Celebrating Koshogatsu, the Lunar New Year

On Saturday Phil, Mori and I joined a group of international and Japanese students for a coach tour of the Kita Ward of Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture. As Phil and I are only permitted to drive our TRIAD car on Awaji Island itself, our first job was to work out how to get off the island! Following advice from Mori and from some of the English-speaking students at ALPHA, we parked the car at the Awaji Interchange and caught an early morning Highway Express Bus over the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge to Meiko Station, where we met Mori before taking a train to Sannomiya to meet the coach party.

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In the interests of intermingling the Japanese and international students on the trip Phil and I were each partnered up with a Japanese buddy – Phil with Tokikazu Nakayama and me with Hiroe Shikata. Luckily we both got on very well with our respective partners and made our first real Japanese friends.

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The first coach stop of the day was to a primary school in Kobe City to attend a Tondo Matsuri Festival and Shishimai performance. Tondo Matsuri are held every year in Japan in shrines and public spaces around the time of Koshogatsu (the lunar new year) to to bless and then burn the previous year’s New Year decorations. During Koshogatsu shimekazari – sacred ropes braided of race straw and adorned with good luck charms – are hung above the doors of most Japanese homes and businesses to ward off evil spirits and to invite the kami to enter. Tondo Matsuri centres around a huge bonfire onto which are placed the shimekazari and other Koshogatsu ornaments. Our bonfire was very impressive and built predominately of bamboo – the bamboo sounded like air rifles being shot as it went up into flames. Calligraphic wishes or prayers written by young children practising their calligraphy are also placed onto the bonfire – as the prayers are burnt they are lifted up into the air towards God, bringing success to the children in the new year. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to help the school’s baseball team to light the bonfire with a large bamboo flame – I felt very privileged!

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The Shishimai, or Lion Dance, is also performed in Japan around Koshogatsu as a form of prayer for household safety and a good harvest. Adapted from a similar Chinese custom, Shishimai features performers clad in ornate Lion costumes dancing to the accompanying sounds of bamboo flutes and drums. At the end of the dance the lions ‘bite’ the heads off a few members of the audience to bring good fortune.

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The second stop of the day was to the Ougo Hachiman shrine, located in the Kita Ward of Kobe City. A Hachiman shrine is devoted to the Shintô deity (kami) Hachiman, but also somewhat to the 3rd-4th century Emperor Ōjin, who was identified with Hachiman during the 9th century. Shintô emerged from ancient peoples’ fears of demons and supernatural powers, and their worship of these. Although there is no written body of doctrine Shintô is Japan’s main ‘religion, and the jinja, or shrine, is the official place of worship.

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As well as receiving a tour of the Ougo Hachiman jinja we were shown some of the correct behaviours for entering a shrine – washing our hands (first left, then right) and mouth by ladling water from the fountain, and bowing and clapping (two low bows, 2 claps, a short prayer and one further low bow).

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Lunch was held at the shrine but we had to make it first! Our first course was onigiri – traditional Japanese rice balls made by moulding cooked starchy white rice around a chosen filling and wrapping the rice in nori (seaweed). Traditional fillings include pickled ume, salted salmon, katsuoboshi, kombu and tarako, although Hiroe told me that tuna and mayonnaiseis a popular onigiri filling with young Japanese people today! We filled our onigiri with ikinago – tiny, caramalised, whole fish.

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The second course, which we also had to make, was mochi. Mochi are little Japanese rice cakes made by pounding mochigome – a highly glutinous short-grained rice – into a bread-like dough, before moulding the into little dough balls. Mochi are traditionally consumed during Koshogatsu and may be eaten in a number of ways – we tried ours with three different ‘toppings’- a sweet soya sauce dip, a soybean ‘praline’, and a sweetened adzuki bean paste filling –all equally tasty of course!

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The last stop of the day was a short walk through the rice fields of the Kita Ward to an ancient thatched-roofed Japanese house that has recently been converted into a bagel house. I am not the biggest fan of bagels so I was pleasantly surprised when we were offered a range of rice bagels to choose from, with flavours including green tea, sesame seed and chocolate. The sesame seed bagel I chose was delicious and very unlike anything I have ever tried in the West.

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After this it was back on the coach and back to Kobe City where we said goodbye to the other students  and made our way to the bus stop to take the Highway Express Bus back to Awaji Island. One of my favourite parts of the day was my name tag, which had my name printed in Japanese katakana characters (katakana characters are reserved for ‘foreign’ words or names which are not covered by the traditional kanji characters). I took my name badge home with me as a momento.

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