Festive Season III: New Year’s Eve

February 1, 2007

Good, essays largely out of the way, so I can tell you about my New Year’s celebrations.

After a dinner with some friends (international cuisine – Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China) I went to a Buddhist temple at Daimon with my friend Chin and her sister Yi Shuan, who was visiting from her home in the US, for the countdown to the new year.

Daimon temple

Above you see the entrance to the temple grounds.  You arrive there after a walk of about 50 metres along a road with white paper lanterns hung on the lampposts.  This is quite common for Buddhist temples, it seems – there is quite a long approach from the first gate, throught the second gate, to this, the third gate.

There were plenty of people around, but it wasn’t too squishy inside the temple grounds.  We stood at a place where we could see both the front of the temple, and the video board showing the countdown, and the large bell which would be rung after midnight. 

Before the countdown, the sound system played two youngish Japanese people having a discussion, possibly about what the celebration meant, I don’t know, I couldn’t understand.  Then, at about a quarter to midnight, Japanese musicians began playing traditional music on traditional instruments.  It was dissonant, high-pitched string music (maybe it wasn’t traditional, maybe it was Schoenberg??) and was quite haunting.

But the crowd wasn’t in much of a spiritual mood.  Lots of the Japanese were carrying clear balloons.  Occasionally, someone would get careless and let theirs go – at which everyone would say ‘aaaaaaah’ as it floated away into lower space.   

At one minute to midnight, the countdown began on the video board.  It wasn’t just your usual countdown sequence, with the numbers ticking down.  Here, the lights on the board made crazy patterns, only stopping every ten seconds to flash ’50’, ’40’, ’30’ etc.  The colour and movement worked the crowd into a little frenzy, which gave out excited gasps every time a number flashed.  Then came the final ten seconds, all ticked out by the board.  At ‘zero’, the board flashed, lights went on, balloons spiralled upward, boyfriends and girlfriends kissed, cameras flashed – a really good, happy atmosphere. 

A cold author

In the background there is Tokyo Tower, the Japanese’s answer to the Eiffel Tower and constructed to show the world how proud they were that they had ‘arrived’ as a developed nation.

The ‘western’ half of the night over, now began the more Japanese festivities.  Buddhist priests were standing around an enormous bronze bell at the right-hand side of the temple grounds.  Every few minutes, a family group would ascend the pagoda from which it hung, be blessed by the chief priest, and ram an enormous tree trunk into the side of the bell.  ‘DONG’.  Because of the size of the bell, it continued to vibrate at a low frequency for around thirty seconds after being struck – I could feel the vibrations running along the ground under me.

Meanwhile, hordes of Japanese and foreigners like I and my friends made our way up the path and steps to the temple.  After about twenty minutes to half an hour of slowly walking and frequently stopping, our part of the crowd came to the front of the temple:

Front of the temple

Behind us were the unfortunates who hadn’t been as quick as us:

The crowd of unfortunates

You can see the video board there, way in the background, displaying ‘2007’.  I had been standing near there during the countdown. 

After another ten minutes of waiting, we were able to make our way into the temple.  I didn’t take any picutures in here, but it was quite lovely – beuatifully polished wood and gold finishings, chandelieres, gold statues of the Buddha, etc.  At the front of the inside of the temple, in front of the main alter and about ten metres inside the doors, there was an enormous strip of white plastic sheeting, formed into a square.  Hundreds of Japanese were standing around it, around seven deep, waiting to make their way to the front of the crowd.  Once there, they would throw a five yen coin into the sheeting (which served to collect all of the coins), say a prayer, and then make their way out of a side door. 

I didn’t happen to have any five-yen coins, so I threw in a 500 yen coin, made some wishes for this coming year, and then had another look around the temple.  I was quite beautiful, I will go back there at some stage and take some photos for you. 

After that, the three of us made our way back home, past the crowds.  I’ll leave you with some photos that I took on the way back.

Part of the temple 

Banners

Banners II

Statue of Riberty

Rainbow Bridge

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A better class of hobo

January 23, 2007

On Saturday morning I came in to school to work on some of my essays.  It was quite a cold day.  I suspect the cold was what had encouraged a homeless man in a beanie to buy a train ticket and sleep on one of the comfortable seats in Japan’s subway trains.

(The Oedo line that I catch to school runs in a big circle, which means that Mr Homeless would have been able to buy a ‘one-stop’ ticket and travelled the circle all day before getting out at his destination.)

When I first saw him, he was curled up in the corner of one of the long, bench-like seats that run along the sides of the train carriages.  He was unshaven and dishevelled.

But he had remembered to remove his shoes before placing his feet on the seat.


A good listener

January 14, 2007

No matter how tough and independent we think we are, we all enjoy having a good talk to an old friend.  Getting it all off our chests. 

