A very Japanese new year
Maita Paje (The Philippine Star) - February 22, 2015 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It was Dec. 29, an hour forward in time zones, and it was my family’s New Year vacation. Good morning, Osaka!

The sky was overcast and the weather was pleasant when we got to our first stop: Osaka Castle. Hard to imagine that the moat-protected fortress and the surrounding structures had been burned twice since they had been built in the late 16th century. Now the interiors serve as a modernized history museum and the adjoining Nishinomaru Garden is a popular tourist destination in the cherry blossom season.

Lunchtime saw us joining the crowds at Dotonbori for Osaka specialties. Beneath a giant red octopus at the front of the Dotonbori Konamon Museum, listening to a very unique version of the “Hallelujah” chorus, we lined up for golf ball-sized takoyaki (fried octopus balls) at Takoya Dotonbori Kukuru. Inside the museum, not only can you learn about the history of takoyaki, but you can make your own wax replica of the snack too.

Later, there was a bit of a wait for a table at okonomiyaki (vegetable and meat pancakes) hotspot Mizuno. A leisurely walk along Shinsaibashi-suji – the very heart of Osaka’s main shopping zone, home to 180 local and imported boutiques – was definitely necessary after that. Walking past a fancy Sanrio store, we browsed through a collection of boots at Question Mark* Jerry Girl and tried on hats and clips at Before the Boom Accessory. We ended the evening gazing down on the lights of the metro from the Floating Sky Observatory at the top of the 170-meter Umeda Sky building, one of Osaka’s most recognizable landmarks.

On the 30th, we headed off to Universal Studios, where the appearance of the very first Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Asia earlier in 2014 has brought an added influx of tourists. Combining that with the end-of-year holidays, the park was teeming with people lining up for head-spinning rides like the Hollywood Dream roller coaster. It was a delightful surprise to see their Christmas Parade, the first showcase of yuletide festivities I’d seen on the whole trip. We didn’t enter the tightly-packed Wizarding World, but wands and Hogwarts scarves and Chocolate Frogs from the Universal Studios boutique were still our prizes of the day.

The next day, when we transferred to Tokyo, the big question was, “How do we spend the last day of 2014?” Most shops close or have special shortened hours from Dec. 29 to Jan. 3, but there are three districts in Tokyo where commerce is still king every day of the year: Shiodome, Odaiba and Roppongi.

At the very center of the maze-like luxury urban center known as Roppongi Hills, we stumbled upon the contemporary Mori Art Museum. Works of young Denmark-born artist Jacob Kirkegaard featuring photo and video pieces centered on human hearing and Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei’s participative art pieces were the season’s attractions.

As the hour grew late, we joined in the Omisoka (New Year’s Eve) tradition of eating soba as a family – though we did it at a noodle house called Kasumi-cho Soba Masudaya instead of at a home. After the meal and some light umeshu (plum wine), we headed off to join the New Year countdown at our hotel.

Opening a new year in Japan means Hatsumode, the first visit of the year to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple to make new wishes, acquire new luck charms and return the old ones. On the way the Meiji Shinto Shrine in Shibuya, we passed the outer grounds of the Imperial Palace, where security and crowd control preparations were underway for the Emperor’s speech on Jan. 2 – one of the two days in the year that the monarch appears before the people. It was getting chilly by the time we arrived at the visitor-filled Shinto shrine, dedicated to the deified Emperor Meiji. It was easy to believe reports, then, that millions made the long trek to the middle of Yoyogi Park to make their wishes and to pray to their ancestors.

Next day, we ventured into the crazy fashion world of Harajuku. From hard-to-find clothing and shoe brands like Supreme, to kitschy little boutiques along the side streets, there’s something for everyone.

 

 

Food wasn’t a problem, with different vendors selling lunch and snack treats like crab rolls, barbecued meats and Japanese pancakes along the sidewalks. As we headed onto Takeshita Street, there were large crepes too! In the middle of taking pictures of weather-ready cosplayers and kawaii fashionistas, I found the Tokyo branch of Lolita brand Body Line and got my souvenir prize of the trip – a frilly version of a traditional yukata!

We then went back to Tokyo Station’s Ramen Street for dinner. Our destination: Rokurinsha, whose claim to fame (in the form of customers willing to wait over an hour for a table) is tsukemen dipping-style ramen. Even Anthony Bourdain passed by the place when he last toured Tokyo.

Since we’d already visited a Shinto shrine, we decided to spend part of our last day in town at the Sensoji Temple – otherwise known as the Buddhist Kannon Temple – in Asakusa. Past the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), we joined a throng of people being herded by the local police aides through the 200-meter long Nakamise shopping street, where yukata, geta, fans and all sorts of other curio are sold alongside delicious treats like ningyoyaki (sweet cake with red bean filling).

When we finally made our way to the temple itself, we tossed our coins, copied the bows and claps and emerged through one of the side exits to a veritable food fair. Candied apples and crepes sold beside yakisoba and okonomiyaki, and most tempting of all was a stall selling barbecued beef cuts and baby octopus. I was immensely surprised to discover that the vendors were a pair of Filipinas!

As the sun set, we wandered along one of the streets parallel to Nakamise, strolling past people eating at small noodle houses and some vendors selling trinkets. My brother found a man selling kendama, a traditional bouncing toy made up of a sword and a ball on a string.

Walking past decorated mini pine trees in the Ginza luxury shopping district, we realized that was the only other place aside from Universal Studios where we’d seen Christmas decorations.

Japan is a wholly different place, a wholly different experience from Manila in any season, and that short week between one year and the next brings out that other-ness quite sharply. No fireworks, no poppers, hardly any Christmas décor – it was the people themselves who brought out the festiveness of the end-of-year winter season.

ASAKUSA BEFORE THE BOOM ACCESSORY COM HTTP NEW YEAR PHILSTAR UNIVERSAL STUDIOS YEAR YOYOGI PARK
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