It's 2002, and, for better or worse, Japan is still here, and I'm still here in Japan (I tend to be happy about the second, and both the Japanese and I about the first). I'd anticipated a lonely New Year's Eve--the other ALTs are out of the country, and of course my Japanese friends, being older, have their families to celebrate with. Last year, I'd gone to Kyoto for New Year's, and the temples and shrines there were festive after midnight, as the people thronged to make their first prayers of the New Year. I'd thought there'd be festivals at the shrines here, so this year I left around 11:30 for a shrine near Manyo JHS (thought it would be nice to run into people I know). However, when I got there, although it looked like the shrine might have been being set up for something (and there was a sign saying something was happening from 12:00 and something else from 12:30--let's hear it for 5% literacy!), it was pretty quiet. Across the street, though, in front of the knife factory and museum, there were several tripods holding up flaming piles of logs. It turned out to be three men in semi-Shinto garb forging and hammering the last knife of 2001, or perhaps the first one of 2002, surrounded by about fifty photographers and two TV crews (not one spectator without a tripod). Interesting.
While I was warming by a flaming tripod, I heard bells from farther up the valley (this was just a little beyond the mouth of a long thin valley extending west from the southern end of the Fukui--Sabae--Takefu plain into the southern foothills of the Japan Alps). I thought maybe there might be more going on up there, so a minute after midnight, I started to drive that way. I'd ridden my bike to the end of the valley a couple of months earlier, so I was looking for a particular temple I'd seen. I didn't know exactly where it was, so I drove slowly and kept my eyes open. I saw what looked like a party in the community hall of a village of a dozen or so houses, and I stopped. I asked a woman outside the hall if it was a festival (hoping, of course, to be invited in), but she said no--she did suggest I go on up to the shrine and make my wish for the New Year (here's the view from the shrine). I went up and looked in, but it looked more like a private affair--there were six guys in suits kneeling in front of low tables, in two rows facing center up the middle of the shrine. Hmm. I peered in, and backed off. On the way down (the shrine being built against the side of a steep hill, as they all tend to be in Takefu), I saw another party coming up, so I paused, let them pass, and watched them go in. So then I realized it was alright, and I went in as they were leaving. I took off my shoes outside and walked up the "aisle" between the tables ("aisle" in quotation marks because the whole shrine is no larger than a medium-sized American living room), knelt in front of the altar, clapped twice ("Hey, gods, here I am!"), tossed in a couple of hundred yen, and made my wish for the next year (it's a secret). As I turned around to leave, one of the men gestured to me to come to his table, so I knelt in front of it. He handed me a shallow bowl, more like a saucer, and filled it with sake. I drank it, and then I moved on (again following the gesture) to the next table, where another man ceremoniously handed my several strips of squid jerky. Yum. On the way out, after I put on my shoes but was waiting for a group to move in so I could get out through the narrow opening in the straw snow curtain in front of the shrine, I saw, just two feet to my side, hiding in the shadow, the face of a beautiful woman--a very tall woman, almost my height. After a minute, she turned and caught my glance, and I thought, "Jesus." "Miki?" I said, thinking suddenly she looked like one of my first years (all of 13 years old). She didn't say anything, and I thought, no, of course this looks like an adult, not one of my kids, so I began to apologize, saying I'd thought she was someone I knew, but then I realized that it was Miki. In her school uniform, with her hair in a goofy ponytail, a goofy look on her face, and usually running and hitting at her friends, she looks like the world's tallest nine year old, but looking serious and dressed like an adult, she could pass for twenty (at least for a twenty year old around here). Spooky. I thought she might introduce me to her parents, but alas she was too shy.
After that, I decided to move on, keeping my eyes peeled for anything that looked shrinish and open--and in the next village (perhaps twenty houses) I saw a on open door at a temple, so I drove up and went in. I was still hoping to see more people I knew, hopefully people more talkative than Miki. I saw a group of people kneeling in circle, and thinking it was the parish council, as in the last place, I went in. I soon realized that it actually was a private gathering this time. I also realized I was in a Buddhist temple, not a Shinto shrine, and so was not in the right place for making my New Year's wish, but the guy in charge showed me to the altar and encouraged me (in English!) to make my prayer. Then he asked if I was a tourist. I felt a little out of place, so I suppose to make myself seem a little less of an intruder (though the people were quite welcoming), I said that I'd thought I might see some of my students who live around there. He said, "Oh, are you the junior high school teacher?" "Yes." "Mike?" "Peter." "Oh, my son is a student at Manyo. Do you know Shibata Yutaka?" "Third year student, very tall?" "Yes!" (Actually, it turned out Yutaka is a second year student and not at all tall.) Then he explained that I'd missed the ringing of the bell, but he invited me to give it a shot. The bell is about five feet tall, untold thousands of pounds, and is rung by swinging a big log into it. The tone is beautiful and low, and you can hear it miles away, as I had earlier that night. Then he invited me in to his house. He turned out to be the monk of the temple, and of course his house was the rectory. He spoke a little bit of English, but I got to practice my Japanese with his friends and family. There was food, booze, and even another English speaker--his friend's cousin brought her Australian boyfriend (who was unwillingly masquerading as a New Zealander that evening) about half an hour later. Finally, Dad Shibata had Yutaka brought in--the kid looked completely flumoxed to see his English teacher sitting at the kotatsu in the middle of his house). When his wife came in, she immediately said, very shocked, "Petah-sensei?" I'm not sure where we'd met or how she knew me. I really enjoyed Mr. Shibata's hospitality; far from having a lonely New Year's, I spent until 2:30 at this wonderful party. I even got to take home some complimentary yellow spots, courtesy of some homemade "digestive" liquor sprayed around the room in overlubricated enthusiasm (tasted about as good as any other liquor offered as a digestive). The people are the biggest reason I love living here so much.
So, that's another version of a Japanese New Year's Eve. I have been on vacation for the last two weeks (and I'm off on Monday, too), but I haven't done much with my time. For the first week, it rained hard every day, and since then, it's been snowing and sleeting, with strong winds and lightning. I've just been hiding--since they don't believe in snow removal here, I don't think my car's capable of making it all the way to the ski area--some days the supermarket's been a challenge.
O genki de, and have a great 2002,