Omedetou Gozaimasu! (Happy New Year!!)

Okinawa Travel Blog

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Ready for the New Year.
I'm just going to breeze by New Year's Eve a bit to get to New Year's Day.  However, we did have a really fun night filled with a yummy home cooked meal by Laura (Nicole's co-worker from school), a light show, fireworks and beer at the Southeast Botanical Gardens (you can totally drink in public here!).  We also had some interesting cab rides and after-midnight drinks at the smallest bar I've ever seen.  A pretty good start to '08 I'd have to say.
However, what I really want to talk about is what we did on January 1st because you can drink and watch fireworks almost anywhere to ring in the new year, but the Japanese celebrate the rest of it differently than I've experienced before.

The new year's holiday here lasts for 3 days - January 1st, 2nd and 3rd.
Futenma Shrine
  Almost everything is closed and business hang decorative new year's signs outside telling patrons when they will be back open.  For days before the new year you can buy new years decorations, rice cakes (not what you think) and all sorts of little things with a representation of whatever animal the new year will be - for instance 2008 is the year of the mouse.  On those three days the Japanese people have a custom of visiting the area shrines and temples in order to pray and find out their fortunes for the new year.  These places are all decorated and vendors line the streets surrounding them selling carnival type foods and gifts.  It is really an amazing site to see everyone lined up waiting to wash their hands and pray.  Luckily, since this custom is more of a tradition than a religious ceremony, we were able to take part.
Street vendors outside Futenma brighten up a slightly dreary day.

Before Nicole and I went to the shine though, we were fortunate enough to be invited to the house of one of her former co-workers who is married to and has a baby with a native Okinawan.  Rob was a marine stationed on Okinawa before he taught at Nicole's school, then he met and married Nao (pronounced like "now") and Kenny came along - their beautiful four-month old.  Nao and Rob asked Nicole and I to come over for some home-cooked Okinawan food before all of us walked to the Futenma shrine.   Nao made a stew made with kimchi (a food from Korea), pork, noodles and other Japanese vegetables.  She cooked it in a large pot on a burner that sat right in the middle of the table.
2008: Year of the Mouse
  We ate in traditional Japanese style in their tatmi room with bowls and chopsticks and I have to say I am getting pretty good at navigating even the slippery noodles with them!

It was really wonderful to be able to experience a new year's dinner in a private residence like that and with such good company.  Just an amazing opportunity that I am so grateful for.  Nao speaks english pretty well and we all had some wonderful conversations.  Rob is an outspoken, opininated kind of guy, but he was also very respectful of different views.  And Nao was so interested in hearing about the opinions of other Americans and what we think of Okinawa.  Our afternoon with them just flew by and I hope I'll be able to have some more time with them before I leave here.
Nicole and I with Nao and Kenny. Our fortunes are tied on the strings behind us.

Around 3pm is when we decided to go to the shrine.  The line was so long!  However, Nao knew that everyone in the line was waiting to wash their hands, because in the Shinto religion you have to do that before praying.  Since we aren't Shintos we skipped that part and went straight to view and pay homage to the shrine.  We threw a small donation in and said our prayers before waiting in line to buy a small bauble blessed by the Shinto priest.  It is supposed to bring good luck to you in the new year.  Then it was on to buy our new year fortune.  For 100 yen ($1) you receive a folded piece of paper with your whole year's fortune inside.  Mine said "Excellent Luck" for this year!  Once we read our fortunes, we took them and tied them to the fences with everyone elses.
Laura and Nicole on the pathway to the second shrine of the day.
  At the end of the 3 day new years celebration, the Shinto priest removes all the fortunes, along with any other wishes that have been hung up, and prays over all of them while they are burnt. 

I have to say that I learned so much about Japanese culture in this one day!  We even ate a Japanese pastry at one of the vendors - it was like two small pancakes with a jam in between that was actually a sweet brown bean they use to make pastry fillings.  They were freshly made and really good.  In fact, most of the foods I've experienced here have been so far.

Later in the evening, Nicole, Laura and I, visited another Shrine in the Naha area that was decorated even more - with lights on the trees and everything.  This larger shrine had even more people at it and more vendors lining the streets.  We didn't do all the traditions again, but we ate some yakisoba (a dish that reminds me of lo-mein) and walked around admiring the decorations.  Then we found a playground with the largest slide I've ever seen.  A seriously fun way to end the day!  (The photo won't fit here, but check it out below.)

I hope everyone had a great new years too and I wish you all a year of excellent fortune. 

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Ready for the New Year.
Ready for the New Year.
Futenma Shrine
Futenma Shrine
Street vendors outside Futenma bri…
Street vendors outside Futenma br…
2008: Year of the Mouse
2008: Year of the Mouse
Nicole and I with Nao and Kenny.  …
Nicole and I with Nao and Kenny. …
Laura and Nicole on the pathway to…
Laura and Nicole on the pathway t…
Sliding into 2008!
Sliding into 2008!
photo by: momiji