Here’s my take on the Japanese o-shōgatsu (お正月, New Year’s) holiday week: I am, like, so ecstatic the whole thing is over.
For me, o-shogatsu means family gatherings, shinen no goaisatsu (新年のごあいさつ, exchange of New Year’s greetings), endless preparations of huge, elaborate osechi (おせち, ritualized New Year’s food dishes), monumental loads of washing up, and having to part with one’s hard-earned cash in the form of o-toshidama (お年玉, New Year’s allowance) distributed to legions of nephews, nieces, second cousins and the occasional, timely new-born (blessed are the sibling-less during the holiday season). The entire package never ceases to leave me feeling suicidal and wanting to quote Karl Marx . . . something about the number of females powering the kitchen being unequal to the number of large males lolling in front of a television screen bigger than my bathroom, all swigging beer and clamoring to be fed.
But the nightmare is over and I am a free woman . . . for another 12 months, anyway.
My grandmother used to say she didn’t want to die in January because it’ll look like o-shogatsu killed her. She also said that compared to ekiden (駅伝, marathon relay) runners, working long hours in the holiday-season kitchen was nothing — “konnano kurou towa ienai (こんなの苦労とは言えない, you can’t call this suffering)” — and she would proceed to plunge her red, raw hands into a bowl of ice cold water where prawns had been left to defrost, to shell each one before deep-frying them. (Cooking tip: Do not microwave frozen prawns to defrost them; it will damage the texture and flavor [Grandma’s advice, not mine].)
At some point I would pop into the living room to check on the ekiden on TV and steal a treat before my brothers demolished them entirely — then return to the kitchen, where the scant female members of the family continued to toil. Frankly, the suffering in the kitchen and on asphalt seemed about equal, but at least the guys on TV had the whole nation cheering them on.
Ekiden is a quintessential Japanese sport: It’s long, it’s hard, it’s done as a team and it’s aggressively jimi (地味, unglamorous). The formal English translation is “road relay” or “marathon relay,” but the phrase has crossed the Pacific to appear in a number of dictionaries. Ekiden has a history of some 1,000 years. The first ekiden runners carried messages from the Emperor in Kyoto to various parts of Japan, and many died in the process. In 1917, ekiden became a sponsored and media-publicized sports event, and the runners — bowing to tradition — started off from Sanjo Ohashi (三条大橋) in Kyoto and reached Ueno, Tokyo, after two and a half days and a distance of 508 km.
Currently, the Hakone Ekiden (箱根駅伝）is the most popular ekiden event — and a must-see o-shogatsu pastime. Every shōgatsu futsuka mikka (正月２日３日, Jan. 2 and 3), 20 universities in the Kanto（関東）region bring their best runners to race a total distance of more than 200 km, starting from Otemachi (大手町) in Tokyo and stretching to Lake Ashinoko （芦ノ湖）in Hakone and back to the city. Hakone is mountainous, and the best and most experienced runners are given the most difficult stages, such as lung-ripping 10-km sprints up torturously steep hills.
On the whole, the Japanese are pretty athletic, but even people who have never run in their lives love to lose themselves in the low-profile romance of the Hakone Ekiden.
In my family, the event has always been on par with a particularly religious experience (St. Paul traveling to Damascus comes to mind), and it’s certainly the closest my brothers ever got to God. Through the years, they’ve all sat glued to the TV screen — shouting, groaning, cheering. Or more often, just silently and sincerely praying.
Personally, I’ve always suspected the Hakone Ekiden is held the day after New Year’s to goad us all into guilt-induced stoicism. After the mochi (餅, sticky rice cake), osechi feasts and many, many rounds of beers, the ekiden jolts us back to reality as those skinny guys clad in shorts and tank tops in sub-zero temperatures, moving up mountain paths at speeds of less than 3 minutes per kilometer. It’s no wonder a daily regimen of running is on the national priority list of shinnen no hōfu (新年の抱負 New Year’s resolutions), along with yaseru (やせる, weight loss) and gaikokugo wo masutā suru (外国語をマスターする, master a foreign language).
As for myself, I’m off to celebrate my liberation from o-shogatsu on the sofa, with a secretly hoarded box of chocolates. Akemashite omedetougozaimsu (皆さん、明けましておめでとうございます Happy New Year, everyone)!”?
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