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Coordinates: The Contrasting Textures of New Year’s in Japan
Posted on April 25, 2016

New Year's In Japan.

That afternoon we’d come out of the Shinjuku subway station spinning slightly, disoriented from a day of van-to-bus-to-plane-to-train travel and the multicolored knot of the Tokyo subway map. We’d spent the past few weeks on the idyllic north island of Hokkaido, where we’d settled into an ultra-peaceful rhythm of quiet days in the mountains and nightly soaks in backcountry onsens. The brightest lights we’d seen had been at the convenience store, where we stocked up on 100-yen rice balls. But it was December 31, we were headed back to the States in a few days, and we felt like there was a lot of the country we hadn’t seen. So, backpacks stuffed with puffies and not-exactly-clean long underwear, we switched modes and headed to Tokyo to see what New Year’s Eve looked like there.

The contrast of Japan.

Words by Heather Hansman

On first glance it looked like neon and glass, glowing pachinko parlors and building-tall billboards. It can feel like a visual beatdown, made even more unrelenting by the 13 million people who are taking it in with you. But once you get past that initial buzz, Tokyo has calm in the chaos. There’s a slow-moving zenness, brought on by the all-encompassing attention to detail that makes the city feel at ease. We wanted to find both sides. Someone had told us that if we wanted to celebrate the way the Japanese did, we should forget fireworks and go to a shrine. So we started walking. Mapless and unable to read the street signs, we fixed our bearings on the Tokyo Tower, the city’s answer to the Eiffel, because we’d heard there was a shrine close by.

That night, it felt like it had its own gravity; almost everyone we passed was heading in the same direction, crowding the dark streets. Tokyo is neighborhoody, and maze-like, full of serpentine streets that are often marked only by ramen shops that seem shockingly similar when you can’t decipher Japanese characters. The city, in its impressive density, has 10 times as many restaurants as New York City. So we slipped in with the crowd, trying not to lose each other, not exactly sure where we were headed.

The Zojoji Shrine is a block long and gilded, all gold and red and lit up for the holiday. Crowds snaked around, lined up for food and trinkets, waiting patiently to throw coins in the gold coffers. I kept backing into people, overwhelmed and not sure exactly where I was supposed to be looking, or where the main event was. Sometimes we’d get swept up in the momentum of the sheer number of people and end up sucked into an alley-wide line, unable to get out of it until we passed by a monk to pay our respects. Despite the mass of people, I’ve never seen a more peaceful crowd. No one grumbled or elbowed.

When we first came through the gates to the shrine, the courtyard was packed with booths and carts. Fortune tellers, stalls selling fans and arrows and other symbolic trinkets I didn’t understand. In the food tents, grandmothers were chopping octopus into chunks, frying them into fritters, and serving them covered in fish flakes—some symbolic form of fortune. The air sizzled from grill smoke, and we felt the crush of human bodies.

“In Japanese culture there’s a philosophy called shokunin. It’s the idea that the process is just as important as the final result, and it has a bearing on everything from how they build their parks to how they brew their coffee.”

 

We paid 200 yen each for a fortune for next year, sealed in a tiny plastic packet. Mine was a miniature gold mallet, which came with a promise of smashing bad luck, and an outline for how the rest of my year would go: many healthy children, much wealth. Pulled into the ritual, we watched other people tie their fortunes to the gates, and decided we should do the same. We looped them around the wrought iron and crossed fingers for good luck.

We’d had some already. Japan had unfolded for us in surprising ways. On one of our first days on the north island, skunked by weather and getting antsy, we’d headed for the coast, the Shakotan Peninsula, which a friend of a friend who lived there had mentioned, off-hand, was cool. He thought we could probably hike somewhere.

In the kind of questionable travel philosophy where you always trust a local, even if they might not have any idea what they’re talking about, we took his word. We drove north and west, looking for some kind of adventure, waiting for the kind of Instagram-ready views we assumed we’d find.

 

But after a morning of driving we pulled into Otaru, a grim and beautyless port town, disappointed. We drove farther out the coast, passing through a series of off-season fishing towns, desolate and dotted with World War II concrete bunkers construction.

