Well it’s a little late, but let me wish you all a Happy New Year!
For this New Year’s holiday, my wife convinced me to spend another countdown at her folks’ house in Isehara in Kanagawa Japan. It was another memorable New Year’s Eve for lots of people, but for yours truly, a night just like any other and I crashed out at about 8 PM. Who cares about this countdown stuff? I certainly don’t. Don’t remember when I ever did.
Isehara is what folks back in the states would call “The Boondocks.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that there is absolutely nothing to do here. You know you are in an exciting place when one of the prime ways to pass time is to walk around the block and hang out in front of the convenience store. And when I say, “the” convenience store, I do mean “the” convenience store — there’s only one — and it’s not all that convenient. It is closed on weekends and its regular hours are 11 AM to 6 or 7 or so. Well, at least that’s what the sign in the window says.
The store also has a sign that says, “Nen-jyuu mu-kyuu” which means, “open every day of the year.” There are lots of places with this kind of sign in the windows. In Japan, I guess this actually means “we close whenever we feel like it” because they certainly are not open every day of the year. Maybe it’s just a waste of money to tear down a perfectly good sign.
Crowds gathering near downtown Isehara’s convenience store
The old guy that runs the convenience store is about 85. He takes turns returning in and out of reality. One day he’ll remember me, ten minutes later on the same day, he will act like he’s never seen me before. Actually that’s okay by me, because when he starts talking to me, I haven’t a clue as to what he is talking about and I don’t want to seem rude. So I stand there nodding my head as if I understand completely as he’s rambling off about something or another. It’s cool though. I think we should all be nice to older folks and spend time with them — heck, it’s not like I have anything else to do in this place either. I guess it works both ways — the old guy and me — we’re soul-mates: No one around here can understand what I’m talking about either.
I’ve been reading several books to pass the time before I start drinking again. I especially enjoyed a great book called, Letters to Charlie by Fred Snyder. Fred writes about his experiences with the incompetent federal government and the incredible boredom of being a marine in Vietnam. I hope he doesn’t feel insulted because, by being in Isehara, I feel like I can relate. Anyway, I found the book quite enjoyable.
Japanese people in general consider themselves to follow no religion, but that’s not true at all. They just don’t realize the fact that “no religion” is a religion. Also, I find it curious that even though most Japanese will say that they follow no religion, they hold their weddings in Christian Churches or Buddhist shrines; their funerals are usually a hybrid Shinto-Buddhist ceremony; and every year, at New Years they all follow a tradition called, “Hatsumode.”
Hatsumode is the “first visit to a Buddhist shrine for the year.” This tradition is followed by just about every Japanese person I have ever met. Some huge Buddhist shrines like Kawasaki Dai-shi or Meiji Jingu will have about 8 million visitors in the first 4 days of the year. Think about it: 8 million people will visit and each of them will throw about $10 into the shrine and ring the bell and pray. There will also be other ceremonies where the monks will burn a fire of wooden planks that have the names of families written on them in a ritual to protect the health of the peoples’ whose names are written on the planks…. About $20 to $1000 a shot or more!
My wife stirred me from my sleep and with a huge hangover I dragged myself out of bed and down to the dining room where everyone had their traditional New Year’s toast of straight shots of sake. Woah! Three of those first thing in the morning and I was ready to go to the shrine.
My parents-in-law know that I won’t go to a famous shrine and stand in line with a million people for five hours just to throw my money in a wooden box. So they take us to the tiny local shrine. That’s cool with me. I put on a jacket and I’m out the door. My mother-in-law complains to me that I should change out of the sports trainer that I always sleep in and at least brush my teeth and comb my hair before going to meet God. I tell her that God and I have an understanding. It works both ways — the old guy and me — we’re soul-mates: I don’t care what he wears and he don’t care what I wear.
The shrines all have a gong called a “Kane.” We throw our money away and ring it. Man! Is that thing loud! You can hear it from a mile away. Dad-in-law tells me that during the war that the army guys would go around to different shrines and try to steal the gongs from the temples, to be made into useful stuff like tanks and bombs, but the Buddhist priests wouldn’t let them do it at this temple. Can you imagine a bunch of skinny Japanese soldiers going into this shrine and telling the head priest, “We’re taking your gong and we’re going to melt it down to make war toys.” I’ll bet that didn’t sit well with the priests who probably did their best Chin-Lee moves on the hapless soldiers and kicked their imperial butts.
So, according to my wife’s dad, the soldiers would try to sneak into the temples at night and steal these huge gongs. But, if you’ve ever watched the TV show, Kung Fu, you’d know that you can’t sneak up on these priests guys as they can hear the fluttering of a butterflies wings. So, I guess after a few dozen broken noses, arms and legs — as well as bruised egos — the army guys decided to leave this particular shrine alone.
After the shrine, we head on over to the convenience store that never closes to buy booze. It’s closed so we go to the vending machines that sell the cigarettes and the alcohol. Japan has really gotten high-tech. Liquor stores are going to be a thing of the past someday. The vending machines now have a computer scanner that must have a driver’s license inserted into it before it will sell you adult beverages. I proudly whip out my new driver’s license and attempt to buy several bottles of beer — no luck. That’s technology for you. This stupid machine has a personality and accepts my I.D. card only rarely. No dice this time, maybe my luck will be better later.
