"OK, this is a Buddhist temple, so you don't clap your hands. You only do that at a Shinto shrine, since no particular spirit lives in a Buddhist temple."
Master Right is instructing me on the finer points of religious etiquette. He went to a Shinto university, where all freshmen train in the novitiate, no matter what they go on to study. Like most Japanese, he's not particularly religious, but he is a stickler for good manners. If you’re going to pray, pray right.
I ask him to explain. “Well…Buddhism is more a philosophy rather than a creed. You don’t really worship anything; you just pray, like, in general. Shinto is an animist religion, though. The congregation enshrines a totem of their local god inside. He—or she—is actually there. "
"Now, think of gods as important people you want to get a meeting with. They’re self-absorbed, and won’t notice little old you. So before you pray, clap your hands loudly to attract their attention. Or burn some incense. That really gets up their noses.”
I swallow my atheist principles once every 12 months, and participate in the religious rituals of ganjitsu. Shared rituals have become especially important for us over the last two years, since we’ve been doing our relationship long-distance. In James Joyce’s words, they become the little sacraments of everyday life.
One of the joys of couplehood is discovering, after a time, that you’ve developed a We Always.
You know. Nancy and I always pick up a cinnamon bun when we walk the dog. John and I always visit my cousin Mildred and her husband Bob in the summer. Melanie always makes me put the star on top of the Christmas tree. Linda always gives Cole a cigarette case on opening night. Jeff and Steve always make popcorn and watch Letterman.
Master Right and I always visit our old neighbourhood for New Year’s Eve, to do the shrine-and-temple circuit. Atago, near Tokyo’s embassy district just outside the Palace gates, is absolutely filthy with places of worship.
As I said, the Japanese aren’t particularly religious. But, of course, that doesn’t mean they’re not superstitious. In the east, new year celebrations focus on good fortune for the coming twelve months.
And when it comes to luck, most Asians take Pascal’s wager. The shrines are packed. The atmosphere is festive, social and optimistic.
Here’s what We Always do.
9.00 pm Eat soba at local cheap ’n’ cheerful
Eat noodles on New Year’s Eve, and you’ll live a life that's long, like a noodle. If you're going to hold a superstition, make it an easy one.
10.00 pm Drop off last year’s good luck charms
One of the best ways to get god’s attention is through his nose. So, deposit the good luck charms bought last year on a bonfire, along with wishes for the new year scribbled on cedar boards and sticks, and let the smoke waft its way into god’s head. He might sneeze some good luck in your direction.
10.15 pm Obtain government-issue wish-balloon
Shinto lay claim to the big icons of religious tourism in Japan—the Meiji shrine, Asakusa, Himeji—but one of the biggest and most popular churches in Tokyo is actually a Buddhist temple.
Zozoji is the St Patrick’s Cathedral of Japanese Buddhism, just down the road from Atago. President Ulysses S. Grant planted a cedar in the grounds when he visited Japan in the 1880s; the first President Bush did the same a century later, during a visit when he famously ralphed over Prime Minister Miyazawa.
Now, the Buddhists don’t want to stuff anything up a god’s nostril. You just kinda release your wish to the universe. At Zozoji, that takes the form of writing it on a card, putting it in a helium balloon, and letting it float away on the stroke of midnight.
The Minato City Ward gives away these balloons for free, but being an instrument of Japanese government, demands a complex series of procedures to get one. Wish cards distributed between 8.30 and 10.30. Balloons distributed 10.30 to 11.30. Wishes attached to string with official wish-widget in designated wish-attaching area no earlier than 10.45. Boy Scouts are on hand to help with tying the string. Say bye to your zen vibe.
10.45 pm Resist takoyaki.
No festival in Japan is complete without street stalls selling takoyaki; fried, battered octopus balls. You slop some rice-batter into a muffin-tin griddle, pop a slice of tentacle in the centre, and flip them halfway through with a special fork so that the octopus is completely sealed on the inside.
I have never been able to eat one properly. It’s kind of like Baked Alaska in reverse: when the outside cools down enough to eat, the rubbery tentacle is still piping hot. Think of biting into a potato in a stew. Takoyaki are everywhere. Master Right is tempted. I nix the idea.
10.47 pm Diss the Red and White Song Contest
Next to Zozoji sits the Tokyo Prince Hotel, a time capsule from the 1964 Olympics. In their splendid Garden Islands Beer Restaurant, neatly groomed waiters pour generous drinks as revellers watch the 57th annual Kohaku Uta Gassen (The Red and White Song Contest)
Kohaku is a national institution which, in its day, captured over 80% of all television viewers in the country. The (putative) most popular vocal artists of the year are invited to NHK Hall, and divided into male (white) and female (red) teams. Over the course of four syrupy hours, they sing their hearts out for Nation and Emperor.
