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Island coming alive for New Year festivities

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2007-12-28

Christmas trees are coming down, the gifts are being played with, and everyone’s ready to get out of the house and have some holiday fun.

New Year’s is just around the corner, and the Lunar New Year isn’t far behind, either. Okinawa, which celebrates both the traditional and Lunar New Year, has a lot happening. One of the most popular is the Shinshun Kahu Debiru at Okinawa’s Ocean Expo Park in Motobu. The events are all free.

The park hosts the three-day festival beginning New Year’s Day. Be sure to take cameras, as there’s plenty of excitement to capture. Traditional Ryukyuan dance takes place each morning at 9:30 a.m. at the Fountain Plaza, and Shihimai Lion Dance and Eisa Dance will be presented four times daily. The first dance each day is at Uminchu Gate, while the rest are at Fountain Plaza.

Hands-on involvement at the festival are a mochi-making experience, where visitors learn to make mochi (rice cake) with a mortar and pounder. Guests can partake of kuwatchi tasting, tasting the confectionary of Okinawa, or experience a Japanese tea ceremony. Kuwatchi tasting is held twice daily at Fountain Plaza, while the tea ceremony occurs three times each day.

Mini-kite making is another do-it-yourself adventure, with a lecturer teaching visitors how to make and fly a kite. The classes take place three times each day at the Native Okinawan Village. If that’s not your thing, learn how to make spinning tops. Training and play takes place twice daily at the Native Okinawan Village.

Churaumi Aquarium, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last month, is the one of the centerpieces of the Ocean Expo Park in Motobu. To get there take the Expressway to the northern exit in Kyoda, then Highway 58 to Nago City. From there, follow the signs.

There’s still time to take in the colorful lights and decorations of the holiday season. The 9th annual Itoman City Peaceful Illumination continues at Peace Memorial Park, where this year’s illumination theme is “The snow is coming to Itoman City with fantastic beams of light. Let the light in your mind for world peace.”

Peace Memorial Park, the site of the last fighting during the Battle of Okinawa at Mabuni in 1945, forms the backdrop for the illumination. Entry fee is ¥200 for adults and youth 15 and older. An estimated 120,000 will make the trek south to take in the splendor of more than 1.3 million light bulbs in the display. There will be fireworks New Year’s Eve, and a countdown heralds in the new year.

Southeast Botanical Gardens Christmas and New Year’s Paradise 2007-2008 offers its Christmas illumination amidst natural greenery, flowers and tropical trees through January 2nd. Admission for adults and children 12 and older is ¥1,800 in advance or ¥2,000 at the park. Children 6~11 pay only ¥900 advance admission or ¥1,000 at the park. Children five and under are free.

Christmas Fantasy 2007 at Okinawa Zoo Park, complete with tons of snow, ends today. The six-day holiday special event has featured a taste of real winter, as fantasy creators open a couple of kamakura snow cottages, a Japanese style igloo, to give everyone a chance to experience the cool feel of snow. Okinawa’s best known laser show, a skillful blend of lasers, fireworks, snow and soap bubbles. Okinawa Zoo Park goes through its final three shows tonight at 6:20 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9:40 p.m. Adult and high school student tickets are ¥1,700 in advance, or ¥2,000 at the gate. Children’s tickets for youngsters 4 through junior high school are ¥1,000 in advance or ¥1,200 at the gate. Tickets are available at MCCS Tours and Kadena ITT.

Lunar New Year, which this year is February 7th, ushers in the Year of the Rat. The first sign of the Chinese zodiac, the earth rat is said to be charming, passionate, charismatic, practical and hard working. The rat leads the 12 animals of Chinese astrology, and followers call the rat intelligent and cunning, highly ambitious and strong-willed.

First, though, the traditional new year celebrations are on us, with customs and traditions from around the world being practiced here in Okinawa. New Year’s is the oldest of all holidays celebrated, first begun about 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylon. Starting about 2,000BC, the Babylonians celebrated their new year on March 23rd, an interesting choice since they had no written calendars. At any rate, the Babylonians weren’t content with a New Year’s Eve; they celebrated for 11 days, each with a specific theme. The Roman Empire kept the March date for centuries, but the emperors’ constant tinkering with the calendar finally led the Roman Senate, in 153BC, to declare January 1 to be the official beginning of each new year.

That baby we always see wrapped in diapers and holding the New Year’s Banner? That’s 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 their god of wine, Dionysus, by parading a baby about.

Visits to the temples are traditional here in Okinawa. Naminoue Temple will attract tens of thousands beginning New Year’s Eve, as will Futenma 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.

Of course, the Japanese’Shogatsu’ New Year Celebration has more traditions, and many are being embraced not only by the younger generation, but by foreigners. ‘Omisoka’ is New Year’s Eve, simply the last day of the month, with the O added as the final element of the year.

New Year’s 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 Year’s Day, with Ganjitsu, a time for more eating and drinking and sharing with family. 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 Year’s 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. There’s also the traditional New Year’s dish, O-sechi. It’s hard to describe, as each family modifies the recipe to meet its needs. Suffice it to say, there are sweet boiled black beans somewhere in it.

A most visible sign of the times, the new year, is the Kadomatsu, the pine decorations. You’ll 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 a part of the honors, too, because local tradition traces back that pine trees remind everyone to be waiting for God, and that even in the midst of winter all is fresh and bright.

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