New Year on Oshika

I am compelled to visit here every year, without fail. The first half of 2017 was dominated by events beyond my control, that made it difficult for me to leave the UK for a lengthy period of time, and the pickles will always dominate the second half of any year. And as the year came to an end, I became more and more determined to get to Oshika by midnight on New Year’s Eve, so that I would have been here at some point during 2017. And for the first part of this trip I’ve had a companion, but writing about that will be for another time … maybe.

We arrived in the evening of December 31st, and just before midnight, headed up to the Ohara shrine. Kuni, the youngest adult male in the village, hurried by in the pouring rain, with his hood up and his hands in his pockets, barely stopping to say hello, which was very unlike him, but I was soon to find out was because he makes it his mission every year to be the first to pray at the shrine, and the first to ring the bell just after midnight.

We walked up the steps to the shrine, and were about to go in and pray, when Kuni came out full of smiles and ready with a big hug, relieved that he’d got to be the first to pray. We chatted like it had only been yesterday since we last saw each other, and not in fact a year and a half, until he suddenly stopped and ran over to the kanetsukido to ring the bell he had been distracted from. The sound of that bell ringing never fails to move me, and Kuni rang it as loud as he could several times, then checked his watch to make sure he’d rang it as close to midnight as possible. He’d made it just a few minutes after midnight, so he was happy.

We prayed and rang the bell ourselves, and the bell continued to ring out through the village in the days that followed, as one by one, the Ohara residents or those that were visiting, walked the steep steps up to the shrine to pray and ring the bell to mark the beginning of a new year.

You can hear that bell from anywhere in the village, and a little thrill always goes through me, whether I am up there at the shrine and feeling the sound move through the kanetsukido, or by the sea and stopped in my tracks by the sound echoing across the land. And every time I hear it I think about Will and his family and friends, who made the kanetsukido possible. And hope they know how much their kindness is appreciated, and will be appreciated by many people in the years to come.

It’s my first time to be on Oshika at the beginning of January, so wasn’t sure what to expect. I found that most people here hibernate during what is the biggest holiday season in Japan. Almost all the ports are still. The boats sit at the docks, with Japanese flags and bamboo branches tied to the masts swaying in the wind. The few shops that are here are closed. Most businesses shut down. Work on the massive sea wall that is well under construction now along the entire coastline has diggers sitting unattended on top of them. But the tourists are drawn here.

So we did what the tourists do, and used jetlag to our advantage by getting up at 5am on New Year’s Day to drive up to Gobanshokoen, the highest point on Oshika, and one where you get a magnificent panoramic view of the peninsula, which I have seen many times, but this time it was to see the first sun rise of 2018. Gobanshokoen was full of people waiting for the sun to rise — some local but mostly tourists. One group of cyclists we’d passed earlier struggled and panted their way to the highest point — they’d probably come from Ishinomaki, some 40km away. I dread to think what time they’d set off.

The view was breathtaking, and the few clouds on the horizon did not spoil anybody’s excitement and anticipation as the sun took its time to rise near Kinkasan, the island at the very end of the peninsula, considered to be one of the sacred places in Tohoku, and the closest part of Japan to the 2011 earthquake’s epicentre. It was an incredible way to welcome 2018.

After eating a noodle breakfast, we headed back down to Ayukawa, the main port on Oshika, which was actually bustling with little food stalls that the locals had set up, and queues of people waiting to take the boat over to Kinkasan. Nobody lives on Kinkasan … it is an island full of shrines and deer that are now so comfortable with humans that they will eat out of your hand. It is believed that if you visit Kinkasan on three consecutive years that you will never have any money worries again. We took a very small boat over to the island, intending only to walk around the shrines, but found ourselves ushered in just when a ceremony was beginning. I’ve participated in many ceremonies at shrines on Oshika, but never in a shrine so revered by Japanese people, and felt extremely honoured to be welcomed in, as well as mildly curious about the group of men at the front who looked suspiciously like yakuza to me. Just when I think I know Oshika I find myself in another world. Having an experience never to forget.

The next day was all about Ohara. A small ceremony held at the community centre, where I stay on Oshika, followed by taiko drumming and shishimai dancing. With few people here now who can participate in taiko or shishimai, I was soon joining in on one of the small taiko drums, and Matthew was invited to be the middle person in the shishimai. I am always so touched by how my Ohara friends are so welcoming of people who are willing to join in with their customs. After the ceremony at the community centre, the visitors left, and we joined a small group of locals to drive up to where the former temporary housing residents are now living, in their new houses. We stopped at each house, took the drums off the back of a little truck, and started playing music as the shishimai team danced their way into each house and out again, sometimes just going into the entrance and back out, and sometimes going through all the rooms in the house. In the latter cases, we were then invited to sit down and platters of sushi and trays of beer and sake were presented. With the first beer at 11am, I soon realised this might be turning into a bit of an all-dayer. I was right. The New Year’s Eve drinking that I might have experienced in England or even in Tokyo was saved, in Ohara, for this day.

I loved welcoming 2018 on Oshika. I loved the quiet moment at midnight up at the Ohara shrine, thinking of Will and his family and friends, watching the sun rise over the peninsula, and being part of the New Year ceremony on Kinkasan. But most of all I loved going in and out of people’s houses in the little village I have come to love so much.

New Year on Oshika was a reminder of why it feels important to me to continue to support people here. Because they have a way of life that modern society is leaving behind. Being part of a tight-knit community. That takes care of each other. That puts effort into bringing New Year joy and luck to their neighbours, ensuring that everyone, including the elderly and those living alone, are offered love.

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