Welcoming the New Year: Foxes and the Cold

Tokyo station was sparsely crowded but it served as a brief respite from the below freezing temperature of the Japanese winter’s bone chilling winds. Huddled together the four of us could only sleep for a few periods of time between our uncomfortable train station chairs and the bright lights of Tokyo Station’s underground section as we waited for 5am when the trains would begun to run again, allowing us to return to our respective locations after having celebrated the New Year.  Welcome to New Year’s Day 2015, my first New Year celebration away from home.

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Onah, Becky and Alec

I met up with my friends Becky, Alec and another international student  all of whom were also studying  at Meiji Gakuin on study abroad programs. It was certainly better to have others around than spending Christmas alone in Kyoto despite that being fun too. For New Years’ Eve we headed to Kita in the north of Tokyo in order to visit a shrine that has a New Years procession. Traditionally people go around at midnight with lanterns, carrying babies in baskets and wear fox masks. Unfortunately the cold was pretty bad on this day and it made being outside uncomfortable. Thousands of people gathered in this northern area of Tokyo despite the cold and we too joined the multitudes in shopping for fox masks, decorations and hot foods. So why the fox masks and why on New Years’? Ah well that is a good question.

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Wearing fox masks in the cold

Legend has it that long ago,  foxes from all around the Kanto region gathered under a large nettle tree and disguised themselves in human costume while they visited Oji Inari Jinja( the  head of Shinto shrines dedicated to the deity of foxes). Allegedly this event occurred on New Years’ several hundred years ago but it was only in 1993 that processions based on this legend began to take place. The result has been considerable attendance from people across the city which is an alternative from the fireworks and partying that can be seen in Tokyo’s more youth centered bar and dance club areas.

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The procession begins

We spent a few hours following the procession and listening to the drum beats. Red and white lanterns hung overhead or were carried by children wearing bright colored traditional garments and painted fox masks. The cold followed us the whole way and ultimately we decided to find somewhere where we could escape the cold. Afterwards we spent about an hour or so in a McDonalds because it was one of the few places open that was warm. At the ungodly hour of 2am, the trains from Kita started up though only to Tokyo station. Therefore once arriving at Tokyo Station, we still had to wait at least 3 hours until 5am when all trains began running. Huddled together in the station, the wind would occasionally blow in, chilling us to the bone but finally we were able to go home.

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