Have a Grrrrrrrrreat Year!

It's year of the Tiger! Haven't you heard? No, not that Tiger....
Anyways, I've been loving all of the Tiger themed costumes, keepsakes and ads.
Here's a tiger memo/pen holder I couldn't resist.
And a tiger bell I picked up at Meiji Shrine.. more on that later!
New Years is traditionally a holiday spent with family members whereas Christmas is seen as a holiday for couples. At first I couldn't make sense of that interpretation and then I started thinking of all the romantic comedies where people get together on Christmas. Maybe the Japanese have a point. I spent my New Years with my family eating shabu-shabu!
Shabu-shabu is a tasty dinner you cook at your own table in a large pot filled with a broth. It is called shabu-shabu because that is supposedly the noise the meat makes when it cooks. Our waitress was kind enough to review the technique with us and made sure each of us said "shabu-shabu" while cooking the meat. In addition to meat you are given lots of delicious veggies and tofu to cook in the broth too!
The meat is sliced very thin so that it can cook quickly! (in the amount of time it takes to say shabu- shabu)
There are seasonings and special dipping sauces: sesame for the veggies and soy-vinegar with horseradish for the meat. I'm not sure everyone loved it as much as the grilling meat at your table(yakiniku) but it was still delicious. After you're done cooking the meat and veggies you skim the pot (getting rid of gross floating fat) and add some noddles and finish off the broth cup o noodles style.
After the shabu-shabu we headed off to our next stop for the evening: karoke! On the way we walked by people pounding mochi in the street. To celebrate the New Years people traditionally eat mochi instead of rice. In their homes people have little displays set up with 3 mochi balls piled on top of each other and a mikan (or tangerine) on top. The shape is supposed to be reminiscent of a mountain. I got this plastic one and set up a little scene on top of my microwave.
We watched the drunk, jolly Japanese people pound mochi. One of the men spotted my father and grabbed him to give him a chance to pound the mochi! It was pretty awesome! We all cheered and Adam took photos. I really like the guy in the background laughing!
The rest of the night was pretty low key. However, the next day my family decided to start the year off right with a visit to the Meiji Shrine. The first shrine visit of the year is very important to the Japanese and called the hatsumode. Meiji shrine is one of the most famous and largest shrines in Tokyo so it seemed like a good choice.
We arrived and there were so many people walking the gravely path that the air was filled with dust. We waited in line for an hour or so as the line crept along slowly, luckily it was a beautiful day. Here's a great photo Adam got of the crowd.
Walking under the torii and enjoying a beautiful day.
Entrance to the shrine. Tiger plagues imitating the much smaller ones (called ema) you can write wishes on. The police were there dividing the crowd into smaller more manageable groups. They directed the crowd with a weird alien tiger sign. On this side the red writing tells the crowd to stop and the opposite side had green writing, telling the crowd to proceed with caution.
We walked up to the shrine and each of us threw money onto a giant white tarp covering the whole front steps of the shrine. There were lots of special lucky charms, arrows, o-mamori and hamaya that one could purchase. I picked out the tiger bell! As we left I made Adam pose in front of the long line of sake barrels by one of the entrances to the shrine. I always wonder what they do with all of this sake.
The next day I convinced my family to go investigate the Imperial garden, which was conveniently located a block or two from our hotel. The Imperial garden had 2 motes!
We were handed flags by Japanese boyscouts.

Then we were searched and led into a lane to wait for our chance to see the Emperor. In fact the Emperor only opens up the inner parts of the Imperial garden 2x a year. He does this on the 23rd of Dec and again on Jan 2nd. People come from all over Japan to see him and to wait in line.

It was very organized but I was skeptical we would make it to see him by his second viewing. He doesn't stand there the whole time but comes out and addresses the crowd periodically throughout the day. Claire and I waited patiently.
The line started to move and it looked like we might make it in time for the Emperor's second appearance!
We made it to the inner garden and waited.
On schedule the Emperor showed up with the entire family and the crowd went wild! That is to say everyone waved their flags enthusiastically until he addressed the crowd. The Emperor as far as I can tell has little political power but is seen as a symbol of Japan culturally and he is the highest authority of the Shinto religion. The Japanese Imperial monarchy is the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world.

It was noticeably different from an American crowd in that people didn't yell a lot, they just waved their flags. Go Japan!

Then everyone stopped and took photos. He was brief, probably wishing the crowd a fabulous New Years or whatever Emperors tend to say. Pretty soon after he was done and the crowd waved their flags again in support. Dad's getting a kick out of the whole thing and he has a slight height advantage so he can see.
We got someone to take a photo of us after we saw the Emperor.
I had a great time with my family and hopefully they are all recovering from Jet lag with fond memories of Japan. I have some other visitors coming the last week of Jan and the first 2 of Feb so I'm busy trying to finish up work. I also finished my little Red project but haven't had a chance to scan it. So that's it for now... Happy 2010!