Hogmanay (obviously, it's not called that here) was fun. I typically eschew big public New Year parties in favour of cosy nights in with friends or family, and my first Japanese New Year was no exception, as I spent the evening with Marie and her husband. There are an astonishing number of traditions surrounding New Year here, many of them food-based. Below is a list of things I consumed, along with their supposed magical effects. As you can see, there is a charmingly insane kind of logic to this voodoo:
- Noodles. People eat soba at New Year, for longevity. You see, noodles are long, so if you eat them your life will be too. An alternative interpretation is that the buckwheat plants from which soba is made grow pretty much anywhere, so you can inherit their hardiness by consuming them. For some reason, we deviated from the norm by eating ramen (Chinese noodles) instead of soba. They are similarly long and thin, so I should be covered.
- Beans. This one appears to be a simple pun. The Japanese catch-all word for beans, peas and pulses is mame. But mame also means hardworking, so eating beans will clearly make you more productive.
- Prawns. This is probably my favourite piece of tortured superstition logic. Prawns have curved backs, right? So do old people. (As an aside, I've seen a lot of old people with very pronounced stoops around here. I'm not sure why – maybe it's just because Japanese people live so long – but I'm a little worried it has something to do with war-linked malnutrition in their youth.) Thus, prawns symbolise longevity. Therefore, prawns and soba will turn you into a veritable Methuselah.
- Herring roe. This is fairly straightforward: eating eggs will make you fertile. Why it has to be herring eggs as opposed to, say, chicken eggs I don't know. I suppose you can eat a far greater number of herring eggs. Marie said she looked forward to spending future New Years with my resultant big family, and I taught her the English idiom “don't hold your breath”.
- Sake. It was no ordinary sake for the last night of the decade. Oh no. This sake had flakes of real gold floating in it, symbolising prosperity. I'm not sure how canonical this tradition is; I suspect my hosts just enjoyed the big pimpin' atmosphere created by quaffing back tiny pieces of inert precious metal. I know I did.
The entertainment for the night was Kouhaku Uta Gassen (literally, “red and white song battle”), a four-and-a-half hour musical marathon broadcast on NHK, the Japanese equivalent of BBC. This is a national institution in which male and female (white and red, respectively) singers battle for crooning supremacy, as judged by some mysterious combination of a celebrity panel and viewer votes. Appearance is by invitation only, and the line-up was impressive; virtually every mainstream Japanese musical act I've heard of was there, including my male students' favourite, AKB48. Foreigners rarely appear on the show, but this year the red team featured none other than SuBo, embarrassingly.
Due to its campness, pyrotechnics, over-earnest balladery and above all its gruelling length, the show had a very similar feel to the Eurovision Song Contest. As we neared the conclusion, the large amounts of golden sake I'd consumed got the better of me, and I made a wager with Marie about who would win. I was sure that SuBo's might would propel the red team to victory. After some enjoyable trash-talking, I came out 1000yen poorer as the male team bagged their fifth consecutive victory. “Thank you, Finlay-sensei” she said as I handed over the note, her use of the honorific suffix being the first instance of Japanese sarcasm that I've understood.
At midnight people go to a shrine (Shinto place of worship), where the priest rings a big bell 108 times to mark the beginning of the year. My hosts were satisfied to watch the spectacle on TV, but I wanted a piece of the action for real. Marie explained that because she had suffered a bereavement this year, it would be inappropriate for her to go to the shrine. The Japanese take the concept of mourning very seriously, with it being forbidden to be seen to be having any fun following the death of a loved one. However, due to a curious religious loophole, it's acceptable to go to a Buddhist temple while mourning. So that's what we did. There weren't many people there, because everyone was at the shrine, which meant that we were allowed to ring the bell once each. Looking out over snow-covered Akayu from the temple was certainly a memorable way to start the decade.
