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Farewell, 2013: A Gaijin’s Recount of New Year’s Countdown at Tokyo Tower

By Hyeyoon Sung

Every New Year’s Eve, where do you go? I normally stay at home watching people shout out the last ten seconds of the year on TV and idly imagining myself going to one of those countdown places. In those fantasies, I would always be enjoying the company of a robust, cheery crowd. It would be quite something to say farewell to the ending year and celebrate the advent of a new one in the midst of a bunch of bustling strangers. Normally, these plans would just be at the back of my mind as I have always been too lazy to leave the comfort of my room. However, this year was no normal year, at least not for me. This was my first turn of the year after arriving at Tokyo, and I wanted to try something new. To celebrate the successful first passing of a year in Japan, I finally decided to put my usual daydreaming to reality and went to Tokyo Tower, a place I had chosen among many candidates, for this year’s countdown.

Zojoji and Tokyo Tower, 2013.12.31. Photo by author.

Zojoji and Tokyo Tower, 2013.12.31. Photo by author.

At 12 o’clock, even though there was no one in particular counting down the seconds, the Tokyo Tower changed its colors, and the numbers on the neon sign changed to 2014. The whole process was proceeded in a swift, quiet way as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and there was no shouting till the advent of the New Year. I do not know if this is a natural occurrence in Japan, or if there was some mistake and everybody in the crowd just missed it. Many people looked confounded, but soon recovered and started enjoying themselves. My guess is that coming to the tower and gathering for the countdown on the last night of the year is, in itself, very memorable. Besides, there are so many other things to enjoy during the countdown event.

At the turn of the clock, the colors of the tower change, so if you want to find a nice place to watch, I suggest that you go to Zojoji, a shrine located near the tower. It is a nice tourist spot on other days as well, but on New Year’s Eve, it turns into the best place for observing the tower. If you walk a bit down along the road, you will be able to find it soon enough.

During the countdown event, in Zojoji, there are many vendors selling food such as takoyaki, amazake, or okonomiyaki—which form the unique ‘Matsuri’, or Japanese festival, atmosphere. If anyone asked me to recommend a snack to eat while doing the countdown in Japan, I would say that the Toshikoshi soba is a must for gaijin(Japanese word for ‘foreigner’). For the Japanese, Toshikoshi soba is the food you would share with your family at the night before New Year’s Day. It can actually be made out of any type of soba, and it also tastes just like any normal soba. But why would Japanese people have soba on such a special night? Why not ramen or udon?

Unlike ramen or udon, soba noodles are long and thin, which Japanese people associated with the yearning to lead a ‘thin and long’ life (which relates to the Eastern ideal of living a peaceful, long-living life). Plus, the easy-to-chew-off quality of soba noodles came to symbolize cutting oneself off from old troubles and getting over the hardship of the past year. In short, the Toshikoshi soba symbolizes a healthy, lucky new year.

In the midst of the vendors, on one side of the Zojoji grounds there is a fire event in which people burnt last year’s items. It is quite interesting to watch the temple people throw things into the fire as tourists gather around for the countdown. Other than that, there used to be an annual balloon releasing ceremony at Zojoji in which people could write their new year’s resolutions or wishes on balloons and let go of them as the clock struck 12. They did not hold the event this year, but some people brought their own balloons anyway and as the number on Tokyo Tower changed to 2014, freed it in the air. Even though it was not on a big scale as the real event would have been, it felt as if a part of myself for the past one year had also flown away with the balloons.

So, in short, if you have plans to visit Tokyo around the end of the year, and if you wish to do the countdown in Japan, Tokyo Tower is another good option. Plus, on December 31st, Tokyo Tower opens till 2 am and the trains operate throughout the night, so for foreign tourists this is a perfect place to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Hyeyoon is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo. 

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