The New Year in Japan is much like Christmas in the UK: a time for family to get together, eat, drink, sleep… and watch TV.

A time of tradition.

First there was the traditional venue – Mio’s grandmother’s house in Shizuoka, about 40 minutes by shinkansen from Tokyo. We slept in a tatami room upstairs behind a paper screen door…

Then there was the traditional New Years meal – bento boxes filled with osechi, a perfect example of what my brother has so pithily described as ‘indeterminate bits of tasty matter’.

Apparently, it’s also pretty traditional not to really like most of the contents of the boxes, although this year I did pretty well, with the pickled octopus and sliced duck my (identifiable) favourites.

I also had my first experience of fugu, the famed Japanese puffer-fish, eaten raw, with a daikon and chilli garnish and some kind of dipping sauce. I found it, well… very chewy with an incredibly subtle flavour. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste as the family all loved it and had eaten most of it by the time I took this photo…

At midnight we all piled into the car to drive out to the local temple, make a donation and make the traditional prayer for health, wealth and happiness in the year to come. At our local temple, we also got to queue up to ring the temple bell. Careful though, get a bad connection and 2011 could be a rough year…

Throughout the evening, the television was on in the background, because we couldn’t miss kohaku, a music competition featuring the ‘best’ Japanese pop and enka artists and an annual tradition watched by more people than any other program in the year.

Now I’m all for tradition but this is one that the culture snob in me could do without. Maybe there’s something lose in translation or maybe Japanese pop music is just really, really bad. Either way, the cultural chasm was just to wide in this case.

So luckily we did lots of channel-hopping and there was one program that catered much better to my gaijin tastes by confirming all of the stereotypes I hold about Japanese television.

The program is called (I think) Gaki No Tsukai and features a team of comedians whose sole goal is not to laugh as they are subjected to a marathon series of bizarre encounters with grotesque trannies, blacked-up Eddie Murphy impersonators, other assorted weirdos and a whole host of Japanese celebrities. If – and when – they do laugh, a team of extras in full paramilitary garb rush on stage to administer a beating. I could only find one clip online, in which a Dutch guy dressed in a navy uniform is giving some kind of speech. Gripping viewing I think you’ll agree…

Hope everybody reading has had a great start to 2011!

Akemashite omedetou!!!