Travel

New Year's Eve in Hiroshima: A silent night, a crowded morning

by Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello

Contributing Writer

I can’t quite believe we’re doing this. It’s dark and freezing outside, and we only went to bed three hours ago. Yet here we are, walking streets so quiet you can hear the mice snore. It’s New Year’s Eve, but there’s not a carouser in sight. Here, as in most of Japan, in the darkness beyond the big city glow, tonight is a time for reflection and tradition.

Traditions like hatsuhinode — watching the first sunrise of the new year, preferably from a place of natural beauty. Which is why we’re up so early.

The sun won’t be up for another hour, ample time to clamber up Mount Futaba, a 140-meter hill overlooking the Hiroshima suburb of Ushita. All over Japan this morning, popular viewing sites will be packed with sunrise-watchers. Modest Futaba, on the other hand, will be deserted, hopefully. Just us two, and that silver Peace Pagoda, visible from all over town, accompanied by sublime views of the Seto Inland Sea. Perfect for some solitary communion with the sunrise.

A band of silvery-gray light is spreading over the eastern sky, enough to illuminate the footpath up the mountain. The first part is easy, with a causeway of 100 wooden torii cutting a bright orange swathe through the dense evergreen foliage. Then it gets trickier, as we stumble up a steep, narrow path through the forested hillside.

At the top, we find at least 100 others already assembled. So much for solitude. Some older men stand warming their hands at a crackling bonfire. Two miniskirt-clad girls gaze enviously at the flames while their floppy-haired boyfriends ignore them and smoke cigarettes. An elderly lady sells green tea and mochi rice cakes from a stall, as incense wafts across from an altar below the Peace Pagoda.

“The sun will appear at any moment,” predicts a man with a megaphone.

As the silvery band of light broadens, ghostly islands emerge out of the sea like crested dragons, while the streetlamps of the sleeping city below us twinkle like lights on a Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the sound of drums and chanting voices shatters the calm. Enter an orange-robed Buddhist priest followed by a flock of five. None pay any attention. The crowd is more concerned with the spoilsport band of cloud that has just settled like a dirty scarf over the distant mountains where the sun ought to be. What if the unthinkable occurs and, with all these people waiting for the year’s first sunrise, the sun doesn’t show up?

But then, quite magically, like a curtain parting on a cosmic stage, the perfect red ball of the sun melts through the frozen clouds. The crowd gasps. In an instant, the sea turns from shark-gray to shimmering liquid gold. The drumming and wailing reach as much of a crescendo as five people can achieve. Megaphone Man announces that the sun has indeed come up. Everyone throws their hands in the air and gives three hearty shouts of “Banzai!” followed by a polite round of applause.

And with that, it’s all over. Within five minutes everyone’s gone home or, more likely, to their favorite shrine, for the first visit of the new year. All over Japan, millions are doing the same: Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine alone will receive some 3 million visitors this morning.

Back on Mount Futaba, as the sun warms the hillside, the dream-like moment of gray and gold has faded. Now, as Jean Anouilh puts it in “Antigone,” “It’s like a postcard, all pink and green and yellow.”

If you, too, fancy starting your new year on a powerful surge of awe, just get out and see the sunrise on that first day of January.