Ever since I got married there hasn't been a New Year's Eve where I haven't wished I hadn't gotten married. (Stay with me here.) Think about it, this is the last big hurrah, an immeasurably valuable opportunity to get a little crazy with a few (or a few dozen, or few hundred) other people who also realize this is pretty much it until St. Patrick's Day. But my wife, being Japanese, isn't in tune with the concept of last hurrahs. To her, life is just this one long Zen Buddhist continuum that doesn't cater to age-old traditions of sophomoric insobriety and so we always end up waiting for midnight by sitting on our asses in a room with a TV.
The one consolation is that the entire rest of the country is doing the same - except for the ones standing around outside, near a shrine, freezing in jackets too thin for the weather and clinging to their cell phones with curled, half-frozen fingers. Which, now that I think about it, seems a hell of a lot better than standing around in Times Square. At least the shrine has toilets you can get to.
Good luck charms of exquisite craftsmanship are sold from the yawning windows of the shrine's secondary buildings, as are small wooden boards called ema. People buy these ema and write their wishes on the back (the front side taken up with an artistic visual of the coming of the New Year, centered around whatever animal the new year represents). Then they hang their ema on special wooden racks among hundreds of other ema in hopes God reads theirs first, or at least before He gets bored of all the 'please let me pass my exams' and 'I want to be a pastry chef' pleas for the future. The good luck charms are hung on pocketbooks, backpacks and rear view mirrors if not dumped into the same jar as the rubber bands and the twist-ties until the end of the year when they are all burned.
To be fair to my wife, we did spend our first New Year's Eve not on our asses in a room with a TV but at a shrine - in Hakone, along the shores of Lake Ashi where, on a decent day, you can also see Mt. Fuji. Our second year we visited a shrine in Kochi, on the island of Shikoku. Since then, every New Year's Eve we've been in Japan has been an exercise in ass-planting.
This year too we sat on the floor, this time in my wife's parents' living room, and rang in 2015 with hesitant standardized greetings because Hey be quiet that woman is about to sing the Japanese verson of Let It Go again. Today, January 2nd, we finally got around to piling the kids into the car and heading out for 'Hatsu-mode', the first shrine visit of the new year.
Nakano-Fudohson Shrine in Fukushima is wildly popular - I think because it has a waterfall out back and these tunnels in the rock with all these altars in tiny alcoves. Apparently you're not supposed to take pictures in there.
My wife bought O-mikuji for herself and our kids - basically fortune cookie fortunes without the cookie. These tell you what sort of luck, good or bad, you can expect in the new year. My oldest kid is supposed to have a great year while my other two kids, along with my wife, are destined for 12 months of mediocrity. I started the year off great because I didn't get an O-mikuji and so I have an extra two dollars in my pocket.
But O-mikuji or not, there are certain years that are bad luck for everyone of certain ages. For men the bad luck years are when they turn 13, 25 and 61. On top of this the year a man turns 42 is a VERY bad year. I think back and realize that for me that was 2011, the year the big earthquake hit. Of course, that was a pretty bad luck year for everyone.
As I write this I am polishing off my second beer of the late evening. I am in my wife's parents' living room. Everyone else is asleep. Soon I will be too because it has been so long since my last hurrah two beers is enough to send me packing. Still, all is not lost.
St. Patrick's Day is only ten weeks away.