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Thursday, January 1, 2015

How I Spent New Year's Eve In Japan

I've written about this event twice now - back in 2010 (June, of all times), and on January 1, 2012 - actually missing the whole New Year's Eve thing by a day... so... in honor of 2015, and my deep-rooted admiration for my friend Matthew, I'm not merely going to reprint the old article, I'm going to rewrite it, because, dammit, I'm a far better writer now than I was back in 2010. I hope.

It's New Year's Eve, December 31, 1990.... and I'm in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan. The dawn of a new year is nigh upon me... then again... I am in Japan... and they don't actually celebrate the new year until February or so... as Japan follows the Chinese calendar... or do they?

If you think I'm confused, I would imagine the Japanese are, too.

A week earlier it was December 25... what Christians would celebrate as Christmas Day... and I'm in Japan... a country that has maybe a 99% population that considers itself Buddhist... but Buddhism isn't a religion so much as it is a philosophy.

Confused? Welcome to my world. My world is Japan.

I have been in Japan since late July of 1990, as a junior high school assistant English teacher on the JET Programme, a then new program that I only applied to because the woman I really liked and was trying to impress (back in my journalism program at college in Toronto) had tole me she was applying... wouldn't it be fun, I thought, if I applied to so that I could go to Japan with Steffani (I can't recall how to actually spell her name anymore!!!) and lose this monkey on my back known as virginity.

Yes... I applied to the JET Programme to impress a woman, get posted near her (Japan looks pretty damn small on the map), and impress her enough for her to want to sleep with me.

Yeah... how did that work out? About the same as me applying to college after university because the girl I met over the summer (a blonde goddess named Iris) - whom I liked - was also applying to the same college.

It didn't. In the case of Japan, I got in and she didn't. When that happened, I really didn't want t o go to Japan and tried to weasel out of going right up until the moment my father deposited me at the airport telling to to enjoy myself for the year because I may never get such an opportunity to see that part of the world again.

How'd that work out? Twenty-five years later, I'm blogging about it, so it looks like my father was correct. Again.

Anyhow... within hours of landing in Japan, I met a woman (Kristine) who was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life... and boy did my inexperience with women help screw that up - IE, no screwing.

A day later, after hooking up with the new JETs for my prefecture, I had a girlfriend named Ashley... making out with her and getting caught in a rundown between second and third base - but still... cool beans!

A week or two later, my virginity stolen away from me, all was good... then it wasn't, as Ashley decided a) I was wrong for her or b) she really should have told her boyfriend back in Georgia or Texas or wherever that she was breaking up with him... I don't know... maybe both. Or neither. I believe a Japanese fortune teller said to her: "Don't be afraid to tell him you don't love him."

I mean... that was pretty effing straightforward... so she did... and we broke up... and I slept with two different women in two nights to protest this great injustice before we made up (making it three women in three nights). The problem, however, was that I had a a few more lonely nights before my hormones took over... and in those nights, Ashley made plans to go away for the Christmas Break with some of the other lovely women of the JET Programme... leaving me high and dry.... stuck in Japan.

So... I have a girlfriend, lose my girlfriend, gain some fun girlfriends, gain my girlfriend back, lose my chance to travel with my girlfriend to some exotic locale, and am forced to spend a chilly and lonely two weeks by myself.

Enter Matthew J. Hall... the other world famous foreigner living in Ohtawara-shi, but teaching junior high school English to the small schools just outside the city borders (the city... she is mine!).

Matthew popped over on Christmas and made sure my black thoughts hadn't turned to suicide by alcohol poisoning... and did so again on Christmas Eve... making me leave the dark, but warm confines of my three bedroom apartment (plus LDK, bathroom, laundry and two balconies - yeah... I lived in a huge apartment - one constructed for a wealthy Japanese family!).

Actually, on New Year's Eve, Matthew popped over with his boss Suzuki-san and one of the English teacher's he works with, who was one of the funniest people I have ever met - and I've met some funny people over the years.

Here's a photo of Suzuki-san trying to read the instructions on Matthew's new GameBoy... and he seems perplexed by the Japanese-language instructions. It was taken on this very New Year's Eve in 1990.

Suzuki Hideaki having his mind blown by the complex instructions on Matthew's Nintendo Game Boy. I never read the instructions and just played the damn games.

