Ancient trees blocked the starlight, standing ominous guard against an unknown threat. The meandering gravel path gently crunched and ground beneath our feet. Every so often a lantern cast a gentle, feeble barrier against the dark, warm in appearance only. It was cold. I had a flannel, fleece, and raincoat on, with a hat and gloves, but the chill seeped in like spring water washing over us. It did not help that two days ago we were in a tropical city, hiding from the full radiance of the sun and burning from the inside out from exotic spices.
Earlier that evening we had splurged on a real dinner, having subsisted mostly on vending machine commodities since arriving. We had a traditional meal for this day, Toshikoshi Soba, buckwheat noodles. They break easily, symbolizing letting go of hardships from the year. It is a warm, hardy meal perfect for cold days like this, but that was hours ago and its rejuvenating qualities had long since dissipated.
As our path neared its terminus, silent shadows crept up alongside. First one, then a few, growing ever more crowded. Before long, they blocked our way. We were hemmed in on all sides, part of a dark, silent mass in the night, watched over by the giant pine branches. Anticipation was growing. The time to pass through the dark into the rebirth of hopes and dreams was drawing near. Hatsumoda.
Loudspeakers cracked and shrilled us wide-awake. A mass of voices split the night shouting, “Go…yon…san…NI…ICHI…HURRA!!!” Amidst the cheers, a deep rumble washed over us. Drums vibrated through the earth faster and faster, culminating in a final THUD. Our group lurched forward and stopped, lurched and stopped. A dozen iterations later and we passed through the gates into the light of Meiji Shrine.
Gray flagstones replaced gravel in a square surrounded by curved roofs and wooden pillars. Shadows fled to reveal three columns of joyful Shinto worshipers orderly converging. In groups of 20 or so, we went before the priests, where we flung a shower of coins, jingling like little bells against the shrine. We all wanted good luck.
After our turn was over, attendants ushered us to a city of tents aglow with lanterns, lights, heaters, and stoves. Over 3 million people would come through here in the next three days, and the food vendors were ready! Fried food quickly filled our stomachs and warm sake banished the cold from our bones. All around, people cheered and toasted, their cheeks quickly reddening. Music warmed the soul, and a kaleidoscope of colors paraded past. Once our senses had their fill, we made our way back to the hotel, where we waited with the rest of the country for Hatsuhinode.
Inky black to gray, relenting to pale yellow, the next year draws near.
Winter - bleak and chill, yields to the cherry blossom, sweet life replenished.
A sliver of red, appears at the horizon, heralding the day.
Hatsuhinode, first Sunrise of the New Year, greets our joyful eyes!
Amidst the raging storms of life
Never flinch, o heart of man —
No more than the wind-tossed pine
Deep-rooted in the rock
~ Emperor Meiji
This year I doubt we will stay up the whole night to enjoy Hatsuhinode. I will, however, try my best to make Toshikoshi Soba because I think I could use a clean break from 2016. Happy New Year to you and yours, and best of wishes in 2017.
Getting There: GPS Coordinates 35.675647, 139.699439
Take the Yamanota, Chiyoda, or Fukutoshin Line to Harajuku Station, at the South Shrine Gate.