Jan 5, 2009

Welcome to the Year of the Ox

After being up all night on New Year's Eve I boarded a train home to Narita on the morning of the first. It was a mere six hours into the Year of the Ox and car was already crowded. The vehicle only proceeded to get more crowded as the thing went on down the line, accruing bleary-eyed commuters making their way to my suburb.

They were going, of course, to Narita-San, the gigantic temple about a kilometer away from where I'm sitting right now. As one of the largest Buddhist temples in Japan, it is very well-trafficked in January, filling my town with people eager to receive New Year's blessings, get their fortune told, and to go through the rituals surrounding another trip around the sun.

When I got off the train, the normal recorded announcement as to how to get to the airport had been replaced with one welcoming everyone to Narita-San. The crowd got off as one at the station, and all jostled against all. I went back to my apartment, and recovered from the previous night's revelry. A few hours later I got up and joined the crowds. In the dark, the masses had thinned a bit, but were still considerable. A few pictures:

A hawker near the entrance to the temple, yelling out to the crowd about hot hazelnuts and sweet sake. Hazelnuts I've liked for some time, but I tried amazaki, the sweet New Year's variety for the first time yesterday while strolling with a friend. It's much thicker than the normal sort of sake, and somewhat on the lumpy side. Served hot, it makes for an excellent winter drink.

I am a bit unclear as to what, exactly, these things are. I've seen them in several places before, and given that many of them had the kanji for "luck" on them I'd assume that they were some sort of charm or something. Others simply said "Narita-san" on them, and a few bore the kanji for "construction," something that I couldn't really figure out. This was just one of the booths at the base of the temple were all manner of charms, objects, and trinkets were being sold. Not all of them were of traditional or religious nature- there were a number of ball-tossing and air gun games set up as well, which gave the whole place a carnival atmosphere.

The main building of the temple. I've been here a number of times, but mostly at night when it's completely empty, so it was a bit curious seeing the whole place filled with people. Another thing that was new for me, though, was that the main sanctuary was open. I'd only been into the antechamber from which one can view the inner room from behind a glass partition, I'd never gone in the main room of the temple. It was open, though, and filled with people so I thought "What the hell. Why not." So, I took of my shoes and went in.

At first I was a bit self-conscious about it. I was, after all, a foreigner who was not culturally or religiously affiliated with the place. I was also the only foreigner inside the sanctuary, and wondered if I was unconsciously doing something improper or disrespectful. However, I was able to beat such misgivings into submission and sat on the floor and took in the atmosphere of the place. People were sitting silently before the altar which was laden with candles. Incense burned in a few braziers and behind me several people were tossing five yen coins into the offering box and clapping as they made prayers for the New Year.

I stayed there for about half an hour, and did my best to meditate in my own unsupernatural way. Since reading a few sutras, I've actually come to respect Siddhartha Guatauma as a philosopher in much the same way that I've respect, say, Socrates- smart guy, brilliant for his era, and wrong about 30% of the time. But, that's another blog post.

After walking through the temple complex a bit I went back to Narita's main street, and the eel guys were out. Eel, for some reason, is the regional specialty of Narita, because here in Japan absolutely everything has to have a regional specialty. At this particular restaurant, the eel preparation is something of a street performance, and a bloody and smoky one at that. At a table on the street, two guys were grabbing live eels from a bucket of water, driving nails through their heads, and then splitting them open and pulling out their spines and guts in front of appreciative onlookers. Quite captivating to watch actually. The eels are grilled and served right there, at the apogee of freshness.

When I first saw this, I thought about how such a show wouldn't really go over so well in America. Americans (at least liberal city-dwellers such as myself) can be distressingly alienated from the meat they eat. Meat doesn't come from the insides of animals- it comes from packages and cans. A friend of mine even insisted on sitting with her back to the fish tank at a sushi bar once, as she didn't want to be reminded of where her meal came from.

Japan doesn't seem to suffer nearly as badly from this alienation, and I think that's a good thing. The New Year's crowd didn't seem repulsed or put off by the eel guys, at least not that I could tell. Instead, they eagerly bought up freshly grilled sea beasts, with appreciative exclamations of "oishii!"

Lanterns glowing on the main street. The shops and restaurants, even as they were closing, still bustled with visitors. And they're still bustling. I was out again yesterday in the daylight and the whole place hummed. Narita, yes, is always a bit active, what with the airport and all the tourists. But, it's nice to see it buzzing in a different manner. So far, the Year of the Ox is off to a good start.

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