Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, January 04, 2007

2006: A Christmas Chronology, pt. III

December 29-31
I think I need to shorten these diary posts a bit. Otherwise I might lose my audience completely!

Anyway, even with all those Christmastime music club activities, this was still the first winter "vacation" in years which wasn't wiped out by either my wife's tennis club or my traveling back to Oregon. That left us with three full days before the end of 2006. Guess how family spent them? That's right! NEW YEAR CLEANING!!!!!! (diminished 7th chord)

Yes, it's the tradition in Japan to do the "spring cleaning" at the end of December so that the new year starts out with a renewed house. It makes perfect sense, but lately we've been forced to try to squeeze in as much as possible with the limited time and manpower available. This time we had a bit more to play with, so we spent the 29th, 30th, and 31st going over just about everything. For my part I mainly pulled all that heavy furniture out of the way and cleaned behind it. I also did some maintenance work here and there. By far my most time-consuming chore, however, was cleaning out my home's tokonoma, or decorative alcove. Most Japanese homes have one, usually in or near the living room, and it is usually decorated with a wall hanging and either a vase of arranged flowers or a bonsai (miniature) tree. I don't know why, but ours is in the upstairs bedroom, and the in-laws filled it with heirlooms, mainly traditional dolls that have been in the family for a long time and are quite valuable. My family decided to keep it that way, adding a few dolls of our own.


My wife doesn't seem to care about it very much, but I always give it lots of tender loving care. During the new year cleaning I gently remove everything, clean out the alcove, dust off each individual item, and replace it. It's time consuming and also kind of weird. It is often said in Japan that statues and dolls can serve as a means for spirits to enter this world (which is why there are Buddhist statues). I don't know if that's true or not, but I do know it's always a lot colder in that alcove than in the surrounding room despite the thicker walls, and the air is both prickly and full of strange vibes. I take my time and treat each object with care, but I'm always thankful to get done and get out of there.

Meanwhile, my wife spent the whole time going through every drawer and every cabinet in the house, weeding out junk. It was the first time she'd really done that for ages, and all those expired food items, faded or moldy clothes, old papers and magazines, and broken toys amounted to what was literally a whole wall of garbage bags. That presented a problem. We knew hauling it out to the neighborhood dumpster would be a major undertaking. We also knew dad-in-law would interfere.

You have to understand: my father-in-law is the type who doesn't believe in throwing things away. He feels it's wasteful to toss out anything that might have a potential use sometime in the distant future. His house, his storage shed, and his greenhouse are all piled high with useless junk, but he not only refuses to get rid of any of it, but insists that we remove useful items to make room for it. He gets upset if he catches us trying to haul out any broken appliances or unwearable clothes of our own, and he'll occassionally dig such things out of our garbage cans if he sees them...and then insist we get rid of things we actually use to make room for the junk! On the other hand, when it comes to items that clearly have no further use, he insists on burning it all in the firepit in the middle of his garden. (Believe me, there are times when the fumes from burning plastic get pretty overwhelming. Mmmm...dioxin!)

Needless to say, we didn't want to deal with that, so we did our best despite the odds to keep that wall of garbage bags concealed from him...and distracted him enough for him to forget all about it when he finally saw it.

On the night of the 31st, after the kids had gone to bed, my wife and I quietly celebrated the coming of the New Year by enjoying some of the Christmas presents she'd given me, specifically the bottle of 1990 Italian reserve wine and caviar. We killed off the caviar quickly (great on Ritz crackers!) and followed it with a can of sardines (also great on Ritz crackers with a spot of mustard!). After that, I gave in to temptation, and my wife actually allowed me to eat some of my blue cheese without complaining about the smell. (Actually, she succumbed to the wine rather quickly. One full glass put her to sleep with very red ears and nose.) I wound up eating...and drinking...a lot more than I probably should have that night, but whatever. It was too good to waste.

January 1st
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! (i.e. Happy New Year!)
The first morning of the New Year always means two things. First there is breakfast together with the in-laws, in which we toast the new year with rice wine and enjoy seasonal dishes with mochi (cakes of pounded rice, served in soup). Then there is the kinjoukai (近所会 - literally "neighborhood association"). Every household in our neighborhood is required to send one representative, usually the breadwinning man of the house, and they have a brief meeting followed by lots of drinking. Those can be fun, but they can also be dangerous.

A few years ago at the kinjoukai I decided to try drinking traditional rice wine instead of the usual beer. Everything was fine until someone started slipping some shochu (a schnapps-like liquor, often 100 proof or more, usually made from either turnips or plums) into my cup. Thinking it was still rice wine, I slogged it down merrily. I wound up staggering home supported by two people (which I vaguely remember), spending several hours in the bathroom heaving (which I thankfully don't remember), and finally waking up at nine o' clock at night. I don't have to tell you how I felt all day the next day. That was a few years ago, but it apparently cemented my reputation. This year they tried to get me to drink like a fish again, but my stomach intervened. Maybe it was all that wine, caviar, sardines, blue cheese, and Ritz crackers from the night before, but after the first glass of beer I started feeling sick. After the second I was fighting to keep my sashimi inside me. After carefully sipping my way through the third (with the chairman holding a bottle of shochu in front of me and eagerly saying, "Let's go,") I gave up and left early. They were disappointed, but this year's kinjoukai seemed unusually dead for some reason anyway. It was probably for the better.

