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Japan Update wishes all Happy Holidays

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2009-12-24

Santa Claus is coming to town in just a few short hours, New Yearís is just around the corner, and the Lunar New year isnít far behind, either.

Okinawa, an island which celebrates virtually everyoneís holidays including both the traditional and Lunar New Year, has a lot happening in the days ahead. Japan Update wishes all its readers a very happy holiday season, and best wishes for the new year. And as we all celebrate, letís take a moment to appreciate what the holidays are all about.

Customs and traditions vary around the world, but from Okinawa and Japan to Korea and China, to the continents of Europe, Africa, America, South America and Australia, December is a very special time. Itís a time for gift-giving, paying homage to ancestors, dressing up and decorating, and good old fashioned fun. Christmas is celebrated around the world, even by those with differing religious beliefs, as Christians honor the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Santa Claus is a part of Christmas, a tradition originates with jolly olí St. Nick in Scandinavia, where he made home visits to fill childrenís stockings and deliver gifts.

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, has already concluded, having run sunset December 11th through sunset December 19th. Hanukkah is celebrated to mark the survival of Judaism 23 centuries ago. Jews light the menorah, a special candleholder, to pay homage to a miracle when one dayís oil burned for eight days in the temple. St. Lucia Day, a Swedish celebration, also uses candles as part of the festivities. By tradition, young girls dress in long white gowns with red sashes, adorn their heads with burning candles, and sing to their families.

Kwanzaa, an American-created secular holiday, began in 1966. The African-American holiday runs seven days, from December 26th through January 1st. Instituted by a university professor in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Kwanzaa was intended to bring the community together. Christmas is a national holiday, but not in mainland China or Japan. In all, though, the popularity of the holiday, with gift giving and colorful lights, make Christmas a near worldwide celebration. Even in Islamic and Hindu countries, the secular side of Christmas is widely celebrated. The Philippines boasts the worldís longest Christmas season, starting with a handful of activities in September, then picks up steam with the nine-day dawn Masses that began December 16th.

In Central and Eastern Europe, Christmas Eve takes precedence. December 24th is often a fasting day, with gift-giving in the evening. From the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Hungary and Poland, evening feasts cap each day.

Here in Okinawa, itís a little of everything; colorful lights, special religious services, music and laughter everywhere. Christmas Fantasy is going on at Okinawa Zoo Park, the lights are burning at the Itoman Illumination at Peace Prayer Park, Southeast Botanical Gardens is glowing with lights, and hotels, resorts and businesses are turning up the lights, too.

There are dozens of events taking place daily across the island, and a brief listing is contained in the Japan Update Events This Week column, and more complete info is at www.japanupdate.com. A few you may wish to consider attending one of the many live performances on Christmas Eve. Yuka Takara performs at Ryubo Hall in Kumoji, Naha City at 7 p.m. Tickets are •3,000. Mikio Watanabeís Brazilian Guitar is on stage at JAL Private Resort Okuma starting at 8:15 p.m., with tickets •2,000, and a free Christmas Live at Carnival Park Mihama. The festivities begin at 5 p.m.

On Christmas Day, check out the Ryukyu Dance at 5 and 7 p.m. at Tembus Hall on Kokusai Street in Naha City. Tickets are •1,260. The Suzuki Method Okinawa Christmas Concert is at Palette Kumoji Theater in Naha City. The concert begins at 7 p.m., with tickets •500. Johnny Ginowan performs at Fishermanís Wharf in Yomitan at 7 p.m., and The Jammers perform free with Friday Night Live at Bar Lounge Paddle in the Laguna Garden Hotel in Ginowan City. The show starts at 9:30 p.m.

Lunar New Year, which in 2010 takes place February 14th, ushers in the Year of the Tiger. The Year of the Tiger is predicted to doubly special because it falls on Valentineís Day, and because any recent setbacks or obstacles can be overcome, so look forward to a year in which to really shine, either personally or professionally.

First, though, traditional new year celebrations are upon us, with customs and traditions from around the world being practiced here in Okinawa. New Yearís is the oldest of all holidays celebrated, first begun about 4,000 years go in ancient Babylon. Starting about 2,000 BC, the Babylonians celebrated their new year on March 23rd, an interesting choice since they had no written calendars. At any rate, Babylonians werenít content with only a New Yearís Eve; they celebrated 11 days, with each having a special theme. The Roman Empire kept the March date for centuries, but the emperorsí constant tinkering with calendars finally led the Roman Senate, in 153 BC, to declare January 1st to be the official beginning of each year.

