Japan, Here and Now by Jacqualine Kurio

Ending the Year on a Cheerful Note

In recent months there seems to have been no end to the breadth and depth of gloomy news abounding around the world. While it may be hard to move one's mind away from any number of potentially-worrying issues, it may be worth remembering that the year's end in Japan is traditionally a time for celebration. Whether it be in the often-raucous form of a company's annual 'bonenkai' or the quieter, more reflective period of 'Oshogatsu', when people retreat to their family homes to enjoy time out of their busy lives with loved-ones, there are a whole host of activities and events that can be taken advantage of to help relax body, soul and mind during this, the deepest point of winter. Here then, are just a few ideas to help you unwind and enjoy this special season.

Do Something Festive
Christmas seems to be one of those festivals that has transposed itself into many cultures, regardless of the resident religions and beliefs and Japan is no exception. It may be hard not to be put off by the gaudy side of the commercialism in which it is wrapped, but try to get past that and savour instead the opportunity to see some fantastic illuminations with a spot of night-time light viewing, greatly enhanced by being, on the whole, free. Many downtown areas in the major cities are making the effort with glorious displays of lights and Christmas trees. Tokyo Tower is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary and the extra illuminations and light show have been designed with this in mind. The Midosuji district in Osaka is putting on a wonderful display this year - a move, the mayor has stated, intended to counter the economic downturn and boost morale in the region. Kobe's illuminations have become famous nationwide and are well worth a visit, even a trip to the city if you live elsewhere. Some of these displays include light shows beamed onto the facades of buildings and there may even be musicians to add to the magic. The illuminations at Roppongi Hills this year are accompanied by a German-style Christmas market, complete with gluhwein, hot soup, sausages and beer. Yum!

Give a Gift - With Meaning
Nothing lightens the heart quite like the act of giving and 'Oshogatsu' in Japan is traditionally a time to give gifts. Many of these gifts have a feeling of being mandatory and this in itself can reduce the pleasure of giving - a true act of giving comes from within the heart and is not borne of pressure exerted from without. Charities are aware of this and often try to capitalise on the mood with rigorous advertising campaigns and if you feel so inclined, there are certainly plenty of worthy causes that could do with some support, both abroad and closer to home. Another kind of gift that is often greatly appreciated is one that has been hand made. Biscuits, cakes, cookies and sweets such as fudge can be made quite easily at home and once put into a pretty box or bag make a truly lovely present. Other craft items made from material such as paper or beads do not have to take lots of time and will mean so much to the recipient. There are small shops around Asakusabashi in Tokyo that run sessions where customers can participate in making goods, if you feel you need some assistance (and incentive!) to get going.

Visit a Spa or Onsen
What better way to unwind and soak away the stresses of the year than with a visit to a spa or onsen? Japan is famous for its hot springs and no doubt you have already sampled the delights of a 'roten-buro' on a starry, moonlit night, ideally sipping a cup of hot sake. If you don't have the time to take a trip to an onsen in the countryside, then perhaps an afternoon in a spa in one of the major city hotels is an equally attractive alternative. Spas offer a range a treatments including massages and beauty treatments and there is no doubt that a few hours of pampering can reintroduce that spring into your step. Add to this facilities such as saunas with magnificent city views and infinity pools and the idea becomes harder to resist. With more than 6,000 spas to choose from nationwide, the only trouble you might have is deciding which one to try first.

Indulge in a Winter Sports Activity
The Nagano Winter Olympics reaffirmed Japan internationally as one of the top destinations for those wishing to participate in winter sports and this is currently one of the growth areas within the Japanese tourist industry. While all of the top destinations boast excellent skiing and snowboarding facilities, many of them are beginning to realise the potential of overseas visitors and are extending the range of language assistance on offer at resorts to include Chinese, Korean and English. There are many good, last-minute deals to be had and these often include transportation, accommodation and ski passes. If you are a beginner then classes can sometimes be available in languages other than Japanese; staff in JTB branch will be happy to help you plan your trip.

Visit a Temple or Shrine
Praying for future good fortune and giving thanks for past blessings is a well-known activity at this time of year. Families traditionally visit shrines from new year's eve onwards and major sites such as Meijijingu in Tokyo can see thousands shuffling towards the main building at midnight. Leaving your visit for a day or two is a good way to avoid the crowds. Many temples also host small markets where they sell new year decorations and souvenirs and these can be interesting places to pick up small trinkets light enough to consider sending overseas as gifts. Why not make a day of it and include a mountain hike or visit to an onsen at the same time? Combining all three would be an excellent way to attend to your mind, body and soul and could possibly be a great way to set yourself up for the year to come.

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