It has become a Japanese New Year’s Eve tradition for me to go on a celebratory bus tour with Saki and Masako (and fifty-odd other well-lubricated revelers). Typically we leave Tokyo in late afternoon or early evening, merge onto the crowded highway, en route to our first (and arguably most important) destination, the service area pee stop. There will be at least a couple of those along the way, as the median age of the group is well into the, um, golden years. By midnight or thereabouts, we arrive at a temple or shrine, to bow our heads in supplication to the pantheon of Japanese gods for a happy upcoming year, and to divest ourselves of five-yen coin offerings wherever an opportunity presents itself. At the appointed time, we make our way back to the bus, bound for the coast to freeze our butts off awaiting the first sunrise of the year.
This year we went to Ise Jingu, several hours drive south of Tokyo, near the bustling port city of Nagoya. It is said to be the home of Yata no Kagami, the Sacred Mirror, one of the holiest of Shinto relics. The mirror is not for mere mortals to see, however, as it reflects capital-T Truth, and as highly regarded Western Lama Jack Nicholson once observed, “You can’t handle the truth!” The shrine dates back at least fifteen hundred years (although some estimates place its beginnings as early as a couple of centuries BC), and it is faithfully reconstructed every twenty years. There are two building sites adjacent to one another, and the shrine alternates between the two; the new building is completed before the old one is torn down to ensure a seamless transition of the deity within. The next rebuilding will take place in 2013.
Note: if you click on the pictures, wait until they reload, and then click on them again, you can see quite a large high-res version, perhaps four times the size you see here.
The village adjacent to Ise Jingu stays open until the wee hours, offering food, incense, charms, and various handcrafts (thankfully, no cheesy T-shirts). One shop that caught my fancy had a selection of colored thread or string, intricately woven into watchbands, belts, toys and charms:
The food was pretty amazing as well, especially the fish. The happy guy pictured here is grilling smallish silvery fish in their entirety. You eat the head, the tail, the fins, even the bones. He cuts them into pieces with heavy-duty scissors, and puts them on a plate, upon which customers descend in a decidedly un-Japanese feeding frenzy:
In the morning, a cloud bank hung on the horizon, and it seemed unlikely that we would get to see the sunrise. But my luck held out (I am batting 1000 thus far), and the juxtaposing of sun and clouds made for a dramatic and auspicious beginning to the New Year: