Dec 18, 2007

Bonenkai and preparing for the New Year

The end of the year is fast approaching. The Japanese have a tradition of preparing for the new year by cleaning and settling up so that one can begin the new year with a clean slate.

One such tradition is Bonenkai ("forget the past year" parties). The idea behind Bonenkai is to hold a party where lots of food and plenty of alcohol are served, to help wash away all the unpleasantness of the past year, review accomplishments and begin the new year with a clean slate. Bonenkai are a must for every work group. There may be parties for one department, the whole company, clients, etc. Options for these parties range from snack food and drinks to lavish social gatherings on a cruise ship sailing around the Sumida River in Tokyo complete with live music and dancing. There may be parties for other groups as well, such as judo or chess clubs or former classmates.

Another tradition is O-soji (big cleaning). According to ancient belief, Toshigami (God of the Year) visits every home at New Year's, so many preparations are devoted to being ready to receive him. These preparations include paying off debts, saying you’re sorry to mend relationships, and thoroughly cleaning the house, office, or classroom. Floors and walls are scrubbed, rooms and desks are tidied, and borrowed items are returned. School children always clean their school, but for o-soji they make a game of running across the floors pushing damp towels with their hands.

By mid-December people are busy addressing nengajo (New Year's postcards) to send to business associates and clients as well as friends and family. They are available in a great variety of styles, like American Christmas cards. Creative or ambitious people make their own. All postcards dropped off at the Post Office by a specified date are delivered on New Year's morning by an army of temporary workers hired for this one special day. It takes an army: four billion nengajo are sent annually. To add to the excitement, the Post Office prints cards with lottery numbers on one side and a blank side to be decorated by the sender. A lottery drawing is televised in mid-January, with thousands of prizes awarded.

Most stores close for several days at New Year's, so in the days before refrigeration a variety of preserved foods became part of traditional New Year's meals. The most important of these is mochi, or pounded glutinous rice. Mochi will keep for several days and is also tasty grilled. These days it is possible to buy mochi at the grocery store or to make it with an electric pounding appliance, but the very best mochi is made the old-fashioned way: hot steamy rice is put in a heavy wooden or granite usu (mortar) and pounded with a large wooden kine (pestle or mallet). Rice has been the most important crop in Japan for centuries, the key to prosperity and a full belly, and pounding rice brings out its sacred essence. The final result is a soft, smooth, and chewy dough-like glob that is pinched into small balls. It may be filled with sweet bean paste, dropped like dumplings into soup, or used in a hundred other ways (depending on the region). Mochituski (mochi pounding) is a family or community event, with people taking turns at pounding, while another person with courage and care reaches into the bowl between hits to turn the rice.

The final act of wiping the slate clean is played out at Buddhist temples all over the country, starting before midnight on December 31. In a ceremony called Joya no Kane, temple bells are rung one hundred and eight times to welcome the new year and obliterate the sins or troublesome desires of the past year. One explanation of this precise number is that, according to Buddhist teaching, there are six senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and cognition; these have three natures: good, bad, and neutral. Each of these 18 attributes has both positive and negative aspects that can exist in the past, present, or future. Thus you have 6 × 3 × 2 × 3 or 108 reasons to toll the bell. People visit the temple grounds before midnight to watch and listen, or maybe be invited to climb a ladder to take a turn striking the huge iron bell. Those who prefer a televised ceremony from the warmth of their home can watch a team of thirty monks toll the seventy-four-ton bell at the Chion-in Temple in Kyoto. At some temples, people go to get a piece of string to be lit at the temple fires to take home and light the home fires for New Year’s day. The string must be twirled all the way home to keep it lit.

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