Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Ringing In the Year of the Rat or Landing with a Dull Thud?

So, how did you ring in the new year?

As I've already said many times on this blog over the years, the New Year festivities are the largest and most significant in Japan and most of Eastern Asia, easily the equivalent of Christmas in the West. So how, you might ask, did I celebrate the arrival of 2008, the Year of the Rat, with my family? (And even if you DON'T ask, I'm still going to tell you, so put a cork in it!)

Well, the New Year season in Japan always starts with a massive bout of house cleaning and redecorating so that each household can start the new year fresh. It usually takes several days. I had originally been scheduled to head down to Tokyo for the 29th and 30th of December so I could do some studio session work for a friend. That wound up being canceled as a result of the recording engineer's untimely catching of the flu. In all honesty, it was probably a very good thing. You see, over the past few years our New Year cleaning always got disrupted by either my wife's tennis club coaching, preparation for the construction we had done on our house, or a combination of the two. When we started this year's work, we moved some furniture away from the walls and found what must have been several years' worth of accumulated dust and debris. We also found a lot of old clothes and things that had been rendered useless long ago. Needless to say, we tore into the cleaning with a passion, and we left the house more sparkling and better smelling than it has in ages. Had I actually gone to Tokyo to do the recording, my wife and kids would never have gotten it all done. I'll put it down as a case of good fortune (with deep apologies to the fever-stricken recording engineer!).

I don't know what it is about a newly spic and span house, but it always just feels better inside. The vibes just feel more pleasant. Is it just purer air, or are the spirits happier? I dunno...

The 31st finally rolled around, and (while the kids and I continued with the cleaning) my wife spent pretty much the whole day making o-seichi ryori, or a traditional New Year feast. O-seichi ryori usually consists of a variety of dishes, most based on winter vegetables and seafood, placed in stacked and/or interlocking lacquerware dishes. They are then eaten little by little over the three days of the New Year season. Sadly, it's yet another tradition of the Land of the Rising Sun that seems to be fading. It used to be that the women of every family spent all day on the 31st preparing it. Now more and more families are either ordering out for it or simply doing without it altogether. Not us. My mother-in-law has always had a ball preparing o-seichi ryori every year, preferably with my wife and daughter's help, and it has always been a matter of great pride for her. This year, however, out of concern for her mother's delicate health, my wife declared that she was going to do it all by herself for the first time ever. In fact, she insisted on doing it without any help. She knocked herself out for it, and she really did a good job.

Here are some of the o-seichi dishes that my wife prepared this year. There were a LOT more.

As it turned out, however, my mother-in-law (as usual) didn't pay the slightest attention to anything anyone said, and she went ahead and made some o-seichi dishes of her own. To add insult to injury, some (rich) friends of my in-laws' (read "people whose arses they have been shamelessly kissing for the past several years so as to milk them for favors later") gave them some boxes of obviously rather expensive, catered o-seichi food.

Needless to say, my wife's o-seichi efforts wound up being largely wasted, but we still enjoyed them.

New Year's Eve here is far from the explosive revelry it is in the West. It's a much more muted and serious affair. The TV media heralded the countdown to midnight, not with screaming crowds, fireworks, and lighted balls, but with scenes of bells being rung at temples across the country. Buddhist temple bells have such a mysterious, hypnotic sound. It's not one of jubilation, it's one of meditation or even mourning. The sound heralds a death and rebirth as the old year passes into the new. After midnight, representatives of each household (my in-laws, in our case) go to the local Shinto shrine to make offerings to the local guardian spirits.

My wife and I celebrated the coming of the New Year by quietly enjoying the "feast" we had intended to have on Christmas Eve but hadn't: caviar, salmon pâté (great stuff!), cheese, Ritz crackers, and sparkling wine. It was low key, but it was warm and intimate. (Unfortunately, my wife, having zero tolerance for alcohol, wound up plopping right off to sleep. Oh, well...)

The next morning we got the whole family together for the first New Year greeting, a toast with sake (rice wine), and a breakfast of o-seichi. Then I was off to an annual duty of mine that I wound up shouldering when I moved here: the New Year's Day meeting of the Neighborhood Association (brash but off-key fanfare). It's a gathering of male representatives from every household in our neighborhood (kind of like a Homeowners' Association, but with more camaraderie and less bullshit). Actually, the meeting part occupies only a very small percentage of the thing. Basically the new chairman and his assistants give a greeting, name their staff for the year, go over the money balance for the previous year, and then offer a toast before the whole thing dissolves into drunken male bonding. Unfortunately, boat-rocking gaijin that I am, I noticed a very obvious flaw in the money balance and actually pointed it out (diminished 7th chord), delaying things while the staff frantically double-checked the bank records, found the trouble, and then apologized to everyone in turn. Fortunately, most of the representatives being laid-back farmers who'd rather just wave it off anyway, it all came to an only slightly uncomfortable end, and the drinking quickly got underway.

