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Letters from Tokyo, December 2021: Bonenkai Blues

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

“It is easier to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

That’s the first line of “Goodbye to All That,” one of the most widely read personal essays by American author Joan Didion, who died this month, two days before Christmas. The sentence is deceptively simple and seductive, like a Zen koan, but it takes on added weight when you actually come to the ends of things—like another year.

In Tokyo, the year usually starts ending in November, with elaborate light displays cropping up in the city’s shopping and strolling centers, prerecorded Christmas songs piped into every department, grocery and convenience store, and a winter flurry of appointments, meetings, deadlines and … drinking parties.

Yes, drinking parties.

These parties are not the same as the annual company Christmas parties in Western cities, with their obligatory secret Santa gift-giving rituals and gaudy polychromatic sweaters and well-wishes for the holiday to come, which will ostensibly be a Christmas Eve and Day spent with family in relative calm beside a silent fir tree.

The Christmas party looks forward to the coming holiday itself, and if you are wise, prudent and over 25, you’ll be careful not to drink too much.

Meanwhile, the goal of Japanese year-end drinking parties, called “bonenkai,” is to help or force you to forget the past year entirely. Bonenkai are not for looking forward (the “shinenkai” drinking parties in January serve that purpose) but are meant instead to obliterate the beginnings of things—the start of 2021, for example, when many of us thought that Covid’s clouds would clear and we would soon be flying around the world again and sitting cheek-by-jowl in taverns, bars and izakaya at dinners and, yes, drinking parties, laughing all the way.

I don’t need to tell you that did not happen. Has not happened. Might not.

It’s harder to see the ends.

November and December in Tokyo boast some of the city’s clearest skies and most vivid sunsets. There is a chill in the air, especially at night. When I take my neighborhood walks through the cedars and oaks around Meiji Jingu and Yoyogi Koen, the air sometimes tastes sweet, like the cold is coaxing forth its flavor.

Tokyo is a hilly city cut by alleys and canals. There are clusters of skyscrapers in the central business districts, but when you hit a patch of high ground in a low-rise residential neighborhood, you can really see for miles. Mount Fuji or the Rainbow Bridge or an elevated Expressway snaking toward the horizon.

This December, Tokyo feels grayer to me. A little fogged-up and redundant. Less about partying away the past to embrace the cleansing renewal of the coming year, and more about hanging on to memory to understand the moment.

For me, Tokyo’s 2021 started with trepidation. The Olympics were on, then they were off, then on again, then who knows? I kept walking through the city, hoping for the next month, then the next season, escaping by train to empty onsen towns. In Tokyo this summer, the 2021 Games happened like that tree falling somewhere in the forest. Covid drowned out the sounds, and it’s still making everything, beginnings and ends, that much harder to see.

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