That baby we see wrapped in diapers and holding the New Yearís Banner? Thatís a gift to America from the Germans, who used the image of a baby as the symbol of the new year since the early 14th century. The tradition of using the baby itself began in Greece about 2,700 years ago as they honored, Dionysus, their god of wine, by parading a baby about.

Visits to the Temples are traditional here on Okinawa. Naminoue Temple will attract tens of thousands beginning New Yearís Eve, as will Futenma, Narita and Onoyama shrines. Shortly before midnight, listen for the sounds of bells ringing at temples and shrines. The Japanese tradition, Joya no Kane, the ringing of the bells 108 times, usher in the new year while warding off evil spirits.

New Yearís Eve is a time for noodles, too. Toshikoshi soba noodles are believed to bring long and happy lives, so are extremely popular in restaurants around the island. The festivities continue New Yearís Day with Ganjijitsu, a time for more eating and drinking and sharing with families. Shogatsu is a serious family time, and relatives travel great distances to share even a few hours with each other.

Look for O-Zoni, a breakfast fare served New Yearís Day through the 3rd. O-Zoni is a mix of rice cakes in a vegetable soup, with the soup stocks varying from family to family. Thereís also the traditional New Yearís dish, O-Sechi, something hard to describe since each family modifies the sweet boiled black beans recipe to meet its needs.

A most visible sign of the New Year is the Kadomatsu, the pine decorations. Youíll find the Kadomatsu at entrances to homes, offices and restaurants, welcoming the God and the New Year. Look closely at the decorations and note the three bamboo shoots in the center, each with cut tips. Pine trees are part of the honors, too, because the local traditions trace back that pine trees remind everyone to be waiting for God, and that even in the midst of winter, all is fresh and bright.

Seasonís Night Gardens are open 5 ~ 10 p.m. daily at Southeast Botanical Gardens in Chibana, Okinawa City, until December 30th. Tickets are •1,500. Peace Memorial Park, the site of the last fighting during the Battle of Okinawa at Mabuni in 1945, forms the backdrop for the Itoman City Peaceful Illumination. Entry fee is •200 for adults and youth 15 and older. An estimated 120,000 are expected to trek south to absorb the splendor of more than 1.3 million lights in the display. There will also be fireworks on New Yearís Eve.

Even as the Itoman Peaceful Illumination is under way, plans are being finalized for the 32nd Mabuni Fire & Bell Observance New Yearís Eve into New Yearís Day. The ceremonial festival takes place at Okinawa Peace Memorial Hall, which also stands in Mabuni, with prayers being offered to the 230,000 who died during the Battle of Okinawa. Just before the new year arrives, moments before the stroke of midnight, the flame of prayer will descend from the 45-meter-high bell tower to light participantsí torches as they welcome in the new year. As a choir sings, the Bell of Peace is rung as participants light the large flame holder with their torches. Itís a solemn, chilling festival thatís not to be missed.

As if thatís not enough, expect that every single Live House, restaurant, club and hotel has a New Yearís Countdown, including Carnival Park in Mihama. Rinken Band performs at Kalahai, Mihama, on New Yearís Eve. Tickets for the 8 p.m. concert are •3,500 advance or •4,000 at the door. The Laguna Garden Hotel Countdown Party starts at 10:30 p.m. New Yearís eve, and admission is free. Also free is the MODs Countdown Live, starting at 9 p.m. at Live House MODs in Mihama. The Street Countdown Live at Carnival Park in Mihama is free, running at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Acoustic Diamantes performs at The Busena Terrace in Nago at 10 p.m., with admission free.

On New Yearís Day, Ayano Uema performs at 7:30 p.m. at Kanagusuku, Kokusai Street in Naha City. Tickets are •1,000. Keiko Higa Shima Taiko free performances take place at San-A Shiozaki City in Itoman at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., and at 2 p.m. at San-A Kyosuka City in Urasoe City. Otome Tsubaki performs Okinawan folk songs at 11:30 a.m. at San-A Naha Main Place in Omoromachi, and at 2 p.m. at San-A Gushikawa Main Place in Uruma City.

The New Yearís Bull Fighting Tournament takes place at 1 p.m. at Nakijin Bullfighting Ring, with adult menís tickets •3,000, womenís tickets •2,000, and high school student tickets •1,000. Look in the Events in www.japanupdate.com for a full listing of all holiday events.

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