Kobe for New Years Eve might not immediately strike you as obvious but as we were to discover, it was to be a unique and marvelous experience.
New Years celebrations are much the same in most places. We usually dress up, go to a big party somewhere in the city, watch fireworks and drink champagne. Yes, its nice but after years of the same thing, we wanted something different and something unique to remember.
Our travel plans brought us to Japan at the end of December and we ended up in Kobe for New Year’s Eve.
The hotel staff told us that all the NYE action was in the Sannomiya (nightlife) district of Kobe and the adjacent Ikuta Shinto Shrine. (New Year in Japan is usually celebrated with Shinto rituals.)
Ikuta Shrine dates back to the 3rd century A.D. It has withstood many catastrophies including the Kobe earthquake and it is significant as a symbol of hope for Kobe residents.
At around 10pm, we made out way to Higashimon Street. It’ a mall that is filled with bars and restaurants and is the haunt of Kobe’s young.
Both sides of the street were lined with market stalls and street food vendors with banners and decorations forming a kind of roof overhead. The divine aroma of grilled Takoyaki – (little octopus filled balls) filled the air along the way.
The temperature kept dropping but we were rugged up and the atmosphere was warm. Young intoxicated Japanese men were playing at leap frog in the mall to impress the girls. It was a nice change to see happy drunks.
On entering the Shrine grounds, we were surprised by the carnival atmosphere. The grounds were lined with food stalls and fortune sellers.
It’s a tradition to buy a New Year fortune for the coming year. We lined up with everyone else to buy ours at the shrine stalls. Those who end up with a bad fortune simply tietheir fortune paper to the branch of a special tree in front of the shrine so their bad fortune can change to one that is better.
As midnight approached, we ended up jam-packed at the temple entrance while security guards kept us back.
It was sub-zero but standing shoulder to shoulder kept us warm. Strangers became friends as we made freezing noises to each other. The crowds pressed, giggling at the cold. Everyone was in a good mood. There was a feeling of community and excitement as we waited for the countdown.
Taiko drummers took their places above us on the temple balcony then at midnight, they thundered in the new year .
The Shinto priests emerged at the entrance where a large bell connected to a long thick rope was hanging. Once the drums stopped, the priests sounded the bell. The guards stepped back, and in an orderly manner, New Year hopefulls respectfully filed inside, making a silent New Year wish as they passed the priests, leaving through the side exit into the garden.
In spite of the cold, no one was in a hurry to leave. We decided to find a nice warm bar so walked back down to Higashimon. A couple of shots of shochu did the trick and kept our innards hot for the uphill walk to our hotel.
New Year in Kobe is a wonderful memory. A place that stays in my mind when I need a positive place to retreat to in my mind.