Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holy Days (holidays) in Japan


Hello again. I apologize for taking so long to write. It seems I started writing this blog and then one thing after another came up and I never finished it. Well this lapse in time has proved useful because I am now able to share my experience celebrating Christmas and New Year's in Japan. This is a lengthy blog, but hopefully you'll find it interesting.

The Christmas celebration was kicked off by a class speech day. Every year the missionaries taking Japanese lessons at the local Lutheran Learning Center have to give speeches. All of us new students shuddered in fear when we were first told we'd have to stand up in front of friends and speak Japanese. It turned out all of our fretting was for naught. We all spoke confidently about ourselves, our experience in Japan, and the things we enjoy. It was a great day. Cindy came, along with my pastor Saitou sensei, and another woman from my church Umeda-san.

* I'll pause for a second and give just a little note about the use of the suffix 'san.' In the US we tend to think 'san' means 'mister'--it sounds like 'son' so it must be a masculine term. Actually 'san' is an honorific term, it shows respect to the person being talked to or about. Everyone at my church calls me "Jenifah-san."

The following Sunday (speech day was the Friday before Christmas), I performed my speech at the Christmas lunch. Everyone got to hear me talk about my 8 siblings, 4 nephews and 8 nieces. They all understood me (which above all things is the goal). Even weeks after, people talk to me in reference to the things I said in my speech. They all came to me saying "Jenifah-san, yokata desu ne. Wakarimashita"--Jenifer good job. I understood what you were saying. Unfortunately, I fell sick that day and couldn't enjoy the feast that had been prepared. I was so sick I also missed some of the great stories other people shared, because I needed to go home and rest. Usually the Sunday before Christmas Ichigaya church has a huge lunch after service. Everyone who can brings some delicious food, tells stories about the year or shares a talent, and gifts are exchanged. I was so surprised to receive gifts from people at the church, some of whom I've never talked to. Even as I write this I am overcome with gratefulness for the way people at Ichigaya church have surrounded me. They are my Japanese family.

All of the Christmas services were beautifully decorated, including the Sunday worship before Christmas. There were candles everywhere. I especially liked the two candelabra on the alter each holding maybe twelve red candles--gorgeous.

Christmas Eve services are big celebrations for the churches here. Ichigaya celebrated with a packed night: two services, caroling, and a charity opera concert. I was still sick, but I was not going to miss Christmas Eve service and I'm glad I didn't. The first service was similar to the Sunday prior, a regular worship service with two selections from the choir. However, all of our hymns during that service were Christmas carols. Singing carols during service was perfect for me because it gave me time to practice the songs we would sing as we walked the neighborhood after the first worship service. Between caroling and the charity concert we were served a sweet bean soup with mochi (a chewy rice treat that has no strong flavor, but tastes great in all the ways I've had it so far). This sweet soup was great and perfect for warming us on that cold Christmas eve. The charity concert was amazing. The singers were great. Unfortunately my cold brought with it a furious cough so I had to step out from time to time in order to cough without disturbing the performance. The last event of the evening was a Christmas morning service, that is, a midnight candlelight service. The exciting thing about this service is that it was the first time my friend Maho, a seminary student, got to preach at a worship service. I was so excited to hear her and so proud of her--if only I could understand what her message was about. As you can imagine, I was completely exhausted by the end of the Christmas Eve/morning events. I slept all of Christmas day.

Apparently the Japanese celebrate Christmas, not as a Christian holy day, but as a Western holiday. So they usually eat fried chicken and cake, and go out with their romantic partners. Christmas turns out to be one of the major romantic holidays of the year. Jewelry shops were sold out of many items after Christmas, and not just women's jewelry.

I was glad to have a visitor from the states during my winter break. The two of us had a great time celebrating the new year here in Japan. This visit brought with it personal changes for myself which I will talk about in later posts. For now I'll just tell you about Japanese New Year's festivities.

The coming of a new year is sacred in Japan. It is a time of renewal; a casting off of the ills of the previous year and starting fresh in the new. Although many Japanese claim no allegience to any particular faith or religion, the beginning of the year proves to be a time when all of Japan goes to worship.

In November I'd been told that most people go to a shrine or temple to pray and give offerings on New Year's Day. One woman told me that some people go to the (Buddhist) temple on New Year's Eve and then to the (Shinto) shrine on New Year's Day. Wherever one goes the purpose is to offer up prayers for the new year. So I decided I would also go to one of these places of worship to see what goes on. So on New Year's day I joined the masses heading to the Meiji-Jingu shrine. Now when I say masses, I mean MASSES. It felt like half of Tokyo was at or in the neighborhood surrounding Meiji-Jingu when I got there. It only took us an hour to get up to the front of the shrine where we were sectioned off into groups to go up pray and give an offering. Now this can be very dangerous. I was given a tour of the shrine with the other new missionaries at the begining of December when the place was empty. At that time we were able to walk up to the inner most court yard, where we could see the gashes on the huge wooden doors from people throwing their coin offerings on New Year's Eve/Day. Thankfully I was not hit by any coins during my New Year's visit, but you better believe I covered my head just in case.

