Celebration of the New Year is different where ever you go. Even among friends and family, the way New Years is rung in changes. Personally, I have never gotten too interested in any New Year’s celebrations, far preferring to go to bed at my normal time and not deviate from my schedule like the perpetual creature of habit that I am.
However, this year, I was presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate the New Year with my karate school.
I was invited before I left home for the holidays, and initially I was uncertain about the prospect. I was staring lovingly at that long weekend, with Monday being a public holiday, and dreaming of venturing down to my favorite ryokan and spending the weekend swaddled in the warmth of a three-hundred-plus-year-old onsen.
The look of disappointment that crossed my karate teacher’s face when I showed hesitation about joining was all I needed to know that there would be other weekend and another winter to visit that onsen. This weekend was for my karate school.
I arrived, in my usual five minutes late fashion, to my karate school Sunday morning for our class. Changing as quickly as I could into my karate uniform, I sat on the floor with the other white belts and listened as my teacher listed off the different accomplishments of students over the past year.
Students rose as their names were called, and we politely listened to their achievements.
Or as politely as we could, some of the attendees being just past toddlerhood and squirmy.
We then rose, and in our three lines, front being white, second being green, and third being brown and black belts, did our warm-up routine.
Class proceeded as normal, until 11:30.
We lined up, bowed out to signify the end of the class, and began to mill around the large room until we were directed to do otherwise.
I saw one of the older karate teachers come out with red fabric strips. She tied one around my head, and handed me a few more to tie around some of the children.
We all donned those red strips of fabric that we tied around our forehead, just above our eyebrows, and lined up, two by two. One of the black belts headed the line, holding our school flag proudly over his shoulder, while the other blackbelts herded the cat-like children into a uniform place, before we practiced our call and response chant.
I would love to give you more information on exactly what it was, but most unfortunately, not only was I not entirely sure what we were shouting, I am even less sure of what the words were remotely supposed to be sounding like.
I assure you, nevertheless, that it was a great deal of fun and I eventually got close to the right words, although I don’t know what they were.
My success with joining the chant was met with smiles from the teachers and parents, elating my excitement further.
We filed out, barefoot and coatless, into the brisk, just above freezing January cold. There were some woven sacks lining the stair case at the bottom and into the parking lot right in front of the karate school, but about a yard past the last step, you were walking on frozen asphalt.
There were shrieks from the barefoot children, gritted smiles from the coatless adults, and a lot of wiggling around as we adjusted to the cold and tried to avoid the slick ice patches.
We resumed our line on the sidewalk, waiting, as patiently as we could, for the last few stragglers, ready to run our way to the shrine about two blocks away. Once we were all accounted for, our call and response started up, loud and proud, still full of energy and excitement for the New Year.
We ran, shoeless, and I, personally clueless, to the shrine, over ice cold concrete, bricks, pavement, and slick patches of compacted snow-turned-ice. People photographed us and cheered us on. I was cold, partially concerned for our wellbeing, but I must admit I found myself laughing and having a good time despite a mild jealously of the crowd’s warm coats and shoes.
Mainly, I wanted the shoes.
Some children held hands to brave the event together, some children rushed as fast as they could forward to finish the event quickly. Black belts swarmed around, doing their best to keep us all together, they themselves moving rapidly and lightly on their feet to prevent the cold from sinking in too much.
The cars stopped, despite the green lights for them to go, allowing us to move quickly across the street and towards our destination with little delay. The drivers and passengers rolled down their windows and cheered us on as well. I couldn’t help but think that this was something I never would have experienced in America and how lucky I was to have been able to join.
The pain at first was nearly unbearable, that I concede to, and I was thinking the entire time, ‘Whatever have I gotten myself into?’ and I looked at the little feet of the children I was running with and admired their willingness to participate.
After a few minutes passed, the feeling in my feet subsided (alarmingly so and I wondered if the entire prefecture would find out the very pale, very American ALT got frost bite on her feet from running barefoot in January), and I was able to power through. It was as if my feet adjusted to the feeling of the pavement, but not the ice, because any time I ran over snow or ice, I nearly yelped from the shock.
So, my personal advice – when running barefoot in winter, try to avoid any form of cold water on the ground.
