Saturday, December 31, 2005

Stupid Foreigner, part 4: A Japanese New Year

Well, I'm somewhere in the U.P., about eight hours north of Chicago, enjoying the New Year's Eve by melting icebergs. As every Saturday, I bring to you a long piece I wrote while living in Japan several years ago. If you think partying in the States can be dangerous, wait 'til you read about the dangers of a Japanese New Year. I wrote this on January 4, 1999.

As you may know, Japan has a very low crime rate. Murders, rapes and muggings are very rare, at least by American standards. OK, I know that's not saying much. So let's just say that Japan has fewer shootings each year than a peaceful little state like Vermont, according to the international research organization FACT.

Young girls can be seen walking alone in the middle of the night in the seediest parts of the biggest of Japanese cities. Drunk salarymen pass out on sidewalks or at train stations with thousands of yen stuffed in their wallets, and they are left unmolested.

Still, I find this country to be as frightening as any low-income housing project in America. Because despite the fact that violent crime is almost non-existent, simple acts, like crossing the street or eating a snack, can prove hostile, even fatal.

Let's look at Japanese food. Most major Japanese holidays have their own special culinary delights. For the New Year, there's MOCHI. MOCHI is described as "rice cakes" but in fact it resembles a big white glob of gooey, uncooked dough. Yes, it looks delicious, but let me assure you, it's the opposite. (By the way, what is the opposite of "delicious"?) Not only that, but it's also very dangerous. Chewing and trying to swallow MOCHI is sort of like trying to eat the action figure Stretch Armstrong. Seriously.

For proof, consider this single sentence from today's Daily Yomuiri newspaper: "The Tokyo Fire Department issued repeated warnings that the rice cakes, a traditional New Year's treat, should be cut into small pieces before eating, but the nationwide death toll from choking on them still reached 10" in the first two days of the year. Last year, nine people in Tokyo alone died from MOCHI consumption.

It's a "treat" that kills! But you should see people slurp it down like there's no tomorrow. Gulp. Of course I tried some, and the gag reflex kicked in quicker than when I tried NATTO (fermented beans ... more on that some other time). And that's not the only aspect of the New Year celebration that should be considered dangerous to your health.

People ring in the New Year at a local Shinto shrine. They gather in front of the main shrine building and at the stroke of midnight everyone throws coins and prays for health and wealth. The problem is that many Japanese are kinda short, and throwing coins a long distance from the back of a massive crowd is a bit difficult anyway, so many many people are pelted by 100 yen coins. One girl right in front of me the other day was smacked by a heavy, metal bracelet, the kind with spikes and skulls worn by punk rockers worldwide. She reached down to pick it up and was almost trampled by the horde trying to retreat from the area. If you've ever been on a Tokyo subway during rush hour, you know what it's like to be shoved by a wave of humanity. This is worse.

This gathering at the shrine is actually pretty cool. Literally, especially for all the girls dressed in kimono. Kimono are very beautiful, colorful robes, but the material isn't very warm. And this year I learned what girls wear under them: Nothing.

That's right, nothing.

Anyway, I live in a "small" town of slightly less than half-a-million, so the main shrine wasn't as crowded as the one in Tokyo. Last year, during the first three days of the New Year, almost four million people visited Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. That sounds pretty impressive, but it really isn't. Not if you consider that Shinjuku train station in Tokyo has more than two million people pass through every day. Yes, there's plenty of pushing and shoving, but Japanese people are pretty patient and nobody is killed. Instead, they die when they step outside and try to cross the street.

Walking around Japan is dangerous because people here suffer from tunnel vision. Or they're never taught to look both ways at intersections. I could go on with my blatant stereotypes, but I'd rather give you an example.

A few months ago, there was a massive meteor shower, so of course tons of people flocked into the night to catch a glimpse of a falling star or two. Here's a sad fact: Before that night, almost every single Japanese person I asked said he or she had never seen a falling star. Why not? Well, because of pollution and clouds and the city lights that prevent you from seeing any stars on most nights, I suppose. But on that night, people were determined to see the stars. So much so, that some of them were killed.

One old man was run down by a truck. Supposedly, the driver was too busy scanning the night sky to see the guy crossing the road. There was also a three or four car pile-up begun in pretty much the same way. A few people died just by looking up. One girl was sitting on a bridge, bent backwards to get a better look, and fell off. Since many Japanese rivers are dry, she made a splash, but not into water. Another girl who survived somehow fell down a chimney while watching the stars.

For the New Year, lots of people go out to see the first sunrise of the year. I'm not sure how many victims there were this year.

Anyway ... I hope YOU had/have a safe and pleasant New Year celebration, wherever you were/are. Don't worry about me. I plan to stay indoors this year.


Blogger Marley6 said...

OMG - I must have laughed at least ten times out loud. When are you going to publish your excapades in Japan?

fyi - i read emmett the excerpt from your 10 pints of guiness in dublin - he thought it was brilliant!

2:50 PM  

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