Narita-san Temple in the city of Narita

I rested for a while, and then we went shopping in Narita. I was worried about the inevitable traffic of people going to the Narita-San temple complex for hatsunode (prayers for the New Year, the only time many if not most Japanese go to a temple except for funerals), especially with my wife driving my car (just for good measure, since DUI is the latest government/police witch-hunt). It turned out to be an easy drive, and finding parking wasn't difficult, but the malls were crowded with good reason. All the shops were offering New Year clearance specials, often up to 50% off. Since my wife was mainly birthday shopping for me, I went off on my own, bought some more CDs I probably didn't need (but were on sale), had a "holiday blend" coffee at Starbucks, sat outside and watched the colorful mass of people going about, and enjoyed some time just to relax. After that we went to a different mall, got a few household items, had dinner at a pretty good, little pasta restaurant, and then I drove us home.

What did I do after I got back? I caught up on some of my blogging, of course! Of course, I did that only after we'd done some more new year cleaning...

And that was how I spent New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.


  • i forgot you're a capricorn. when is your birthday this month? hubby's is on the 13th.

    when you called this one man "the chairman", it reminded me of memoirs of a geisha. what does the chairman do? is it the chairman of your neighborhood?

    drinking so early in the morning... phew... that makes for a good, tiring afternoon. i haven't done that since going out on a golf outting w/ the office years ago. i think we started drinking at 9 in the morning, if not earlier. by lunch i was exhausted. but i think i tend to be like your wife.

    i haven't had sardines since childhood... i used to love them on crackers w/ mustard. i might have to try them again one day.. you made my mouth water! ;)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:37 PM  

  • My birthday is on the 9th...same as Richard Nixon.

    The "chairman" I mentioned is chairman of the neighborhood committee, a fact of life in Japan. He and his staff are in charge of a number of things, such as managing some public services (i.e. garbage collection) and PTA activities in our area, helping to arrange wedding or funeral events in our neighborhood, and overseeing the collection of property taxes.

    That meeting/party on January 1st is the only morning drinking spree. The ones following the school's sports festival and any funeral are always in the evening.

    Sardines rock! I always keep at least one can in the kitchen at all times, but these days I tend not to eat them so often (probably more to do with apathy and distraction than anything else). Also, my kids have learned to love them, so if I open a can when they're around they wipe it out in no time at all.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:09 PM  

  • this organization helps to organize wedding and funeral events for the neighborhood? that's odd. shouldn't that be totally up to the family? first time for me to hear of an org. to help w/ this stuff. almost sounds like it could be too many roosters in the hen house... but i guess it's a custom and something that's been done probably for ages.

    also, i forgot to mention something about that room you guys have upstairs w/ all the dolls and such. i'm not sure i'd like going in that room but i find it fascinating and wonder what the spirits think of you cleaning it rather than your wife. are all the dolls symbolic of a particular spirit or soul of the family or just souls in general? is there a place for prayer there?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:05 PM  

  • The family organizes the wedding or funeral ceremony itself. The neighborhood association just helps round up people to do the busy work. In the case of a funeral, members of the neighborhood association traditionally serve as receptionists, decorators, pallbearers, and sometimes as caterers and help out with the busy work. In the case of a wedding, the neighborhood helps out with the banquet/reception that the family holds at home. Basically, large numbers of people tend to come popping in just long enough to pay their respects and give a monetary gift. The neighbors help coordinate things and shoulder some of the manual labor.

    The tokonoma isn't a room, it's a wall alcove. It's purely for decoration and doesn't really serve a religious function. That's what the kamidana (household Shinto shrine) and butsudan (Household Buddhist altar) are for (but those are in the in-laws' house). When a child is born, it is customary for the family to buy a special kind of commemorative doll for the Doll Festival. My in-laws have always used our tokonoma to store and display the family dolls in addition to souvenir figurines and statues they've collected over the years. Nobody prays to them; that's not what they're for. However, the Japanese traditionally believe that dolls and statues can serve as a path for spirits to enter the physical world.

    I do know that some Japanese friends and acquaintances of mine feel very uncomfortable in close proximity to large doll displays, even ones (or maybe even especially ones) set up for the Doll Festival. They tend to say, "Chotto kimochi warui..." (best translated as "That doesn't make me feel very good...")

    Hmm...I wonder if that's why our tokonoma was built on the western side of the house. The Japanese traditionally believe that spiritual energy flows from the East, which is why Shinto shrine altars always face East. That means the spiritual energy in the house flows toward the dolls instead of from them.


    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:50 PM  

  • What an interesting post! Your tokonoma is fascinating, but I would be too sensitive to the vibes I think.

    Your father-in-law sounds just like my mother's sister and my cousin, she is living with them now and has to be sneaky if she wants to get rid of 6 month old rancid walnuts or something...

    I like sardines too. My mother taught me how to make sardine sandwiches (Guyana recipe) by mashing them with finely diced fresh onions and homemade chilli pepper sauce - the onion and the sauce vinegar really kick up the fish a notch!

    Also, I love mochi, but the ones I know are colourful and have sweet red beans inside. I like them for dessert after sushi. I enjoy the seeming fragility of the stretchy rice starch.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 3:04 PM  

  • I just discovered I like apple chutney! I bought a batch from the new Fortnum & Mason store at Yokohama Landmark Tower to try. Good stuff!

    Just what is chutney, anyway??!?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:35 PM  

  • if i'm not mistaken, chutney is fruit. my mom makes some homemake chutney - different flavors - that is terrific.

    your house seems so feng shi (is that correct spelling?? don't have dictionary in front of me).. anyway, i am really into energy flowing and such and the way to place things in the house to create the best energy fields.

    hey... HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! I hope you have a wonderful birthday and it's relaxing and exactly as you wish. :) Hope you have a 100 more!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:03 PM  

  • OMIGOSH, there is a F&M shop in JAPAN???

    WOW. Well, next time I go there to buy things, you will know what I am talking about, but have you ever been to the shop in London?

    Chutney originated during the Indian Raj as a way of making some local foods more palatable to English taste, some anglicization of an Indian word I think, I forget the specifics...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 4:27 PM  

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