January 7, 2013
In the Orient, the zodiac consists of 12 animals. In the West, 12 is the same, but not all are animals. Another difference is that each zodiac sign is one year long in the Far East, whereas the West's is one month.
So, 2013 is the Year of the Snake. Unlike the 2013's cousin which bothered Eve so much, Asia's reptile is one of good fortune. It is a god of sorts for many people in China and Japan. I am not too familiar with Korean customs or customs, but my guess is that there are folk there who continue to hold to the old ways.
The other eleven animals in the Oriental zodiac are, beginning at the start of the cycle, the mouse (some refer to it as the rat, but I don't like that nuance): next is the cow, then the tiger, rabbit (both Kimiko and I are rabbits), dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog and boar. Quite a zoo. No pandas or cats or pigeons or eagles or crickets.
In Japan, traditionally, new year cards are sent to friends, business associates, family members not present, school chums, clients, teachers and so on. In the old days, these cards were woodblock printed. Once a year, the family would get out the old knives from woodblock class in junior high school, buy some proper wood, and design something that included the year's animal, the standard greeting, GAN TAN, with open space for personal messages. However, that tradition has pretty much died. Now everyone makes the cards by computer. Before this present age, it was the home-style silk screen printer. Alas, this year we received so few woodblock cards, it almost isn't worth buying the New Year Cards holder.
Of course, I continue the tradition. You can see my snake on my Facebook page. Only three colors. My student, Terry McKenna, and Kimiko, and I printed 300 this time, 250 for domestic mailing on special post office new years cards , 50 on hand-made paper for international. Printing is done in December, then taken to the post office where the cards are kept until January first. Then, regular carriers and special part-timers deliver the cards nation wide. The second of January and the third, too. From the 4th, the usual mail is also delivered along with late-sent cards. It is a fantastic tradition. Getting a fist full of cards on January 1 is so exciting. Who sent us cards this year? Who did we forget to send carts to? Shall we? Must we? We will. This conversation is repeated every year by several million families I am sure.
Look carefully at the card I made this year. There is the happy, silly-looking reptile grinning at you. On the left side is the red GAN TAN greeting. What is that brown stuff at the bottom? Like the West's baby-year chasing away the old man-year, the bright, pretty green snake is emerging from the old, useless skin of its previous incarnation. On the skin, faintly seen, is the year 2002, which was the life it led 12 years ago. Snakes shed their skins, an obvious subject for a new year's card I thought.
Snakes do not especially like snow. That's why they sleep thru the winter. In Kyoto, snow is not an option lately. When any snow does fall, usually in the nighttime, it is gone by the next afternoon. Wasn't always this way, of course. But it is recently. We had one rather large snake and a smaller, offspring in our garden. I haven't seen either for a while. They have both moved, or are asleep under the house. This is their year; maybe I'll feed them the noisy children who live down the street. 12 years from now, they'll be too big for snakes to eat. Something to think about.