I am simply continuously floored by the generous hospitality of the Japanese people. Included here is just one example of it.
January 1, 2009 0:00 am:
I am in the middle of singing Toto's "Africa" at the local karaoke place. We briefly pause to wish each other "Omedeto gozaimasu" and "Happy New Year." I am with fellow J-3, Matt, and two Japanese friends, Eeji and Emi. We are just finishing up our two hours of karaoke, and will be leaving shortly for Asakusa Otera (Asakusa Temple), and joining hundreds and hundreds of other people to bring in the new year. The trains in Tokyo usually stop running shortly after midnight. If you miss your Shoden (last train of the night), you will have to find other means home, or something to occupy your time until the trains begin again around 5 am. For the New Years though, the trains run all night. It should be noted, however, that they most certainly do not follow their usual timely schedule of a train every 3-7 minutes. Instead, its about every 20-30 minutes. And New Years Eve is probably one of the coldest nights in Japan so far.
But this doesn't stop anyone. As we make our way to the entrance of Asakusa Otera, the road has been blocked off for the crowds. A calm and collected crowd, mind you. We pass through the first entrance, walking under a large red lantern, and past some statues. There is then a long entrance, lined with probably about 100 shops, with nearly all of them closed. White lanterns above light the way, and the wooden sticks with new years colors of white and red balls decorate it.
After about 45 minutes in the crowd and cold, we are allowed, with about 50 other people at once, to proceed up the stairs inside the temple. I've visited this temple before, and sure, it was crowded, but not like this. Here, we are packed in with people pushing more than at a concert, trying to get your way to the front row. Once to the front, you throw in your coin offering. It lands (hopefully) in a large wooden tub. Hands are clapped at the start of your prayer, and then again at the end. For 100 Yen, (roughly a dollar) you can then go get your mikuji, or fortune. They are taken from chest of small drawers, and shook in metal box before taken out and read. The fortune tells you if you will have good or bad year, and gives advice on what you should or should not do in this new year. After they are read, they are folded up and tied on a stand just for the fortunes. You want to tie it as tightly as possible, as you want it to last as long as possible. I think the belief is that the more wind that blows around your tied fortune, the more it is lifted up in prayer to God.
Vendors all over sell New Years food items, and many people are sitting down for meal and a beer. My group though, decides to just head out. Normally it would take about 15 minutes and two trains to get home, but tonight it takes close to an hour with the significantly less trains running. It's after 3 am by the time I am in my room. I'll be awake again for church services in less than 6 hours.
On New Years Day, unlike Christmas, most shops are closed, with most people off work. (Most of Japan does not have Christmas Day church services, as everyone is working. Most churches just have Christmas Eve services so that people will be able to attend.) The first week of the new year is called "Shogatsu" and is usually break time (yasumi) for many people. I take my usual 25 minute walk to Sei Pauro, and you feel the quietness in the air. There is an unusual stillness. There is full attendance at church, and we have a full service with communion. After during snacks and tea time, my sensei (the pastor) becomes concerned when I tell him I haven't bought my bus ticket yet for my upcoming trip to Kyoto. After the computer is the community room is being slow, I am ushered upstairs to his office (which is pretty exciting, it's my first time in there) and we spend the next hour picking out a bus to take, filling out Japanese online membership forms, printing off maps, and looking up phone numbers to another Lutheran church in Kyoto incase I decide to extend my stay from my current three days. And of course, me stealing gazes around his office at all the collected items from around the world and all his books. I am already very grateful for all his help, and then I am extended an invitation for lunch with the family!
It is self-service family style lunch, with three boxes filled to the brims of different sea food (a variety of fish, as well as octopus, shrimp and squid) and vegetables prepared in all sorts of ways. I am directed to try specific items as they are either "typical Japanese" or "New Years celebration" foods. My favorite though are the mochi (pounded rice) pieces that were baked in toaster oven, and then dipped in soy sauce and wrapped in seaweed. Mmmm... oishii!!! Delicious!
From what I am understanding, the better the quality of tea in Japan, the less of it you are served. Sensei prepares tea for us after the meal (claiming the sweeter tasting foods eaten more during meal are balanced at the end with a bitter green tea) in the traditional way of one cup at a time, and mixing it with a wooden whisk. Earlier, he was very proud of his yakimono (pottery) collection, as he has an extensive collection from many (if not all) the different areas and styles throughout Japan. We are now drinking from these yuunomee (tea cups).
The rest of the afternoon was spent doing some sightseeing in Tokyo with the Matsuki family. It is a very good day of Japanese language practice! We see the Emperor's Palace garden (just from the outside, there are big government meetings going on), Tokyo Tower, Shiba Koen (park) & temple, Odiba ("island" in bay of Tokyo), and the Rainbow bridge that connects it.
Sensei ended up staying home for the afternoon as his 93 year old father was very sick in the hospital. He just announced today at church that he passed away yesterday afternoon. Please keep the Matsuki family in your thoughts and prayers. I am sorry to say I will not be able to attend funeral services as I will be in Kyoto at the time.
As school starts back up again January 13th, we have both Kabuki (traditional theatre) and Sumo wrestling to look forward to during this month! Last month we went to Bunraku - traditional puppet show. I also ended the 2008 year successfully with a short speech in Japanese about myself and my togei (ceramics) class. From what I hear, this second part of the language course really picks up in content and quickness, so please keep us all in your prayers as we struggle and slowly progress in the language. I am so thankful for this experience, and have already learned so much!
As always, please feel free to pass this on to anyone that might be interested, or someone I have missing from the list. I am always available to be contacted through this account (Carolyn.Stypka@gmail.com). If any of you (individuals, church bodies, companies, etc.) would like to support what it is I am doing, and others doing similar work all over the world, please contact me and/or Twila.Schock@elca.org for further information. Thank you all for you continued love and support. I hope you all had splendid holidays and I wish you all bountiful blessings for this new year of 2009!
In Love and Peace,