Omisoka

Omisoka

December 31
New Year's Eve in Japan is observed by settling financial accounts ( kake ), eating a special noodle dish known as okake, which is hot soup over noodles, and taking a hot bath followed by a well-earned rest. Widely celebrated on December 31, Omisoka marks the end of the preparations for New Year's celebrations, which go on for the next three days. It is a popular time for visitors to drop in to exchange New Year's greetings over cups of hot sake and decorated mochi cakes.
The city of Ashikaga, 50 miles north of Tokyo, is the site of the 1,200-year-old Saishoji temple, headquarters for the Akutai Matsuri, the "naughty festival," or "festival of abusive language." On New Year's Eve there, participants walk (or take a bus) up a dark mountain road led by a man blowing a horagai, a shell that is supposed to fend off bad tidings. Some carry lanterns and wear cardboard hats bearing the picture of Bishamonten, one of the seven gods of fortune in Japanese Buddhism. The Saishoji temple was built in honor of this god.
The festival originated more than 200 years ago so repressed workers could let off steam; therefore, this is not simply a midnight stroll. Those hiking toward the temple atop the 1,000-foot-high hill scream curses into the night. They curse politicians, teachers, bad grades, low pay, and any other complaints of modern daily life in Japan. They release pent-up frustrations with words they ordinarily would not say directly to anyone. Bakayaro is one of the words most frequently heard. It means, roughly, "you idiot."
After the 40-minute walk the crowd storms into the temple, the bell is rung, prayers are offered, and the cursing continues. But when the new year arrives at midnight, the curses end and more typical celebration begins. Then the celebrants turn to another unique ceremony: when the priest calls the name of each worshipper, the individual kneels with a wide red lacquer bowl at his or her lips. Sake is then poured onto the person's forehead, runs across his or her face, into the bowl and is consumed. All this occurs while the priest reads the worshipper's personal wishes for the new year to the pounding of a taiko drum. This ceremony is supposed to ensure that happiness will flow in the new year.
On Omisoka, people wearing kimonos fill the streets as they go to visit shrines. But millions watch the "Red and White Song Contest" on TV. This marathon song festival, first organized in 1950, has become an indispensable ritual of the New Year. The show, lasting up to four hours, usually has 50 performers, 25 on each team. The Red team is comprised of women, the White team men. When the performances are over, the audience and a panel of judges decide which team won. Typical past performances include an orchestra playing Mozart and a group singing Okinawan folk music; a bit less typical was a female singer in a gown of feathers that made her look like a bird; as she finished her song she flapped her arms and flew away, suspended by a wire.
The TV show ends shortly before midnight in time for an older tradition: the tolling of the great bells in Buddhist temples at midnight. Priests strike the bells 108 times, a reminder of the 108 human frailties or sins in Buddhist belief. By the end of the 108 strokes of the bell, the impure desires of the old year have been driven away.
An ancient folk ritual of a very different sort is observed on the Oga Peninsula, Akita Prefecture, on New Year's Eve. Young men play the part of hairy devils called Namahage, dressing in grotesque red and blue masks and straw cloaks. They stomp through the streets shouting, "Any wicked people about?" and then pound on people's doorways, the idea being to frighten children and newly married women so that they won't be lazy. After being admitted to a home, they sit down for rice cakes, first scaring the wits out of children with stories of what will happen to them if they are naughty.
See also Oshogatsu
CONTACTS:
Japan Information Network, Japan Center for Intercultural Communication
2-7-7 Hirakawacho
Chiyodaku
Tokyo, 102-0093 Japan
81-3-3263-5041; fax: 81-3-3230-4107
home.jcic.or.jp
Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, Japan Broadcasting Corporation
Atago-Mori Tower 16F, 2-5-1 Atago
Minato-ku
Tokyo, 105-6216 Japan
81-3-5400-6800; fax: 81-3-3436-5880
www.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld
Ashikaga Tourist Association
3-6-4 Ise-cho
Ashikaga, Tochigi 326-0053 Japan
81-2-8443-3000; fax: 81-2-8420-2159
www.city.ashikaga.tochigi.jp
SOURCES:
BkFest-1937, p. 201
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 775
(c)
References in periodicals archive ?
As well as he knows Christmas, Saint Nick said, he is now having a difficult time distinguishing it from Bodhi Day (observed by followers of Kemetic Orthodoxy, a religious tradition of ancient Egypt), Hanukkah's Festival of Lights (Jewish celebration), Id al-Adha's Feast of Sacrifice (Muslims' celebration), winter solstice (celebrated by atheists and American Indians), Saturnalia (neo-pagans), Yule (Wiccans), Kwanzaa (African Americans), Omisoka (Japanese), Shabe-Yalda (Iranians), and Festivus (a celebration for the rest of us).
Add to all this the fact that Japan has probably the world's most myriad festivals, from the Dezome-Shiki (Fireman's Parade) of January to December's Omisoka (Great Last Day Festival), and you have a society ultra-receptive to new ideas of spirituality.
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