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Celebrating New Year Okinawa Style

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2011-12-30

The glitter is still everywhere, and the holiday lights are burning from the northern end of Okinawa to Peace Prayer Park on the southern tip as we make ready to usher in the new year this weekend.

Once we’re beyond the modern celebrations New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, we look ahead to January 23rd, when the Lunar New Year ushers in the Year of the Dragon. The Chinese New Year is Tet Nguyen Dan in Vietnam, Korean New Year in South Korea, or Setsubun here in Japan. In Okinawa. The Chinese New Year is most widely celebrated in the southern section, including Itoman City.

First, though, traditional new year celebrations are upon 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 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 weren’t content with only a New Year’s Eve; they celebrated 11 days, with each having a special theme. The Roman Empire kept the March date for centuries, but the emperors’ 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 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, Dionysus, their god of wine, by parading a baby about.

Visits to the Shrines and Temples are traditional here in Okinawa. Naminoue Shrine 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.

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 140,000 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 Year’s Eve.

Even as the Itoman Peaceful Illumination is under way, plans are being finalized for the 34th Mabuni Fire & Bell Observance New Year’s Eve into New Year’s 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 participants’ 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. It’s a solemn, chilling festival that’s not to be missed.

As if that’s not enough, expect that every single Live House, restaurant, club and hotel has a New Year’s Countdown, including Carnival Park in Mihama. Parties cross into other parties throughout the weekend. At Club Thyme, a countdown party covers New Year’s Eve, while a w Year’s Party takes place on January 1st. Sparkling wine goes to everyone courtesy of the Club Thyme hosts. The countdown party is ¥2,500 ($25) for men and ¥1,500 ($15) for women, and that includes nearly a dozen different kinds of cocktails.

Club Thyme’s New Year’s Day party is free, and drink menus will all be at special prices. Club Thyme is located on the 2nd floor of the Goya Building, where 7th Heaven is on the 3rd floor. Travel from Kadena Air Base Gate 2, turning left at Route 330 and go past Bank of the Ryukyus and immediately look for a game center. Thyme’s right there.

NEST in Okinawa City’s having a Countdown Party starting at 10 p.m. New Year’s Eve, with admission ¥2,000. Entertainment includes Play By, God Making, Daddy P, Metro Bank, Flava Squad, Shin, Daga-T, Grand Heart and Voice Media. Club Ando in Chatan Town’s got its New Year’s Eve starting at 8 p.m. for ¥2,500 advance or ¥3,000 at the door. Ando’s on Highway 58 just north of Camp Foster, on the 5th floor of a building shared with Latin Soul and Afuego. Space 1 has Hip Hop, R & B and Top 40, while Space 2 shares Salsa, Merengue, Bacheta and Reggaeta.

Club Clutch in Naha City’s New Year’s Part is January 1st, starting at 11 p.m. Admission is ¥1,000. The New Year’s Eve countdown at Bar Jammin’ in Nago City is ¥1,500.

Rinken Band Countdown Live is at Kalahai in Mihama, Chatan, starting at 10:30 p.m. Tickets are ¥3,500. The Koza Street Dance Festa begins at 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve at Music Square in the Music Town Sound Market in Okinawa City. Admission is free. Rakuen presents Countdown 2011-2012 at 10 p.m. at Sakurazaka Central in Naha City. Admission is ¥1,000.

On New Year’s Day, and through January 3rd, Feast of the Year is the Shuri Castle special event, a three-day festivity that actually runs through March 1st. The Feast of the Year reproduces the ritual of the Ryukyu Dynasty, Amazake tea and behavior of the Ryokyus appropriate for New Year’s. The Shuri Castle is only a 15-minute walk from the Shuri Monorail Station.

A complete listing of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day events is located in the Japan Update Events Calendar.

With changing times, stores aren’t closed on New Year’s, like they used to be. Banks and government offices, including post offices, ARE closed through January 3rd, but major department stores and supermarkets are open. San-A and Kanehide are open daily 9 a.m. ~ midnight, while Aeon JUSCO stores are open 10 a.m. ~ midnight. MaxValu supermarkets are open 10 a.m. ~ midnight, with larger stores open 24 hours.

Makeman is open 9:30 a.m. ~ 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve, but closed January 1st. Nitori is also open New Year’s Eve until 9 p.m., and closed January 1st. Sakumoto Home Center is open New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 10 a.m. ~ 6 p.m. Mitsukoshi Department Store is open 10:30 a.m. ~ 7 p.m. New Year’s Eve, but closed January 1st.

New Year’s Eve is a time for noodles. 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 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 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, 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. 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 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.

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