Matthew - he's funny, too... not smack you on the head funny, but still a fun and funny guy that belies his clean-cut good looks - you just don't expect a guy who looks like him to spew some of the stuff he says! That's a great photo at the very top of Matthew and myself, dressed up in our gift yukata (male Spring season kimono) towards the end of our third year in Japan (so yes, I did stay longer than one year, despite what my father said I should do before I embarked on my journey to Japan - my second home).

Oh yeah... in that photo of Matthew and myself, you can see the same Seiko watch on my arm that in 2015 I am still wearing... I'm the less pale fellow on the right.  

It was a chilly evening, and there was a lot of snow on the ground... some 30 centimeters (12 inches), which I was easily able to measure after whipping it out (my foot from my shoe, which was a perfect 12 inches long then... 25 years later, it's longer and wider for some reason).

I'm sitting in my apartment... it's 7:30PM... I AM a bit down because I'm away from home and I really wanted to bring in the new year with a bang, but assume now it will be a whimper thanks to the girlfriend being in Thailand where it is freaking hot! Ashley, by the way, was allowed to take one of my prized possessions with her - my Donald Duck watch that I wore on my right arm that I kept on Toronto time. I also wore a Seiko watch on my left wrist that was on Japan time.

Yeah... I'm weird... but I was, at that time, looking to be the one to start a fashion trend... having also come up with the trend of wearing long shorts, but with one leg sew short... I have no idea why that didn't catch on either.

So... yeah... I'm down... a part of me (via a pantless duck) is in Japan with my girlfriend, and I'm wondering if I can get drunk on my 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola (I can't). Oh my god... there is nothing on the television... no Dick Clark... no count down... I suppose I could watch some of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes I had sent over by my mother and brother...


Well... that's the sound my doorbell should have made, but it was broken earlier this morning by one of my bosses, Kanemaru-san who had invited me to his place... and well... I'll tell you about it tomorrow... out of order, but in retrospect, it seems par for the course. We'll get back to to the Noboko and Andrew show after that.

Bang-Bang! Some one was bang-banging on my door! Who the fug could that be? More Japanese wanting me to see how the Japanese do New Year's Eve?

Well... yeah...  glancing through the peephole, I see a fisheyed version of Matthew peering back at me... so I peel open the door and there is Matthew and Suzuki Hideaki (surname first).

I should mention that the surname of Suzuki is the most common surname in Japan... equivalent to Lee in China or Jones in Canada or Smith or Smyth or Smythe in pretty damn near everywhere.

The name 'Suzuki' translates into bell-tree (suzu-ki)... which sounds pretty festive for this time of year.

Matthew and Suzuki-san wanted me to come out with them to the Ohtawara Temple to ring in the new year Japanese-style.

Well... when in Rome... I would be hitting on some hot looking Italian girls on Vespa's, but I'm in Japan, so why not.

Still... if that babe Kristine was closer in distance than 500 kilometers away, I would have dropped these two funny guys like a bowl of natto (rotting, fermented soy beans... which I actually grew to love and will order it at restaurants just to surprise the owners... and to eat it with a smile... something apparently no other gaijin would dare to do).... but dammit... Kristine.... yes... I would have dumped Ashley in a second if Kristine gave me the okey-dokey to come and visit her (she did... but... I have no idea why I didn't. Chicken. Too nice a guy... too stupid a guy).

Despite the cool breeze blowing, it was a nice night... and for guys like myself and native New Yorker Matthew, a little bit of snow and a bit of chill in the air ain't nothing to complain about.

We walked from my apartment a short distance... I had been living in Ohatawara for about four months now... and even then I had no clue where I was going... I always needed Matthew or Ashley to guide me around so I wouldn't get lost....

But Suzuki-san, without any prompting, told me would were going to Koushin-ji (ji means 'temple), which was in downtown Ohtawara near the AiAi town grocery store - the one I didn't frequent at all, for some reason.

As we walk onto the temple grounds, the first thing I notice is that the snow has been removed from the walkways, and that there is a light glow about the place from some low watt fires burning throughout the facility... torches... like it must have been lit hundreds of years ago when the place was first built.

The place is packed with people... it's like the entire city of Ohtawara-shi has shown up... as though this is actually an important event or something... but it's not really New Year's Eve in Japan, is it?

I don't see any temple monks around... just people... dressed warmly... but I did hear a growing rustling in the crowd... indistinguishable at first from the sound of gortex suits rubbing against one another... but it got louder and louder:

"an-do-ryu-sensei, An-do-ryu-sensie, AN-do-ryu-sensie; AN-Do-ryu-sensei; AN-DO-ryu-sensei: AN-DO-RYU SENSEI!"