We appreciate someone who will sit with us while we tell them what happened to us, what we think, and what we plan to do.  Someone who won’t interrupt, or call us a boring fart.  Someone who speaks our language.

Last night, coming back late from a day of study, I decided to get a burger and fries from the Maccas not far from where I stay.  It was very windy and cold.  As I approached the front door, a dishevelled, be-stubbled man wearing a green parka and with a fag in his left hand approached the seat out the front of the store, which – like Maccas everywhere, I suspect – had a smiling, plastic, life-sized Ronald McDonald sitting on it.  Just as I went in, I saw parka-man sit down and start talking to Ronald.

He was still there when I came out, nattering away in Japanese.

And Ronald was still smiling.


The festive season, part 2: Australia comes to Tokyo, via Malaysia

January 12, 2007

On the 25th, after attending Mass in the morning at Roppongi, and then attending class at school (yes – this is Japan, remember!) I returned home and began preparing dinner for eight people.  I had decided to do the traditional Australian thing:  roast beef, with roast vegies, gravy, accompanied by lots of wine.  I’d found a couple of kilos of (non-Aussie) beef at a local grocer’s, as well as all the other ingredients.

So at 4.30pm, I went down to the cooking room to begin. First problem: the instructions for turning on the oven were all in Japanese, and the meanings of the knobs and switches weren’t obvious. I had to call Emiko, my Japanese friend and guest-to-be, to come and help me turn the oven on. Even she had trouble.

In any case, the oven was too small to cook both beef and veggies in, so I had to turn both of the rooms ovens on and cook them separately. After two hours of this, the room was quite warm – just the atmosphere I wanted, to let my friends know what an Australian Christmas is like. I was running from oven to oven to preparation table to stove and back to oven in a ‘Merry Christmas’ short-sleeved shirt with a Santa cap on. I’d drunk quite a few G&Ts to keep my spirits up.

Hot, tipsy, wearing stupid clothes – yep, it was just like an ordinary Australian Christmas.

By 7.30 the food was almost ready, the guests had arrived and were tucking in to the salmon, sour cream and crackers, everyone produced a bottle of wine, and soft jazz music had created a nice atmosphere. Luckily, I wasn’t alone in preparing food.  Jess from Malaysia had prepared fried shrimp patties, a chicken curry, and a delicious noodle dish. So it was an Aussie Christmas with Malaysian characteristics thrown in.

I had a ball.  After the stress of purchasing, planning and preparation, I sat back and enjoyed myself. I think the others did too.  There was plenty of conversation, and we ended up leaving the cooking room at around 11pm.

I’m sorry there are no pictures – in the rush to prepare I forgot to bring my camera. When I grab someone else’s pictures of the night, I’ll post them here.

I hope that your Christmas was similarly enjoyable.


The festive season, part 1: a very Kazakh Christmas

January 7, 2007

On 24 December, my friend Gulnara invited me, Jess and Chin from Malaysia, Emiko the Japanese PhD student on the floor of our dorm, and a number of her Kazakh and Uzbek friends, to celebrate Christmas together.  The venue was the cooking room at our dorm in the Tokyo International Exchange Center, which boasts a couple of gas ovens, a couple of gas stoves, and plenty of tables and chairs.  There was also a white plastic Christmas tree next to the fridge, adding a festive element to an otherwise empty room. 

He is a picture of me sitting (closest to the wine) with a Kazakh woman, Soleya, and an ethnically Russian woman who moved to Kazakhstan but has since married a Japanese man (I can’t remember her name):

Me, with Soleya and a Russian friend of Gulnara

The food was traditional Kazakh.  The main consisted of manti – diced beef with pumpkin or another vegetable, covered in pastry and then steamed, and served covered with a tomato and onion sauce.  It is sort of like a Chinese of Japanese gyoza, only prepared and cooked differently. 

The accompanying dishes were salads and a lovely shredded carrot-garlic-mayonnaise paste, which went well with the manti.  Here is a photo of Gulchakra, Gulnara’s Uzbek friend and fellow GRIPS student, preparing the salads:

Gulchakra showing her culinary talent

Kazakh lunch

The dinner went on from 12pm to around 5pm, Russian dance music (no different to the stuff on video hits, really) providing the ambience.  There were numerous long toasts.  Hasan (the running fanatic) told me an unrepeatable joke about a Scots farmer, a flock of frigid ewes and a range rover, and then said to everyone ‘I think Uzbek sheep are better than Australian sheep’, so my toast recounted the John Macarthur story and was in praise of the Spanish merino.  Almaz, a two-metre Kazakh, said ‘I’ve never said a toast for sheep before’.

The drinking and talking ended at around 7pm.  It was very pleasant to experience a different sort of Christmas, and a happy surprise to find that it was celebrated in such a relaxed atmosphere, and with non-neurotic responsible alcohol consumption, by a group of Muslims.  If only there were more of this relaxed cross-cultural festivity in the world.