top of page

New Years 2019

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.