Once we reached our destination – the shrine compound – there were more people there to take our photo and celebrate the New Year with us. Cars were tucked along the driveway, and as we ran past, little faces were seen pressed against the window in glee.
They were just too cute for me not to pause and wave at.
We lined up at the front of the largest shrine of the compound, where a priest wearing a beautiful purple outfit and a large white hat opened the screen for us to stand at the base of the shrine. Our head teachers walked forward, one holding the flag proud, and stood at the base of the shrine steps.
I looked up in wonder and realized that the shrine that I had visited so many times before was open and you could see the mirror balance in the center of the alter. There were decorations and candles surrounding the mirror, ornately designed itself.
That moment alone made it worth it to me.
There wasn’t enough room for all of us under the canopy of the building, so the majority of us stood just beyond it, exposed to the whipping wind and on frozen ground. One student accepted my extended hand and we stood close together. I hoped I was giving some buffer to her from the elements, but I couldn’t be sure.
We huddled as close as we could, squishing in and leaving little room between bodies. Beside the girl who was holding my hand was one of the smallest boys, tears streaming down his face. We whispered words of encouragement to him, and to my surprise, he stood just as proud and as still as the rest of us.
Our attention was called to the front by the head teacher. The priest said a blessing over us, and the offering presented to by our teachers. His voice was loud and carried well in the still air of the early afternoon. People stepped around us, trying to get a good picture of the crowd, waiting as best as we could with ice cubes for feet.
The priest waved a large pole with white paper attached over our heads, which had been bowed at the indication of the blackbelts. He then walked forward towards the shrine steps, clapped his hands twice, and rang the center bell descending from the roof on a beautiful red rope. Turing around, he invited our head teacher to do the same.
When he looked at all of us, in our white uniforms and red cheeks, the priest smiled and nodded at us, his eyes gleaming with joy and happiness.
Our head teacher step forward and we all watched him closely, ready to match his movements. He raised his hands slowly just above his side; we mimicked the motion. He waited a moment before the entirety of the karate school, cold but proud, clapped our hands together twice, heard the bell ring loud and sure, and bowed deeply.
The priest had one final exchange with the blackbelts at the front before he moved on to thank us for our visit. He stepped to the side as the blackbelts all turned to face us and give us orders. We went to our ready stance, lifted our arms to do basic punching.
It was quite humorous as the students realized we were standing far too close together and had to shuffle around to get enough space so we wouldn’t punch each other.
But our teachers were patient and our attitude was bright.
We punched forward, with strength and intensity, yelling loud as we could into the thin January air. While I cannot attest to the significance behind the action, it felt wonderful to be a part of this moment.
It felt like I belonged.
We finished our punching exercise and bowed deeply at the command of the head teacher. He thanked us and we thanked him, before we all bowed to the priest in respect. The smile was still on the priest’s face, and I could tell he was very please with our shrine visit.
The head teachers, flag bearer included, scooted around to the back of the group, where the pavement lead back to the street.
We turned around, any coordination we had previously long lost in the excitement to go back to the warmth and security of the karate school. The black belts tried their best to get us to remain in a line, resuming our loud chant, but many of the speedier middle schoolers took off faster than we had arrived down the street to the waiting intersection.
The little boy, who had shown such heart and strength beside me, succumb to his emotions at last, but was scooped by his mother and carried back. The student who had held my hand earlier promptly decided that I was too slow, and ran far in front of me. I waited with the blackbelts for a moment, making sure all the kids were going, before I took off myself.
This time, we waited for the crossing sign, the crowds that had cheered us on before having move on and a different set of cars being present. It was chaos; there were bodies in white uniforms running which way and that, trying to avoid the coldest spots on the ground and each other. I caught up with the speedsters, standing with them as we waited for the light to turn green.
The majority of our group caught up with us just as the light turned, and we scooted fast, laughing and yelling, across the road to where the karate school was.
We scurried across the last few yards of asphalt onto the burlap sacks, shouts of relief filling the air. The karate school was warm from the running kerosene heater nestled into the far corner; the padded floor a sweet relief for our feet.
Parents offered their children towels for their feet, as well as instant heat packs.