Kohaku makes the Eurovision Song Contest look like Philip Glass. Several of the (truly) most popular acts in the country declined the invitation because, well, the whole thing reeks of cheese.
Now, you gotta sit up and take notice when a Japanese celebrity thinks something is too tacky to do on television.
We arrived as co-host Masahiro Nakai of SMAP was introducing the next act. (Ah, SMAP! With members in their mid to late 30’s, SMAP is no longer a boy band, but not quite a man-band.)
We were just in time for enka legend Yoshimi Tendo. If the Kohaku is cheesy, Tendo-san is gorgonzola. The pic at the right comes from her website. Judging by the gallery, she's a fag hag of the highest order.
A cross between Elizabeth Taylor, Roseanne Barr and Doraemon, she’s one of those females who, it seems, dresses like a drag queen with the misguided notion that it looks feminine. (By the way, several real drag queens have sung the Red-and-White. They always play for the Red team.)
On her 30th anniversary in show business, she granted a rare interview which, with an eye on the key enka demographic of elderly housewives, revealed her favourite hobby was cleaning the house.
“She’s very popular with the gay community,” said Master Right. “I’m so ashamed.”
11.45 pm Nearly lose balloon in beer garden roof.
Luckily, my reflexes were quick enough to catch it. Even after a few generous beers.
12.00 midnight. Release wishes to the universe
In the grounds of Zozoji, the Mayoress of Minato City counts down the last seconds of 2006. Kyu…hachi…nana…rokku…go…shi…san…ni…itch…zero! And with thousands of others, Master Right and I release our wishes to the universe.
An American lady standing next to me revealed that she had wished for world peace. I tried to explain that New Year in the East takes a more Confucian outlook. That is, show me the money.
We high tail it out of there fast. As soon as the balloons dissipate, the monks begin to peal a large bell, each clang around five seconds apart. They do this one-hundred and eight tedious times, to atone for the one-hundred and eight stupidities we all commit before we become enlightened. If you exceed your lifetime stupidity quota, you'll start from scratch again in the next life until you get it right. Being a Buddhist ain't all beer and skittles.
12.05 am Elevator to mountaintop
Now it’s the Shinto turn. A quick walk to Mt. Atago, or more correctly, Atagoyama.
Few people realize it, but you can find an extinct volcano in the centre of Tokyo. Few know of this steep-sided outcrop, since it’s now surrounded by buildings which dwarf it—Master Right and I used to live in one of them.
On top of Mt. Atago rests a charming oasis. A quiet garden—zen in abundance—surrounding a modest church. It is Atagojinja, a Shinto shrine.
Ours is one of three Atago shrines in Japan. The kanji for these various atagos refer to love and intimacy. The most famous of these, overlooking Kyoto, does a healthy business blessing relationships. The Tokyo version stays a little more demure.
It may look modest, but looks deceive. If Zozoji is the Tokyo equivalent of St. Pat’s on 5th for Buddhists, then Atagojinja is St. Bart’s on Park. A very establishment congregation; Right keeps pointing out his customers’ names on several of the newly reconstructed steps. This is the equivalent of naming a pew.
A business-class congregation
The steps are nowadays largely ornamental—they’re so steep, few congregants can climb them. Samurai wishing to prove their machismo would, from time to time, ride horses up the steps. Most
attempts proved foolhardy. A friendly property developer endowed the church with its own elevator, which Master Right and I rode to the top.
The claps here are muted, and the prayers, no doubt, involve high stakes. The requisite hefty donation earns you a post-prayer sake in its own cedar cup. More sake is imbibed in the churchyard.
If you’re one of the foreign residents, you’ll smuggle in some bubbly. Bringing your own wine is a good policy most places in Japan. Wine hasn't been adopted as a normal part of Japanese life, even after many years of global influence on cuisine and drink. Atagojinja celebrated its 400th anniverary recently. To commemorate, the sophisticated, worldly congregation decided to bottle a special vintage of wine. I picked up a bottle of the red, and asked the lady behind the counter what kind of wine it was. She seemed confused.
"You know...the variety. Is it cabernet wine? Is it shiraz wine? Is it malbec wine?" The parishioner behind the counter confessed that she didn't know, and excused herself to ask a colleague.
She returned some minutes later, wearing a smile. She'd found the answer. "It's Suntory wine," she said.
You'll be pleased to hear that this year, Master Right brought some very, very nice sake noveau.
The hard way, and the easy way
No matter what you choose to drink, you drink until the new year good cheer carries you away.
1.00 am Home to bed.
Akemashite Omedetoh Gozaimasu!