“What’s it like living in the future?” When my friends back home in the U.S. realize Japan is a day ahead of them, they can’t help but ask this question.
I usually respond with an overly detailed account of living in a nightmarish dystopia similar to something you’d see in “Blade Runner,” or give them questionable gambling advice, like “Take out a second mortgage and put it all on the Lions to cover the spread. Trust me.”
But the reality is, living a day ahead of friends and family adds a conceptual distance to the very real miles between us, and celebrating New Year’s in Japan only serves to amplify how far we are from yesterday. The month of bōnenkai (literally, “forget-the-year parties”) preceding the holiday are a gauntlet of obligatory drinking with coworkers, friends and . . . whoever that guy was — wait, who was that guy anyway? No matter, forgetting is the whole point.
Here, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are to be kept strictly separated in both thought and action. But just as the crescendo of bōnenkai season seems to be leading up to a spectacular New Year’s celebration, people simply pack up and head home for the holidays.
Japanese New Year’s is a decidedly family affair. If you can’t find a family to invite you in from the streets for a bowl of soba, you can head to a nearby temple to ring the bell (not bad) or a rowdy club full of expats, downing drinks at the bar (shudder).
Which is why it’s so important to find the right group of friends — friends who will make a point to gather on a cold New Year’s Eve with a fellow orphan of distance. Friends who find themselves, like you, far from their homes and families, caught between two worlds.
For me, those friends are Okinawans. If I’m in Tokyo for the New Year’s holiday, I make sure to spend it with them. With my Okinawan friends I find the perfect balance of Japanese and foreign sensibilities.
Like Americans, the Okinawans are particularly skilled at improvising. Exceed the number of people you have down for a restaurant reservation? New plans are drawn up on the spot. Have to break into separate groups or meet up at another place later? No big deal, it’ll get figured out.
One year, my friend Eriko called. She couldn’t get back home to Okinawa for the holidays, so she had organized an impromptu party with some other Okinawan friends.
Two other friends, Hitomi and Kazue, had practically moved in with Eriko for the holiday. I arrived with a bottle of wine and a perky demeanor, and was greeted by a three-part harmony of “Ake-ome!” (a shortened version of akemashite omedetō gozaimasu, usually said to wish people a happy new year after midnight on Dec. 31). Eriko had made taco rice, which was to be paired with cheap brut champagne.
The TV was tuned in to “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” the yearend musical battle with singing talent roughly equal to that of a high school in rural Oklahoma. There’s a boys’ team and a girls’ team, it was explained, and the audience votes for the winning team at the end of the show.
“But what if neither team is talented enough to win,” I asked.
That’s when I learned about another New Year’s tradition: spending the night off-handedly mocking the acts on stage.
We turned down the TV and got on the Internet to see a cascade of New Year’s celebrations from around the world and did our best to join in with each time zone.
Christmas Island? “Here’s to Christmas and New Year’s!” Wellington? “Look at the fireworks!” Sydney? “Look at the fireworks!”
Then came Tokyo, but we had not fireworks. So, I took action, grabbing pots and pans from the kitchen of my host, as my ancestors had done before me, and passing them to each member of our party.
“Growing up, we used to bang on pots and pans to ring in the new year. We were very poor,” I said, to which my hosts responded with a barrage of personal questions that I deftly ignored.
We turned “Kohaku” up loud for the countdown and waited our turn. As the clock struck 12, Eriko, Kazue and Hitomi banged on those pots and pans like they never had before. Eriko’s downstairs neighbor banged on his ceiling in solidarity, and we knew our celebration was on par with the efforts we’d watched earlier with the volume down.
In the morning, we awoke and got dressed to go to breakfast. Eriko asked if I wanted to go to McDonald’s. I winced, not believing my ears.
“Why, because I’m an American?”
“No!” she replied as the three women started laughing. “Because it’s probably the only thing open.”
Instead, we got a bagel and coffee from a nearby coffee shop, headed for a temple and shuffled in with the masses of people fresh from the stress of family affairs.
After the raucousness of the pots-and-pans melody earlier in the night, the busy yet silent calm of New Year’s at a temple was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the fact that I felt very close with my friends. We were performing this tradition away from homes, together.
So if you get the chance, befriend a few Okinawans. It’ll make your year.