New Year’s began with an unexpected snowfall on the 31st, the first snow of the winter. I woke up early that morning at about 7:30 to Momo-chan’s voice in the hallway: “Yuki! Yuki futteru yo!” (Snow! It’s snowing!) Momo is from Taiwan and had never seen snow before. She managed to rouse Shisen, also from Taiwan, and Inna from Malaysia; the four of us bundled up over our pajamas and ran outside giggling. “Is the snow in America as white as this snow?” they asked. I couldn’t help laughing. “Yes! Snow looks the same everywhere.” Apparently the spiritual effects of a first snowfall are the same everywhere as well: an old lady walking along smiled broadly and said “Ohayo gozaimasu!” (good morning) to us. I had never been greeted by a stranger here before. We said ohayo gozaimasu in reply too loudly and eagerly in the silent morning.
The snow piled up quickly, and the rest of the day was spent busily returning to childhood. Friends in the dorm woke up one by one to the snow, and we went out to throw snowballs and squeal and make snowmen. Japanese snowmen only use two balls of snow, a body and a head. The shape takes a bit of getting used to, but it does allow one to make more snowmen in less time!
Later, Stacey and Jamie and I shuffled through about six inches of snow to Kyoto’s International Conference Center (famous for being the place where the Kyoto Protocol was signed) and found in its vast park a twilight fairyland of lake and mountainside and forest under snow. We even found a lamppost among the silent, snow-encrusted trees. “Welcome to Narnia!” said Jamie. He was right; I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised in that magical place to meet a little faun with packages under his arm and an umbrella over his head (in the best Japanese tradition—they use umbrellas for any kind of precipitation). As we walked home we noticed snowmen had popped up everywhere! On doorsteps, street corners, in front of shops. German friend Tilo told us how he’d gotten caught in the crossfire of a snowball fight. We saw a family out sledding, even the otou-san (dad). “What’s gotten in to the Japanese people?” we laughed. Everywhere they were out playing.
The fact is the snow just added to an already special season: oshougatsu (New Year’s). New Year’s in Japan is the most important holiday of the year, and rather like a Western Christmas in its focus on family and traditional cooking. I thought I might be homesick at Christmas, but I actually felt it during New Year’s. During Christmas, my dorm-mates and I were all without our families and that brought us closer—we had a lovely Christmas dinner together and though it was different than back home, it was no less special. But during New Year’s, international friends went out to party, and Doshisha friends disappeared to their respective furusato (hometowns). School was gated shut, the dorm was deathly quiet. And I couldn’t help noticing the Japanese around me in the neighborhood and in town. They were so light-hearted (I can’t quite say “jolly”), and as the meaningless commercialism of “Christmas” disappeared they seemed engaged in more traditional Japanese things like nengajou, New Year’s cards; osechi, traditional dishes; kazari, straw and paper decorations; and hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. And they were surrounded by family. It seemed everyone out and about was with their children or grandparents. Walking through town on New Year’s morning I saw a grandpa muttering baby talk to his tiny grandson when he thought no one was looking; a young father building snowmen with two little boys; two girls about my age walking arm in arm with their obaa-chan (grandma).
Suffice it to say I felt a bit left out, though the beautiful snow lifted my spirits a great deal. Church was also very nice: a special service was held on the morning of New Year’s Day, at the end of which each family got up in turn to say “akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” (Happy New Year) and have their photo taken; luckily I got to stand up with a few other unattached singles so I didn’t have to stand by myself! After a treat of zenzai, sweet red bean soup with mochi rice dumplings, the kids (well, mostly the Miyazaki family—which is quite large for Japanese with 5 children!) began to clamor about something, and they and a few older ladies gathered in a circle on the floor. Kennichi-sensei, the younger of the two pastors of the church at 50-something, appeared with a battered-looking roll of paper that he spread on the tatami. It was a game he’d made some years before, a simple game of rolling a die and following a trail around the “board” to the goal, but full of tricks and twists that made the game last hours. I spent a very happy afternoon being beaten at the game by obaa-chans and juggling wiggly Miyazakis on my lap.
That evening I returned home and found a good share of my dorm-mates in the girls’ lounge. Most of our six boys were traveling during the break, and the two left lonely downstairs spent much of their time on the girls’ floor, coming up to eat dinner with us or just to visit in the kitchen. We spent the rest of New Year’s Day studying—it started with Jamie making us feel guilty by going through some kanji flashcards. Carina followed with a reading assignment, Morgan pulled out homework, Yujin wrote a paper, and I alone was rather non-academic with a Japanese translation of Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince that Carina had given me for Christmas. I looked up from my book for a moment—the Little Prince was delivering a kyoukun (moral lesson) on the dangers of baobab trees—and gazed around the table. The conversation, interspersed with the crunching of osembei (Japanese rice crackers), was half in English, half in Japanese: “Why is this not a jouyou kanji, I see it everywhere!” “Doushite doubutsu no namae wa itsumo katakana de kakareteiru…” “Wow, has anyone heard this word: moro? ‘Watashi’ to iu imi mitai…” “Did we have shukudai for bunpou class to do during break?”
I definitely had a warm fuzzies moment, thinking of us, from so many different countries, cultures, and backgrounds, all crazy enough to love this Japanese language. I thought the new year had begun very nicely indeed, with the gift of snow and friendship. Though this next year will contain a very sad thing (returning home to America) I’m excited to see what the rest of my time in Japan will bring forth!