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Empty Orchestra

Saturday, December 31st, 2011. 9:28AM. 大阪 (Osaka)

I’m sitting in the middle of a cafe in Osaka, the third largest city in Japan. I’m on a short, multipurpose excursion with some friends in the Kansai area. The purposes: sightseeing, and escape from the small-town drear of Oita, especially for New Year’s.

Christmas and New Year’s are pretty much reversed here in Japan, with a few minor differences. Christmas in America, for most, is a joyous – but restrained – holiday where families gather, exchange gifts, and usually spend the whole day together. New Year’s, on the other hand, is a raucous evening spent trying to find the best party to count down the last seconds of the year with. The night runs late, and the hangovers bite hard.

In Japan, Christmas is, understandably, a cursory holiday. The number of Japanese Christians being quite low, the 25th of December is spent exchanging a few gifts with family members, then going about one’s business as usual. I’ve been fortunate enough to have Christmas fall on Saturday and Sunday since I’ve come to Japan, but had it fallen on a weekday, I’d be in for the day. Christmas has also taken on a romantic character in Japan. After gift exchanges, the kids go and play with their friends and new toys, the elders go about their regular day, and the young adults go and spend the day with their significant others.

Japanese New Year’s (or お正月 [oh-sho-gah-tsoo]) is a somber observation of tradition. Extended families gather and spend the whole evening together, welcoming the new year with prayer at a local temple and eating traditional foods called おせち (o-say-chee). Most of the foods are associated with winter or long life. For example, some families may eat long そば (soh-bah, buckwheat noodles), their length symbolizing a long life.

As you may have already inferred, there are few (if any) New Year’s parties in a small town like Oita, which is why expatriates from all over Japan gather in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka to find a loud, crowded room to have fun in. And here I am, sitting in a cafe on New Year’s Eve, writing a blog post, wearing a repurposed neckwarmer as a hat to keep my head warm. Picture that in your mind.

The BEST holidays

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