"First acts of the New Year"
Photographs and text by Mark Vallen - January 2001
For many Japanese, the celebration of the New Year is one of the most important events on the calendar. The Japanese New Year is a whole series of rituals and observances, and unlike the one day New Year's frivolity of the West... Oshogatsu (New Year) is a joyful, dignified, and serious event that lasts many days. The end of the year is a fresh start and a time for purification, and most people begin the celebration at the end of December with a thorough cleaning of the house, repairing or replacing things worn or broken. Special decorations and foods are set out, and by January 7th the festivities come to an end. With all of the ritual observances and celebrations that focus on purification, longevity, prosperity, and happiness... the one underlying emphasis is on kotohajime (first acts of the New Year). The first meal of the New Year, the first sunrise, the first performance, etc., are all considered significant events that mark a fresh beginning.

On January 7th, the BLACK MOON attended the kotohajime celebration sponsored by the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) at their facilities located in the historic Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. The event celebrating the year 2001 was curated by Artist Hirokazu Kosaka, and consisted of a performance incorporating the martial art of Kyudo (archery) with traditional music and modern dance. Some 200 people gathered in the spacious JACCC Plaza to witness the celebration.

The purification dance and ritual begins
A dancer moves slowly across the stage
A space was marked off directly in front of the JACCC's six story building using a shimenawa (Shinto sacred rope), designating the area as holy. Musicians, archers, and dancers then entered the area (pictured above and at left), for the ritual of hatsuya (the shooting of the New Year's first arrow). A troupe of gagaku musicians sat to one side of the performance area, and from there provided a musical backdrop for the proceedings. Multicolored banners and streamers were unfurled from the second story of the JACCC building, and volunteers dropped multicolored bits of paper that simulated a constant gentle cascade of fluttering flower petals.

One of the underpinnings of the performance was the solemn observance of yet another year passing. This was beautifully stated in the performance of a dancer who represented the old year (pictured at right). At the beginning of the ritual he stepped into the performance area standing upright and with the gait of a young man, but by the end of the affair he had transformed into an aged, bent figure barely capable of moving at all. The dancer's accomplished transformation was hardly discernible as it took place incrementally and over the course of the performance. Throughout the event the dancer moved with slow and deliberate steps that looked much like Tai Chi. When the ritual finally came to a close he was the last person left in the performance area, his movements mimicking the agonized efforts of a body ravaged by time.

The Dance of Death

The archer's perfect form is more important than hitting the target
The actual focus of the performance was the Zen Archery ritual of hatsuya, the shooting of the year's first arrow. The curator of the event, Hirokazu Kosaka, a member of the Los Angeles Kyudo Kai, participated as one of the archers, in fact he actually fired the first arrow of the New Year! The art of kyudo ("the way of the bow"), encompasses much more than Western archery. It incorporates Zen Buddhist philosophical principles that harmonize the mind, body, and spirit of the archer. While hitting the target is important, kyudo teaches that perfect form is more desirable than accuracy. A basic tenent of the art is that it is better to let the arrow fly in good form and miss one's target than it is to have bad form and hit one's target. Kyudo is a highly ritualized form of archery that at times seems more like choreography than martial art.

During the hatsuya ritual the archer aimed at a makiwara... the traditional elevated target made of tightly bound straw. The archer's arrow in flight symbolized the driving away of evil spirits, and that idea was driven home by way of a cleaver trick. Placed just in front of the target was a stand that held a small paper packet. When the archer let his arrow go... it first hit the packet, which exploded into a cloud of white paper confetti symbolizing purity. The effect was dazzling and I consider it extremely auspicious that I was able to capture with my camera the exact moment of the arrow hitting it's target!

The first arrow of the new year hits it's target!
The Classical Orchestra accompanies the ritual
All throughout the ritual performance, a small group of Japanese classical musicians performed gagaku. Gagaku literally means "elegant music", and it's the oldest form of orchestral music in the world. Playing mouth organs, flutes, and drums, the orchestra enthralled the crowd with the ethereal, mysterious, and eerie sound of ancient Japanese court music. Though the origins of gagaku are rooted in the Imperial Court, today the music is publically performed at shrines, temples, and other venues during special occasions.
At the conclusion of the performance a large barrel of sake was brought out and a group of prominent individuals including the Council General of the Japanese Embassy in Los Angeles were invited to break open the barrel using wooden mallets. Lovely kimono clad women distributed hundreds of small servings of the delicious rice wine to the expectant crowd, who finally raised their tiny cups with a collective shout of kampai (Cheers). JACCC staff and volunteers tossed beautifully wrapped bits of good luck mochi into the crowd as free gifts were distributed to select lucky individuals... with the BLACK MOON receiving a twenty pound bag of rice!
O-sake for all those gathered!
One of many children who participated in the ritual
People young and old made up the audience of the kotohajime ceremony, and it was a great joy to see so many children exposed to the cultural traditions and ceremonies of Japan. At the end of the ritual performance dozens of children rushed into the stage area to play with the colorful paper streamers and flower blossoms that had been utilized in the ritual. With the performance concluded, everyone was invited to enter the JACCC's Doizaki Gallery, where a celebratory exhibition of shikishi was offered. Shikishi originated in the late Heian period (794-1185) as a canvas for the paintings and poems of Court elites. Today the square paper boards are used as a surface upon which to paint congratulatory messages, Birthday greetings, haiku poetry, or other salutatory messages and artworks.
There is an annual exhibit of shikishi hosted by the JACCC, and artists, writers, priests, local personalities, and community members are invited to create shikishi that express thoughts of the New Year. It is always the submitted works of the Little Tokyo community that forms the body of the delightful exhibitions. In summation, the kotohajimi and hatsuya rituals hosted by the JACCC in Los Angeles are always some of the most profoundly beautiful and moving public performances seen on the streets of Los Angeles. They most certainly help to usher in a happy new year for all.
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