I was asked to collect the red fabric strips I then helped hand out the red bean soup with mochi that we ate together. The students all lined up again in our three rows, and the blackbelt, plus me, gave everyone a little bit of the treat. The students talked loudly amongst themselves and the atmosphere of the room was light and pleasant.
Seconds were given to those who wanted it, and we all worked to clean up. We laughed and talked about daily life and small things. I was able to hand out the patches from my karate school back home to everyone, which delighted them to no end. The kids showed their parents with abundant pride the new patch, and the adults smiled and thanked me for bringing a gift back for them.
We bowed out, signifying the end of this portion of our New Years celebration, and bundled up (this time with our shoes!) to head out into the cold day.
It was just shy of noon, and the party wouldn’t continue until 1 PM at a different location, so I walked over to the mall across the way and got some much-needed supplies.
As it neared noon, I pulled out my phone to help direct me to the location of the secondary party, when I realized that it was in a large hotel-like building, and I had no idea where I was supposed to go.
Resigning myself to having to try to communicate with the desk staff, I saw another karate person walk inside and I hurried my pace so I could follow him. He inquired, while I stood just behind him, where the location of our party was, and then we got into the very small – maybe 3 person – elevator to the third floor.
When we exited, I was greeted with glee, as my karate teacher put her phone down and rushed to hug me. I had a feeling she was just about to call me to make sure I knew where I was going – which hilariously enough, I didn’t.
I was shown the table I was to sit at, as it was front and center. I sat with the older karate instructors, sharing table buffet plates that were brought out by servers of the establishment. It was directly in front of the stage, where we would be playing games and giving our self-introductions.
We were asked to pull a number from a paper bag, as that would be the order we went in for the game once the meal was done.
The meal was very typical for this style of gathering. There were some Japanese options, some more Chinese looking dishes, and of course Western style foods all scattered on five or six large trays. There was just a sprinkling of each selection, as it is expected to eat a little of everything. I ate deep fried oyster, some chicken options, and a salad made of small fish, fish eggs, and seaweed.
It was all very good, but I was easily distracted from the food as the festivities began.
We poured each other drinks, those of us who could have alcohol did, and those of us who were not drinking, for whatever reasons, had tea in our cups.
We rose, yelled “Kanpai!”, and touched glasses with as many people as we could. Some walked around more parts of the room to greet a larger quantity of people, and some chose to stay at their seats. We took our toast, and then the self-introductions began.
Each family stepped forward to introduce themselves, and what they had planned for the year. The parents spoke demurely, but most of the kids spoke boisterously, which was beyond adorable.
Each family who was present spoke, and then it was the single peoples’ turns. The karate instructors went, smiling and speaking out to the crowd of half-listening children and grazing adults.
I listened as best as I could, not quite catching everything being said but doing my best to follow along.
Then it came to my turn. I was honestly a little shocked they asked me to introduce myself, especially since they have first hand encountered my less than stellar Japanese. I stood in front of the mic, laughing to myself, but smiling all the same.
I said my name and where I was from. I said that I was studying Japanese, but it’s a little difficult.
There was a pause before I announced that I like karate a lot.
I got loud applause and roars of laughter from the crowd, and I laughed along with them.
Once I had exited the stage, the games began. We played a basketball game, using one of those locker sized basketball hoop kits. The younger kids went first, competing against each other in a tournament style event.
Each person had two shots to make a basket. Whoever made the basket moved on. If neither made the basket, the competitors did rock-paper-scissor to decide the victor.
It was quite the game, full of people cheering and good sportsmanship. The kids did their best, some of them flinging the ball across the room instead of into the basket, but nonetheless it was quite amusing.
When it came to the championship round, there was a chopstick game where the two competitors had to pick up plastic beans with plastic chopsticks and put them on a tiny plate as fast as they could.
The beans were skidding and sliding across the table, the children being cheered on by their peers, and adults laughing at the sight. It was all very light-hearted and it filled the room with joy.
Once the children were finished, first and second place decided, it was the adults’ turn. There were quite a few of us, so we were divided into two groups. I wound up advancing on three rounds, before I didn’t get a basket and lost.
I was honestly surprised I made it that far because I am far from known for my coordination.