The following day I got up around noon and had a Skype chat with my parents, who of course were still up despite it being 3am GMT. After that I was doing something mundane like going to the kitchen to put the kettle on, when I felt a sudden excruciating pain in my lower back. I quickly realised that standing was not a viable option, and crumpled to the ground in the manner of someone being unplugged from the Matrix, overturning my sofa as I fell. With a strange presence of mind, I decided that I should get to the toilet, because it might be a while before I'd be able to do that again. I crawled to the lavatory, and sure enough by the time I'd attended to that business (I decided not to pan for gold) my muscles had seized up and rendered me virtually immobile.
This presented me with a problem, because my toilet is outside the heated zone of my house, and there was a blizzard raging outside. I realised that I really had to make it back to the living room one way or another. It took me about ten minutes to cover the couple of metres, dragging myself along with my arms because even crawling was too painful. Once I made it back into the warmth, I lay on the floor for a while and considered my situation. The prawn voodoo had worked too literally, I mused ruefully. I wondered whether my problem was linked to snowboarding two days previously, when I had bailed off a kicker and landed on my tailbone with sufficient force that I actually bounced. It hadn't hurt that much at the time though.
Whatever the cause, I had more pressing concerns to address. I was unable to get food, water or painkillers, and I wasn't sure I had that much kerosene left in my heater. When it became clear that my situation was not improving, I decided to reach for my phone and call the cavalry.
I called my supervisor Hosokawa. While his English is way, way better than my Japanese, it's still far from perfect, and I wasn't sure he'd properly understood the unusual situation I found myself in. So I decided not to take any chances, and called Aoyagi-sensei, an English teacher that I've become quite good friends with. After I helped her out with speech contest preparations, she said I should get in touch if I needed help with anything, and I reasoned that this scenario qualified as me needing help.
They came, sorted me out with food and water, and put anything I might need within arm's reach. I had done well to call Aoyagi, because it turns out she has not one but two nurses in her family, so was able to hook me up with all the medical supplies I could ask for. The thorniest problem was what to do about going to the toilet. In the end she supplied me with empty bottles and adult nappies (from the hospital), neither of which I ended up using, thankfully. Once doped up on painkillers, I was able to crawl slowly to my bathroom.
Some of the painkillers she gave me were not intended for oral administration, if you know what I mean. Apparently that kind of thing is commonplace in this country. I'd never used a suppository before, and it wasn't an opportunity I was relishing. “Think of it like tea ceremony” she encouraged me, “a new, Japanese experience that may be a little uncomfortable”. I decided that this would be my second-to-last resort, before euthanasia.
The next morning they both came to check on me again, bringing me a hearty breakfast of gyuudon. Following a lengthy discussion in Japanese, it was decided that I should go to hospital. After a lot of waiting around on a stretcher, I got an X-ray (interestingly called a rentogen in Japanese, after its inventor Wilhelm Roentgen). Nothing was fractured or dislocated, so there was nothing to do but keep taking the painkillers and wait for it to heal naturally. The doctor also advised me that rectal medication would be the most effective way to treat the pain, so that evening I gave in and cracked out the waxy torpedo. It's not so bad really, and it did relieve the pain better than pills. I'd give it the thumbs-up, so to speak.
So I spent the weekend listening to a lot of podcasts and watching a lot of downloaded TV. Saturday night was an important milestone, as I was able to sit up and thus play BioShock. By yesterday I could walk, albeit it slowly and painfully, and now I'm back at work, functioning normally other than hobbling a bit and occasionally wincing with pain when I attempt to do something like sneeze. Bowing is also a little problematic.
Marie told me that the way you spend January 1st reflects how your fortune will be for the year. I hope she's wrong.
Epilogue: I wrote all that at City Hall, and I'm now back home. The FM transmitter I bought on eBay came the other day, so I drove home with the bass turned up and Shakira and Sophie Ellis-Bextor blaring out of the speakers, like some kind of homosexual ned. I can't tell you how good it sounded to my English-language-pop-starved ears. Also, Lady Gaga just gets better with every song; Bad Romance is excellent.