Now I said that we only waited an hour as if that was a short wait, because one of our Japanese teachers told us she had tried to visit the Meiji shrine one New Year's Eve one year, and after waiting three hours in line with little progress she decided to leave. So I was pretty happy that it didn't take long to get in and out of the Meiji. After visiting Meiji-Jingu I thought we'd make it over to another shrine Yushima-Tenjin and then head over to a temple in Asakusa (I was very ambitious). Yushima-Tenjin was suggested to us by some members at church. They said it would be particularly interesting because January is the time when students either begin taking or prepare to take entrance exams for universities. Because Yushima-Tenjin was dedicated to a great Japanese scholar, many students go there to pray for academic success. Well, we traveled down there, but were too hungry and tired to stand in the long line (at least three blocks long). Needless to say we also did not make it to the Asakusa temple. One of Japan's most famous temples, both in and outside of the country itself, this temple has a huge lantern at the entrance. It often comes up when searching for images from Japan. I'd been told that people go to the Buddhist temple to ring 108 bells as a symbol of emptying one's self of the 108 human desires (sorry I can't name them all). Having taken a class on Buddhism my last year of seminary I was really anxious to witness this, but my stomach was calling me home.

New Year's is also a family holiday. In Tokyo there are restaurants everywhere, Pachinko slot machine shops are found open night and day, anywhere you go on a normal day there will be some form of entertainment in Tokyo. But the first three to four days of the year the entire country shuts down. Except around shrines and temples Tokyo looked like a ghost town. I've walked my neighborhood after midnight and seen more lights and more people than I saw the entire first week of the new year. This is because everyone was home with their families.

I was blessed to spend January 2 with a family from my church. They were excited to share their celebration of the New Year with me. Our time began with sado Japanese tea ceremony. During the ceremony we drink a powdered green tea that is prepared a special way and drank from what looks like a bowl. The drink is mixed with a bamboo whisk. Before drinking we partake in sweets to off set the bitterness of the tea. Then the tea master (usually if not always a woman) brings out the first serving of tea and hands it to one person. That person must first say thank you to the person who has served them, then turn to the person on his/her left and say something to the effect that they are going to drink this first or "is it alright if I drink before you." After receiving their approval the drinker then raises the dish in a form of thanksgiving to God, brings it back down, turns the dish clockwise and then drinks. When that person has finished the ceremony continues with each person until everyone has drank their own dish of tea. This is a sacred ceremony in Japan and some scholars suggest that it may be connected to the Christian communion ceremony, brought by the first Christians who came to Japan in the 1500's. This notion comes from the cleansing and purification actions taken before the drink is poured; some of the cloths used are folded the same way a celebrant or presider might fold a purification cloth used for similar purposes in communion, for example.

After tea ceremony we had lunch. New Year's lunch (and all food eaten during the New Year celebration) is supposed to symbolize long life and or renewal. For example, New Year's Eve we eat soba noodles because they are long and serve to symbolize long life. So of course during our New Year lunch there were eggs, both for their birth symbolism and because the way they are cooked here the center is an orange color that makes the eggs look red and white. These colors are significant for the Japanese (note the Japanese flag) so New Year's food is put together to display these colors. There was also every kind of meat there is and mochi. I have mostly had mochi as a sweet treat with sweet red beans in the middle, and as described above as a sweet soup, but for New Year's it is served in a chicken soup. I think it is served this way at New Year's for the same reason soba is eaten, when mochi is inside hot liquid it becomes maliable and stretchy. I recall once during a New Year's meal having mochi stretching from the soup bowl to nearly half-way down my throat (this may be a disgusting image to some I apologize). It's that kind of long stretching that one wants from New Year's food set to symbolize long life.

After lunch we wrote out our hopes for the new year. The picture above shows my New Year wish (we in the U.S. call it a resolution) to laugh more this year, especially at myself, to not take things so seriously. I had to practice writing this kanji with brush and ink about 5 or 6 times before the family picked their favorite one. If you look closely and then not so closely you'll notice it sort of looks like a face. I was told to make dramatic strokes so that the kanji looked like a happy laughing face. The lettering down the side of the picture is my name written in katakana. After drawing our wishes we made origami and then I braided the daughters hair. It was the best time I've had in Japan thus far.

This was a very long post so thank you for patiently reading. I hope it was an interesting read. In the next month we will receive our teaching assignments. I am excited and at the same time longing to know my placement.

Prayer Requests:

1) Health: I have had both physical pain and constant battles with colds over the past couple months and even as I write this am suffering from a lingering cough that sometimes causes me to gag. Please pray especially for the irritation in my throat to be removed and for my body to be restored to health.

2) Sleep: I have also over the past month had many disturbing violent dreams that interrupt my sleep. Please pray for my sleep to be sweet (Psalm 4:8) and for whatever is racking my subconscious to come to light and be resolved while I am awake so that I can sleep.

Happy New Year

May the Peace of Christ fill you, the Grace of God keep you, and the Love of Holy Spirit surround and flow out of you to all you meet in this new year.