I remember some particularly dire Christmas times, like when I was hospitalised with a mental health problem in 2000. I was in the ward of the Jikei Idai Hospital for six weeks, including Christmas, and I remember it was a time for reflection. What else could I do? I had time to sit and think about life, finally. For so many years I had been frantic with family and work. About 9 months earlier I had left my family home and gone out to live by myself in the community. I had found a small apartment in a remote location far from the train station and I had settled down, but things didn't turn out so well and I had a complete mental collapse between going to a job I didn't like anymore and missing my family, especially my children. The hospital took me in. I remember it was snowing outside when they let me out for walks around the block; the hospital was in central Tokyo and the streets were full of busy salary-men and office ladies. I trudged along for half an hour then headed back inside the ward and noone knew I was sick.
Another lonely time was last Christmas. I had put mum into the nursing home in Sydney in mid-December and I had to wait until February before I could move down from Queensland myself. I remember going down to the food market on Christmas morning and picking up my Christmas roast chicken, and taking it back home with me to eat alone in my apartment.
There have been times when I have been lonely and there have been times when I have been surrounded by family. I think the end-of-year celebrations they have in Japan are the most delightful things you can imagine. On new year's eve everyone sits up late watching "enka" (traditional Japanese style songs) on the TV. The evening's entertainment finishes after midnight so everyone has a chance to say "Happy New Year!" to one another while the TV is still blaring away. The traditional "osechi ryori" has already been prepared by the women of the household. On New Year's Day everyone gets together and eats the "osechi" with chopsticks and then eats hot "mochi" in a thin salty soup called "ozoni", then they go out to the local Buddhist temple to burn the festive objects from the previous year, and buy new ones for the current year. Children run around and eat snacks you buy in small stalls along the paths of the temple compound.
One year I remember a neighbour - whose husband liked to drink - invited my wife and I to their apartment on Christmas Day and we got drunk on liquor, probably sake (I don't remember, unsurprisingly). When it was late, the husband took me for a walk around the block and when we were coming back to the place where our houses were located he diverted our trajectory so that we ended up in front of the local Shinto shrine, as if he wanted to say, "It's all very well getting drunk at Christmas but Japan is a traditionally Shinto country." I took his message in good spirit and went back home, and to bed. Life is sometimes full of strange surprises. Perhaps something strange and unusual will happen to me during the festive season this year. You never know.