A number of years ago, when I was still fairly new in this neighborhood, I unfortunately managed to establish a reputation for myself at the New Year Neighborhood Association Meeting that I'll probably never live down. You see, I'd always thought it sad that most of the participants drank beer, meaning all that rice wine gifted by households and the city government was going to waste. I'd decided to join in the rice wine drinking, which delighted the old men considerably. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that rice wine is a bit stronger than regular wine and a lot stronger than beer. I also allowed someone to slip some shochu (the Japanese equivalent of schnapps) into my cup and slogged it down without knowing any better. That year I wound up being carried home from the meeting by a couple of neighbors, spent half the day making sacrifices at the porcelain altar, and finally woke up at 9:00 that night not knowing where I was. A number of years have passed since then, but I still have an indelible reputation of being a heavy drinker. Not only that, but every year since then I've tended to get constantly badgered to drink more, the old men urging me to do the rice wine thing again, and the younger men teasing me with the shochu (which I avoid like the plague). As it turned out, my body came to my rescue. After only a few glasses of beer my head started pounding (probably because of the champagne the night before and the rice wine that morning) and my stomach went into violent acid reflux (probably because of overeating of my wife's o-seichi...not to mention all that salmon pâté and cheese the night before). I finally wound up leaving the drunken bash meeting a bit early over the protests of my neighbors, many if not most of whom are cousins-in-law. I felt bad about that, but I then spent all day in bed feeling a lot worse while my wife and the kids had a ball hitting the New Year sales at our favorite shopping malls. The nasty feeling continued well into evening, and my soba dinner wound up returning like an unwanted Christmas present.

I felt much better today (the 2nd), so I and my wife and kids did the hatsumode thing, that is, a visit to a shrine or temple to pray for the new year. As usual, we went to Kashima Shrine, since it is the most significant shrine in the area and kind of like an old friend. We said our prayers, bought our good luck charms, and tried the o-mikuji, or fortune drawing. My daughter drew dai-kichi ("greatly good fortune"), the most favorable result, for the third year in a row. My wife and son both drew kichi ("good fortune"), a favorable result, the second year in a row for my son and the first time in years for my wife. As for me, I drew han-kichi ("half good fortune"), with the fine print saying specifically that I would have success in the coming year, but only after a lot of difficulty. (Hmph. That seems to be the story of my life these days, but at least success is a good thing, right?) After that we spent the day running around Kashima a bit before coming home and having...(wait for it)...o-seichi and homemade gyoza for dinner.

Yes, it has been a quietly eventful New Year season so far. I just hope my poor stomach holds out till the end.

Happy Year of the Rat, everybody!


  • I hope the belly calms down soon. Booze and rich food are the unholy alliance for reflux.

    That food is a reminder of all the good food your wife and in-laws prepared during my stay there. Thanks again a dozen or so years later!

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 12:48 AM  

  • HAR, if I wasn't such a drinker sometimes myself I would have pity, rather, I shall have sympathy.

    I eat a lot of teriyaki these days, which is about as close as I get to the Japanese diet, but of course, it is all Americanized. So I probably would have a hard time with a true Japanese diet. Still, it sounds delish...

    By Anonymous Dave, at 9:17 AM  

  • It sounds like you have GERD. Try chewing gum before the big New Years Party. Or have some antacids about a half hour before and then a second dose after you drink (although you'll probably forget at this point!)
    Another option is PPI's, which you'll have to go to your doc to get by prescription. These block acid production all together in your stomach...I've tried these and they did wonders for me. But you can't stay on them forever.
    I don't want to hear about Kevin leaving a party early again!
    Happy New Year!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:05 PM  

  • Sorry, that last comment was from me: JEFFU.

    By Anonymous Jeff, at 12:06 PM  

  • Such a gut wrenching end, considering the build up of events.

    Mine was quite low key. With friends being booked well in advance, me and housemate settled for my home baked pizza and his curry chicken, rinsed with a nice bottle of merlot. Then we watched fireworks on several locations right in the comfort of our apartment, albeit from a distance. The nearest was 5 kilometers away; a 10 minutes spectacle nonetheless. The thought of crowd madness always kept me home at times like these.

    By Blogger agus, at 4:43 PM  

  • Alot less frenetic then ours...we cleaned quite a bit for Beaniac's party (we ended up w/6 girls & 1 boy). We bought little hats & noisemakers for them too..

    They watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, then turned on OBP to watch Pink Martini until almost midnight, then switched to the NY countdown ball thing...

    Then we all went out side, banged pots, tooted and screamed and yelled for several minutes, and some neighbors set off some fireworks.

    Then the boy went home (to comeback the next day to fix breakfast for all the girls-yes he likes to cook) and the girls stayed over and screamed through "Love Actually" until the wee hours of the morning...

    We finally managed to get them all out by noon..whew!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 10:12 PM  

  • Interesting, the o-seichi dishes.

    Drawing a han-kichi ("half good fortune") must be a relief for you. Some of us also have our fortune read in almost the same way just before Chinese New Year. The reading acts as a guide to avoid calamities in the new year.

    Btw, did you mean the Year of the Rat as in the Lunar calendar? If so, his time is not due yet. He begins his rule only on Feb 7.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 12:29 AM  

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