A huge shout out to my mom, who survived a hellish trip to Japan (arriving 30 hours later than she was supposed to) just to see me, and another to my dad, who booked hotels for her stranded nights in Chicago and Narita!
So winter vacation in Japan officially runs from the 29th of December through the 3rd of January. It’s a total reversal from the US holiday season, because here in Japan, Christmas is more of a “dating holiday” (and a KFC holiday), whereas New Year’s is the big family celebration. Anyways, I tacked three days of holiday leave (nenkyu) onto the end of that vacation period… because my mom and I had a pretty busy week lined up!
First, on New Year’s Even, I took my mom to Nikko, Tochigi for a brief day trip. I knew she would enjoy the history of the wondrous Tosho-gu Shrine (which I styled as “the Versailles of Japanese shrines,” because of all the ornate gold leaf).
I visited Tosho-gu back in September, and unsurprisingly nothing has really changed, so for photos of this magnificent place, check out this September post. But I will include a photo of my mom and I near Nikko’s famous bridge:
It was a pretty cold day in Nikko, and we were “Dreaming of a Warm Train,” after a few hours in the open air, but a bowl full of hot New Year’s Eve Soba later, I dragged her outside for one more walk — a walk through the Abyss.
More accurately, it’s the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, but that’s quite a mouthful, so I just stick to “The Abyss.” It sounds more mysterious that way, anyway.
It’s not the easiest place to find, but once we arrived, I was more than happy to have put in the effort. The Abyss has a bit of a magical feel about it. Nestled serenely in a little gorge, the riverside pathway is lined with somewhere around 70 statues of Jizo. (I think the actual number depends on whether you really count the headless statues, or the statues where only a vaguely face-shaped rock remains).
We were both intrigued by the fact that all the statues wore knitted caps and matching red bibs. On the train ride home, I researched Jizo statues and the meaning behind the ornamentation.
Apparently, Jizo statues are the Buddhist guardians of a lot of different people (pregnant women, physical and spiritual travelers, and the weak) but Jizo pays special attention to the souls of unborn children as well as children who die at a young age. The statues and their red clothing are usually cared for by local women who are building up merit for the afterlife. Gifts can sometimes be seen near the statue, offered by both grieving parents and by parents whose child recovered from a serious illness. So overall, Jizo seems to be a very popular, very well-loved Bodhisattva. We learned a lot that day.
New Year’s Eve ended exactly how I thought it would end: both my mom and I were asleep. Of course, my mom at least had the excuse of being jet-lagged. So I missed the temple visits and the ringing bells and the fireworks of New Year’s Eve in Japan, but that’s okay! Maybe I’ll see it all next year?
And at least we did one thing right in the tradition of Japanese New Year: at least we ate December 31st soba!