking to death. And so even if the gods don’t produce wads of cash for us this year, they have at least allowed us to live to see its beginning.

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