Back at home I decide that I had better let you folks know what’s going to happen in this New Year. The Chinese calendar tells us that this year is the Year of the Rooster. So in order to get the inside scoop on what’s going on, I head down to the train station — it doesn’t matter how far you are in the sticks in Japan, you’ll find a Chinese fortune-teller — especially around New Years.
I’m in luck! There is a building right in front of the train station that has three fortune tellers there. I grab the first one. What the heck, eh? They’s all just about the same. This shop is just a table on the street — looks good. I’m not into fancy frills. Neither is this guy. And he seems to also have no sense of humor — I like that. So it’s immediately to the business at hand.
I pay him some money and he tells me that 2005 is the Year of the Cock. I inform him that we don’t like to use the word, “Cock” and ask him if he speaks to his mother with that mouth. You know, a little levity never hurt anyone. He is not amused and informs me very politely that, “A rooster is a male chicken. A Cock is the boss of all male chickens in a group. There is a huge difference between a rooster and a cock.”
I start smirking and say, “A huge difference between a rooster and a cock!? Yeah, the Cock is the head pecker! Ha, ha, ha! Duh! No kidding!”
I’m sitting there laughing at my own dirty jokes for a few moments as the old guy just frowns at me and sighs.
“Yes, your humor is quite original…. I haven’t heard that joke in at least 12 years,” he says.
I slump over and stop laughing, “Uh, sorry.”
He continues, “Now to understand the Year of the Cock, and how it will relate to you, you must understand the personality of the Cock.
“They are industrious, hardworking, creative, and courageous. Roosters are talented, self-assured people. They possess powerful personalities and are notoriously dominant: they will attack anything they think is threatening what is “theirs.” In groups, roosters are lively, amusing and quite loud — but there will be only one Cock. For a stranger to join into a rooster’s group is a difficult thing to accomplish. The Cock is always boss and will either love or hate a new comer upon first sight. Roosters can be extremely conceited creatures, vain and boastful, with a strong egotistical need to constantly be the center of attention and the life of any party. Roosters are talkative types, outspoken, frank, open, honest — but a little too honest at times. Their conceit will often lead them into saying things that will hurt another’s feelings. And for that, the rooster will later regret… as other animals may come to hate the rooster. A polished debater and able to cogently refute any opinion, the Rooster is a talented and aggressive controversialists, and could be an excellent journalist or writer. With the Rooster’s dedication to work well done, he or she would also make a good economist or a gifted administrator.
“The Rooster enjoys nothing more than being in the company of beautiful people of the opposite sex — sometimes to the point where the company is nothing more than "an item" to show off to others. This will also lead to other animals holding much envy and jealousy towards the Rooster. For even though a Rooster may not be the most handsome or beautiful themselves, they can more than make up for it by their talent with words. This will definitely lead them to confrontations with others who desire attention, such as dogs, or horses
“The Snake, Ox and Dragon understand Roosters and make the best partners — this will be an excellent year for those born under these signs. Roosters gain much from friendship with the Monkey and Boar. The introverted Rabbit does not trust the Rooster and won’t put up with his boasting. Power struggles and miscommunications may erupt between the Rooster and the Tiger. The Rooster and the Rat are competitive rivals and make excellent lovers — but their relationship is ultimately incompatible — as both scrounge for the same food from the same place.”
“Wow! This is some great information!” I say to the old guy, “But what about me? How will I do — oh wise master?”
“You asked me about this year. If you want me to tell you about your fortune this year, that’ll be an extra $20 dollars.”
“Or you can look it up yourself in this pamphlet — they are $5 dollars each.”
“Cool!” I buy a pamphlet. Now I can share with all you LRC readers your Chinese fortune for free!
Here’s the chart to see what kind of an animal you are — I mean, what your animal zodiac sign is:
“Finally master, if I may, one last question…. You haven’t told me of those born under the sign of the Dog. You see, last year was the year of the Monkey, and I was told by another wise man that last year would be a bad year for Dogs — as Dogs and Monkey’s do not get along well….”
“Yes, get to the point.” The old man’s impatience showed.
“Well, if last year was a bad year for the Dog, and President George W. Bush is a Dog, then how come he got re-elected?”
The old man paused, his eyes grew wide and he gave out a very hearty chuckle. It was the first time he had even cracked a smile. He just kept chuckling to himself and as he handed me some tea, he wiped a tear from his eye and laughed:
“See? Of course last year was a terrible year for George W. Bush. What did go right for this poor pathetic man? Not only has Iraq become the disaster we all predicted, but the poor man actually had the misfortune to be re-elected president.”
“Misfortune!?” I quizzed.
“Yes. Great misfortune. For not only is George W. Bush a Dog, but he is an incredibly inept fool. Think about it, my young son,” the old man continued to chuckle, “What kind of a simpleton would actually even want to become president? And twice no less! Yes. Last year was a wretched year for the Dog. And this year will be no better…. Especially a dog that is undisciplined and weak-minded.”
I stood up and bowed to the great master. He was right. I laughed. He had told me great news. I was quite pleased.
The old man said to me, "Please come again and let’s talk, young man. I find your humor is quite enchanting."
I said "Goodbye" and walked away. I felt in my heart that good fortune would come my way — in fact I knew it would. I knew what I had to do: I had to immediately test my luck. I went back to the liquor vending machine and inserted my driver’s license. Of course it worked! I just knew it would! I popped open a can of Sapporo beer and took a big chug: It is going to be a great year!
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.