We were carsick and pissy, feeling like we’d been thrown for a loop. But as we came around Cape Kamui we saw a road up a ridgeline, and what looked like water beyond it. We were the only people around, but eager to get out of the car, we started hiking, tromping up a muddy trail. Eyes on a lighthouse we thought we could get to, we switchbacked up toward the ridge. On the rim, the land dropped off sharply down the other side. Steep fins of chossy rock extended out into the surf, and thousands of feet below we could see the Sea of Japan crashing onto skinny beaches. We clambered out along the fins for as long as we felt safe, trying to balance on the chalky, knife-edged ridges, trying not to look too far down. In the distance you could see Russia, or maybe North Korea.

It was shockingly beautiful and wild, and there was no one else around.

“Pushed up under the gates of the shrine, I felt like I could barely breathe, and I waited for the crush of the crowd I assumed would follow. I braced for screams and popped champagne corks. But as the monks at the temple started sounding the bells 108 times, the traditional way to ring in another year, the crowd dissipated quietly.”

 

Back in the car, we looped around the rest of the peninsula as the sun started to sink. We passed through more closed-down towns, and ended up in the sleepy-looking port of Yoichi, starving. We peeked into a coffee shop that looked open, but in broken English they told us they didn’t have food, but the place around the corner might be open. One light was on, and we carefully slid the door open. Past the rice paper screen, a man and his wife were standing behind the sushi counter, watching TV. They spoke zero English, but after a series of pointing, smiling and shrugging, they kept putting food in front of us: wasabi-tinged rice, fatty slices of tuna, egg custard, and briny fish eggs wrapped in paper-thin nori. It was one of the best meals of my life, and it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t wandered in, and if we hadn’t taken a day to try to explore.

In Japanese culture there’s a philosophy called shokunin. It’s the idea that the process is just as important as the final result, and it has a bearing on everything from how they build their parks to how they brew their coffee. Maybe luck is a part of it, but most of it is just trying to bring quality and thoughtfulness to everything you do, to give some weight to all of the steps along the way. That’s how Jiro Ono, famous from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, became such a mind-blowing sushi chef. He focuses obsessively on all the micro-steps that go into selecting and slicing fish. And once we started thinking that way, even just a little bit, everything started to feel like an experience. Navigating the subway became a reason to learn the personalities of the different neighborhoods. Lost, looking for a bathroom, we stumbled into a tiny backyard bar, where we drank wine around a fire pit and let an English-speaking local explain why Japanese fashion designers love the style of the American West.

It happened in the deserted fishing towns and it happened in the thick of the shrine’s courtyard as we waited for the New Year. When midnight chimed on the 31st, the swarm stood still. Pushed up under the gates of the shrine, I felt like I could barely breathe, and I waited for the crush of the crowd I assumed would follow. I braced for screams and popped champagne corks. But as the monks at the temple started sounding the bells 108 times, the traditional way to ring in another year, the crowd dissipated quietly. The lead-up to midnight, the octopus balls and homage to the monks—the trip, instead of the destination—had been the celebration.

Wandering the back streets.

Local Knowledge

Travel Beta: Both of Tokyo’s airports, Haneda and Narita, are on the train line. That’s the cheapest and best way to get into the city, and to get around. On Hokkaido, renting a car is the best way to cover a lot of ground.

Cultural Treasure: Visit Tokyo’s Buddhist and Shinto shrines, like the Meiji, which is Shinto, to get a look into the cultural and architectural history.

Lost in Translation: Arigato goizamas, or “thank you very much,” will get you through a lot of situations in Japan’s ultra-polite culture.

Food and Drink: Sushi, sure, but the real Japanese secret is the depth and breadth of the different kinds of ramen you can get. Try spicy tonkotsu or lighter shoyu. Goes nicely with a Sapporo Classic, which you can only get on the island of Hokkaido.

Worth the Cash: The onsens, or natural hot springs. They’re relatively cheap, but it’s worth springing for one as often as you can.

Local’s Tip: Skip the touristy Harajuku neighborhood for the more laid-back Daikanyama.

Extra Credit: The best place to use the ATM is 7-11. They also have free Wi-Fi, and surprisingly good fresh sushi.

Check out Eddie Bauer’s Travex line of adventure travel gear at eddiebauer.com and read more of Heather Hansman’s work for publications such as Outside, Skiing, Powder, Bike and The Atlantic at HeatherHansman.com.

Author: - Monday, April 25th, 2016
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