The entire time, everyone was clapping and cheering for everyone equally, and it felt very welcoming to be a part of the event.
Once the victors for both groups of adults were decided, my teacher gave me the chopsticks and beans to play with her. I wound up beating her quickly, which shocked, in a humorous way, the others at the table with us.
It was announced by my teacher that I would be competing in the chopstick game against anyone who would challenge me.
I stood on the stage while a fair amount of the kids surrounded the table. One of the karate teachers played a round against me, and I, by some miracle, beat him. The kids squealed in glee and the teacher feigned exaggerated defeat to their delight.
Then, the local monk who had joined us for our dinner party, said he would play against me. He teased that he was representing all of Japan, and I was representing all of America, so this was a Japan VS American bean pick up challenge.
I agreed, smiling the whole time, as the kids let out sounds of disbelief.
I turned a blind eye to the fact that all the irregularly shaped beans were placed in his pile. I knew they were giving me an advantage, and I was willing to take it.
‘GO!’ was yelled, we clapped our hands, saying “Itadakemasu!”, and quickly moved to pick up our beans as fast as we could.
The kids kept proclaiming in Japanese that I was so fast, but I knew it was because I had the nicely shaped beans to my disposal and slightly stronger fingers than them. But still I smiled, not looking up or around in fear I would lose concentration.
I won by a slim margin, only two beans faster than my competitor. We laughed and smiled at each other, the lightheartedness of the game not lost on either of us.
The children also giggled, excited by the small show of talent, and eager to compete with one another again.
While the children played with each other, the adults began to pick up the room and clean up. We were brought out plastic containers to put the left-over food into. We then moved around to pick up the left-over drinks that we had brought, clean up any spills, and sort the prizes out to make sure each person got a little something.
Soon, we were all sorting out towards the door, filing out slowly, our arms filled with food, drink, and party supplies in multiple very large plastic bags.
I had thought that was the end of the day, but my teacher invited me to her house for an after party. I was very honored to be invited, and readily agreed.
We made our way very slowly out of the building and towards her car. We were waving and saying long good-byes to people not attending the after party, shouting loud, “See you!”s and “Matta-ne!”s.
When we arrived at the house, I was scooted into the tatami room, which was very cold, as is normal in a tatami room, where I sat right next to the head karate teacher. We talked about mild things, my Japanese being very limited, but I felt very welcomed there. Plates and the left-over food were brought out, so we could dish it out and snack as pleased. The two male karate teachers were helping my teacher bring out dishes and drinks to everyone.
Soon, I stood and followed them to help. I was able to help heat up some more soup for the children who were with us, playing Smash Brothers on their Nintendo Switch, as well as prepare plates of more snacks for the party.
Once all our work was done, those in the kitchen went back to the tatami room to join in on the fun.
I sat for a little while next to my karate teacher, joining in where I could on the conversation, but generally just enjoying the experience. Soon, however, I was very cold, and moved to the other side of him to be closer to the main source of heat: the hibachi grill.
I sat close to it, laughing while being teased for how close I was, insisting I was happy being that close and definitely not too hot. They joked that I had to be careful because I was as white as mochi and I might cook from being too close to the heat.
The talk of mochi prompted my teacher to bring out the left over mochi and put it on the grill to cook. It was then that I understood what they were saying to be about the grill cooking me.
The mochi, once on the grill, would start to expand and ‘pop’ slightly from their crust, becoming soft and gooey for eating. As the mochis began to expand, people were telling me that if I got too close, my cheeks would do the same. They puffed their faces out, and I did the same, joy bursting from the seams of the interactions. I got a good photo of the cooking mochi right before it was taken off the hibachi grill. We dipped the cooked mochi in soy sauce and wrapped it in seaweed to eat it. It was delicious, although a very different from how I had eaten mochi in the past.
We carried on fairly late into the night, grazing on snacks and left-overs, pour each other drinks and talking about a variety of subjects.
Soon, it was time for me to go home, and I left after much bowing and many thanks to the friends I had spent the day with.
I got home and my face hurt because I had laughed and smiled so much that day. I was tired, but I was happy. I felt lighter than I had for a while, and as if I had found a little place where I belonged.
Most assuredly, this was a Happy New Year.