Hey! That's me! Andrew-teacher!

When a crowd of people chants your name, you turn around and smile and wave... so I did... tossing in a few bows, because this is Japan, after all. My adoring crowd of admirers were my students, who told their parents who I was and all of whom were smiling and waving and bowing at me... like I said... Ohtawara-shi... inside its borders... these were my people.

I guess now - 25 years later - the equally popular Matthew - if not more popular - just had misfortune to be at the temple at just that moment in time when my students were there.

Suzuki-san explains to Matthew and myself that on this evening, the townsfolk make a pilgrimage to the temple to pray for good luck in the upcoming year.

So the Japanese DO celebrate the new year now!

Apparently one is supposed to make a small financial donation, clap your hands, pray silently and then ring the temple bell. From what I understood, the bell ringing is to wake the gods up to hear your prayer... but I would think it would be better to ring the bell first - wakey-wakey - and then pray... but who am I to upset hundreds if not thousands of years of Japanese tradition that is obviously wrong in how it prays to its gods.

Anyhow... I want good luck for 1991, just as I assume I would in 2015... so I walk up the steps toward the huge bell (here's an image of the bell from a time when it wasn't snowing or cold).

The crowd grows quiet... probably want to see how I'm going to screw up this Japanese tradition...

Matthew and Suzuki-san walked beside me... so I guess it's okay for two Christian blokes and a wacky Japanese guy to be up here in a Buddhist temple to pray to gods we don't believe in... but... when in Ohtawara-shi...

It's funny... but as I walked up the steps... a small part of me wasn't sure I belonged up here... like what I was doing was sacrilegious... you know... like how Chewbacca felt standing around while Han Solo got a medal from Princess Leia and he didn't even though they were both piloting the space craft...

I was about to grab the thick rope attached to the bell when Suzuki-san whispered that I should throw in a five-yen coin, and then repeated the steps: clasp my hands together like I was praying, close my eyes and lower my head slightly; pray; and then pull the rope.

All I heard was lather, rinse, repeat.

I had my Hanshin Tigers coin purse with me... let's see... I've got five one-yen coins... I hate those coins... can't do anything with them... so I toss them into the brass prayer vase that was holding all the coins for the gods this evening.

As I did so, the crowd sucked in a ton of air, causing many a nearby flaming torch to go out.

Gaijin faux pas. My bad.

Suzuki-san explained my gaff to me, occasionally using the term 'bakayaro' (stupid idiot) a few times while turning to bow to the crowd behind me...

Oh... you don't just offer up five yen in coins... you have to offer up a five-yen coin... the ones with the hole in them.... otherwise the gods won't listen to you... like they would understand my English prayer anyway...

On the plus side, I did get rid of a bunch of those useless one-yen coins... so the year is looking good already.

I pull out a five-yen coin and am about to toss it in, when Suzuki-san gently wrenches my hand and says 'bakayaro' one more time, but smiles at me to say, 'no... don't worry... the gods don''t listen to gaijin foreigners... didn't I explain that word before?) anyway, so save your money.'

Okay... he just gave me a look... you know... a squint and the pushing up of the lower lip hard into the upper lip, while shaking your head.

So I clasped my hands together, prayed and pulled the bell's rope ringing the 1,875-kilogram bell. It was loud! Are you sure I shouldn't have rung the bell first and then prayed? Oh yeah... gaijin... whatever... I got to save five-yen!

The bellsssss... the bellssss... and another beautiful grey sky in it's almost never sunny in Ohtawara-shi.
Done with Japanese traditions for the year, I moved to the right and began walking away--to applause.

I was getting a standing ovation - probably because there were no seats - but people seemed to appreciate my effort.

I turned and watched Suzuki-san toss in five one yen coins and do his thing. His coins toss was followed by a chorus of "Yata (hurray!)" as everyone suddenly realized that using one yen coins was just as good as using a five-yen coin!

In Japan, no one really cares for the one-yen coin, which is the monetary equivalent of Cdn $0.0000969913.

And five yen... apparently the Japanese gods aren't as greedy as the other gods I hang out with. (I don't hang out with gods because they are too cool to be seen with me.)

Anyhow... fashion trends be damned... I may have started something new here in Japan with the one-yen coins.

And... in Japan... this IS a big thing.

