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Southern Celebrations: New Year's Fun in Fukutsu (Fukuoka)

福岡県小倉市、福津市宮地嶽神社

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BGM: Traveling by Utada Hikaru

My home stay in Minamikayabe had drawn to a close and it was time for me to embark upon the next leg of my New Year's journey: a trip to the southern island of Kyushu. Masaru would be staying in Hokkaido with his family and Shiori had already flown on down ahead of me to deliver the family seafood presents on time. So, with many hugs, bows, tears and much laughter, I was on the next train to Chitose Airport.

From Chitose, I flew to Nagoya Int'l. Stepping into the main terminal I could not believe how many people where there, all bundled up in black and beige overcoats, a sea of businessmen and traveling families all trying to get home for the holidays. The storm that just finished ravaging Hokkaido was now approaching the mainland and strong winds had delayed many flights. There were hundreds of people just standing around waiting. I had about an hour's wait til my connection, so I ordered a steaming, savory bowl of Nagoya's classic flat-noodle soup: kishimen. Spiked with pepper and flavored with green onion and threads of swirled egg, the noodles were light yet surprisingly filling and tasted perfect on a cold, windy day. (They quite resembled my mom's hand-cut noodles!). As I savored my soup, the song Traveling by Utada Hikaru played on the food kiosk's TV monitor, filling the air with a festive vibe of forward motion. ("Traveling, mado wo traveling sagete nanimo kowakunai mo-doh...").
I was ready to roll!

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Shiori and her family were already there waiting for me when I walked into the bustling, crowded Fukuoka International Airport. Her mom and sisters laughed out loud in surprise as I gave each one of them a big ole' Alaskan-style hug. Mom's accent was a little different than that of Masaru's family in Hokkaido, but for some reason, I could understand her more easily. I thought it was going to be hot this far south, but everyone was still bundled up in their winter clothes, some people carrying skis and snowboards. Snow in Kyushu? Are you kidding me?

The oldest sister drove us out of the concrete city and into the hilly suburbs. The houses here had softer, more angled roofs with a sense of traditional Japanese design, not the typical box-shaped houses like in downtown Sapporo. We pulled up to Shiori's home in the small castle town of Kokura. Mom, a professional kimono designer and fitter, immediately set me to the fun task of holding obi sashes and collar folds in place as she dressed up her daughters in their lovely seasonal kimono. It was dizzying watching her keep track of every little fold. There was a real system to it! But mom made it look so easy: a pin here, a yank there, a strap here. Within minutes, each of her daughters had transformed into lovely noblewomen, slender and feminine. Mom then sent us out as she transformed herself into a vision of elegance in muted coppers and fawn browns, simply breathtaking with a rich, navy wool stole across her graceful shoulders.

We each carried packages of food to the New Year's banquet at their neighbor's house just a short walk up the hill, zori sandals flapping and slapping. (I wanted to record that sound!) The low, black table was spread with all manor of New Year's delights, with plates of local fish, vegetable and tofu dishes complementing the jubako boxes full of traditional osechi ryori. Before eating, it was the tradition to partake of toso, the New Year's sake. Like in the tea ceremony, everyone shares in the joy and hopes for a prosperous year. The host said a few welcoming words, took the first sip, and passed the cup around, ceremonially cleansing it with an elegant swipe of a perfectly folded napkin. When it finally came time for me to drink, I had somewhat of an idea of how to hold and sip it. The sake was sweet like sugar candy and as strong as any vodka out there. "Delicious" isn't a good enough word to describe it.

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We drank hard and partied long into the night. At the beginning of the celebration, I couldn't understand anything without help from Shiori. But strangely enough, the more sake I drank, the more I understood! It was a miracle! Sake cups clinked with beer glasses as we laughed and sang ourselves silly. When the menfolk started falling asleep against the walls, we knew it was time to head back to Shiori's house for the night. As soon as my body hit that soft, cozy futon, I was out like a light.

The next morning, after a wonderful vegetarian breakfast of tofu and different kinds of greens like mizuna and mustard leaves, mom told me that it was "my turn." She found a kimono that might work for me! Shiori coached me to suck in my gut as far as it would go as the wide, silk obi sash was pulled so tight around me my back popped into place! (I have to say that it felt marvellous, like corrective shiatsu massage!) I couldn't help but think how much muscle power this wispy, delicate woman had! She was incredible! Though the kimono wouldn't shut closed in the front, we all laughed about it and she proceeded taking proud pictures from the back and sides. She'd done the impossible!

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Tadah! Packed in like a can o' salmon!!

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Since it was too cold to do omairi (shrine-visiting) in kimono, I changed back into my comfortable but boring jeans and long-sleeved tees, layering up as much as possible since snow was in the forecast. Yup, you read me right: snow!

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We drove to the old, rustic Miyajidake Shrine in Fukutsu City. The wind was cold and blustery, pushing flurries of snow to drift and swirl up and down the mountainsides. Even in Japan's deep south, it was still biting cold down here! Brrr!

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Gaily colored yatai (street vendors) spanned in long rows from the shrine's main entrance, selling everything from wooden clogs to fried chicken nuggets. We warmed up with a hot, sweet cup of amazake (hot fermented rice porridge drink) and then Shiori and her mom proceeded to teach me about the many steps to proper omairi. We washed our hands at the dragon-shaped fountain just inside the giant torii gate, trudged along with the slow-moving crowd to the box where we would bow, throw our money in and clap our hands to make a wish. Me being of a different faith, it was enough for me to just respectfully watch the spectacle. After the family finished praying, we wandered around the temple grounds to the place where some high-school aged shrine girls dressed in hakama kimono were selling various amulets and postcards.

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Shiori payed one of the girls a few hundred yen, told me to rattle a little wooden box filled with sticks and pull one of them out. The number would correspond to a little drawer with small white slips of paper inside. This was my omikuji (fortune), she explained. I pulled out my paper and handed it to Shiori to translate. She shrieked out loud as if she'd won the lottery! "You lucky lady!" she shouted, slapping my arm. I got the "daikichi," the luckiest of the 16-some odd choices. I really had no idea what it all meant, but it was fun to go along with it as I tied my fortune to a fence marked with thousands of others. My life was awesome enough without belief in luck, but it was fun to tease the others about their lower fortunes to the point where they told me to shut up (evil grin).

Walking around the grounds of Miyajidake Shrine, we saw many blaring red, weather-worn torii gates, a giant bell, an even bigger taiko drum and a collection of perfectly preserved ashibukiyane thatched roof houses at nearby Minzokumura folk village. Hundreds of years old and still standing, they completely enchanted me as I poked around them, my jaw dropped in perpetual awe. Those houses were older than my entire culture!

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Chilled to the bone, we went home to heat up with some piping hot yakimochi (sticky rice dumplings) and green tea. We warmed our frozen legs by the kerosene heater, watching the hot coals on the brazier until we all fell slept like cozy cats in front of the TV. Shiawase! (Happiness!)

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Posted by GenkiLee 01:24 Archived in Japan Tagged kimono fukuoka kyushu miyajidake_shrine fukutsu_city minzokumura thatched_roof_houses omikuji toso utada_hikaru

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