Japan isn't known for trying new things. If I was to show the Japanese the greatest thing since sliced bread, they would suck in air between their teeth and try and find a nice way to suggest that the old way they've been doing things is still the best way, sliced bread be damned.

They prefer rice, anyhow.

As for ringing the bell... well, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings... according to that Jimmy Stewart movie I swiped this blog title from.

As a heads up... I had always planned that when I got to the end of the Noboko and Andrew story, well... that would be the end of this blog.

It was only supposed to be 100 entries long when I started it... so maybe... just maybe... nothing is carved in stone.... except all those things actually carved in stone, of course. We'll see...

And... because we all need to know, the Japanese celebrate the New Year on January 1 - and have done so since 1873... and is known as Ganjitsu (元日). So... this year... 2015... is the Year of the Sheep.

Now... before 1873, Japan followed the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese calendar, and thus the new year of The Sheep would not actually begin until (in 2015)  February 19, 2015 and ending on February 7, 2016... so depending if it's out with the old and in with the new, you can say baa-baa to the old year now... or wait a couple of months. 

You can see why I was confused... though Google as a number had been around for a while (a one followed by a hundred zeroes), as a way of finding stuff on the still not known internet back in 1991, it was a no-go for me.

So... on New Year's Eve... December 31... at midnight... the Buddhsit temples all over the country of Japan ring their bells 108 times. It is known as joyanokane (除夜の鐘) and is meant to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief.

The bell ringing is to rid the world (Japanese world) of the 108 worldly desires regarding sense and feeling in every Japanese citizen. This, by the way, is when the temple monks come out to do their work... preferring to either pray in silence until such time as they are needed, or to stay inside where it is warm.

It's the Year of the Sheep... though personally, I can't wait until shearing time when you can finally see them naked.
On that note, Happy 2015 everyone.

Andrew Joseph


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    1. hi andrew sensei who has been in japan since i dont know when.
      im interested in your blog since i myself will go studying in japan next april. well, just for reference since this will be the first time i'm going outside my homeland. im expecting your 'instructive' post lol.
      korekara yoroshiku onegaishimasu ne ^^.
      well, one thing i want to ask you, im now quite confused about laptop. im thinking about buying new one but im troubled where to buy, whether in japan or here (indonesia).
      heard the ones in japan have different os and keyboard, but will that hinder my study if i buy one in my country? knowing they have hiragana keyboard while here is the qwerty keyboard. what if i need to make paper or something ?
      well, aside from that, i'll have the blog bookmarked ^^

    2. Hi Vincent - Good questions.
      First - I'm not in Japan anymore... so my knowledge on computer-related material may not be accurate...
      BUT... I do know that ages ago, the Japanese had regular Qwerty keyboards... and that they would type out the Japanese letters R - Y - U and then hit another button and it could be converted to kanji...
      I think you can easily set ANY computer system to any language you want - but let me ask a friend - and I'll get back to you HERE.

    3. Hi Vincent, I asked my friend, Mike, in Japan who is an American of Japanese descent... he is now living in Japan. He says:

      "I think if he buys a Mac at home he'll be ok anywhere. He'll use it for his native language mostly (even if he studies Japanese) so he'll want his language OS for future software updates, etc.
      I think a Japanese OS will be troublesome for him if he has PC trouble. I have a Japanese OS and often cannot understand instructions because they are in Japanese. His language OS is best."

      In other words, Vincent - buy your computer in Indonesia.

  2. hi andrew, thanks for the reply and suggestion.
    its fixed then, i'll just buy it here.
    anyway, keep posting your blog, i find the blog very appealing :D.

    1. God, i could swear that reading this blog almost like reading novel. especially the part with noboko o.O. especially with my almost zero romance experience and whole 17 years (from kindergarten till high school) straight in one school. plus my anxiety of going to another country for the first time.

      damn. i kinda froze on my lack of social experience

    2. Vincent... I had ZERO social experience until I went to Japan at the age of nearly 26. I had dated one woman seriously - but it was just over two summers, and it never amounted to more than kissing and cuddling and just being friends.
      One school is interesting, but so what?
      You ant a social experience? You're are at least looking to try something different.
      Forget MY experiences! I was lucky (and unlucky), but luckier than MOST people. Just go and have your OWN experiences, learn from the bad, don't get too HIGH on the good ones, learn as much as you can about everything you want to learn about and even about things you DON'T want to learn about.
      Talk to every one. Do it over a drink, because that's when Japanese people open up. Learn. Enjoy. Share.
      Talk to you later :)