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|New Year's day in Japan is a festive but serious time to visit all your friends and relatives in the area to wish them well and happy new year ("akemashite omedeto"), and to be introspective about oneself and one's family.|
That's because in Japan, the major holiday where generations of families members gather to celebrate the roots and branches of their family trees has always been, and continues to be, is the New Year celebration.Of course, even the New Year has been affected by Western ideas: It now follows the Roman calendar on the night of December 31 and January 1, instead of the Asian calendar that places the start of the year a month later when "Chinese New Year" is celebrated.
Both cultures look forward to health, happiness and prosperity, but the differences are profound: Typically, the first day of the year is more important than New Year's eve. Unlike the Western concept of New Year's eve as an excuse for "making whoopee," New Year's day in Japan is a festive but serious time to visit all your friends and relatives in the area to wish them well and happy new year ("akemashite omedeto"), and to be introspective about oneself and one's family. And instead of preparing for a big party, it's important in Japan to clean house and also to be personally clean and pure as you go into the new year.
Unlike my childhood memories of Christmas, I don't have a lot of vivid New Year memories. With no presents and being too young to stay up as late as midnight, the holiday eve wasn't special to me, and I don't recall the annual ritual of visiting friends and family all day on the first day of the year.
The few memories I do recall of the New Year are, not surprisingly, centered on food -- especially the sticky rice dumplings called omochi.
Omochi, or just mochi, is made by pounding the hell out of sweet rice until it becomes glue-like, and then forming them into small balls that can be heated over a fire or in a pan until it's crispy on the outside and hot and gooey on the inside. Though it's already slightly sweet, I grew up eating the heated mochi served with an intense mixture of plain sugar and soy sauce every New Year. Other ways to have mochi for the holiday include serving it in soups called "ozoni" which can vary from a flavored broth with vegetables and shiitake mushrooms, or a very sweet azuki bean soup (my favorite).
My mochi memories include watching it being made the old-fashioned way, by pounding a lump of steamed mochi rice flour with a large wooden mallet in a huge wooden pestle made from a tree trunk with a bowl for the mochi carved out in the top. One person pounds away on the round white ball while another uses moistened hands to massage the lump after each whack, and fold it over to make it as consistent and smooth as possible. The handler had to be quick and do his work before the next swing of the mallet came down, or he'd get his fingers smashed -- something that I've seen happen, and I still wince at!
Our family visited around town when I was a kid, but that tradition faded once we moved to the States and we settled in suburban America with miles and miles of distance between our family and our many friends and family members (such is the fate of families who are tied to military or government jobs -- I've fallen out of touch with everyone from my childhood). For years, though my folks did host a big New Year's eve dinner party, where my mom went all-out and cooked for days before and we invited family friends over (none of our relatives lived close by). The meal was always a cross-cultural spread of sushi and traditional Japanese dishes (my mom loves oden, a stew that I think is stinky) along with chicken and macaroni salad, and everyone toasted with sake as well as champagne at midnight. These toasts were where I first decided I hated the taste of sake, which I still find vile unless I'm using it to cook with.
The annual feast became increasingly mendokusai ("a pain in the butt") for my mom over the years, though, and when my brothers and I went off to college, even this tradition faded. As adults, we started to get together with my folks for a smaller New Year's eve family dinner, but more often than not, we all had our own parties to attend.
This New Year's eve passed quietly because I was sick of the Y2K hype and didn't want to be out and about when I knew a bunch of dumb drunk people would be driving around. On New Year's day, my mom and I resusitated the old visiting tradition, because we were invited to a gathering of family and friends by the various branches of a local Japanese American family. The gathering included an incredible potluck feast with everyone bringing at least one dish (easier than one person doing it all), and lots of fun conversation with the cadence of spoken Japanese combined with English filling the home in suburban Denver -- a sound as familiar to me as the sound of rock and roll in my head.
The food was a cross-cultural blend including raw and fried oysters, shrimp cocktail, tempura shrimp and vegetables, eel sushi rolls, king crab, plum-flavored rice, onigiri (rice balls wrapped with nori seaweed and a pickled plum in the center), nishime (a sort of vegetable stew), macaroni salad, sashimi (raw fish), gyoza (fried chicken dumplings), shirae (strained tofu and spinach mixed with ground sesame seeds and sweet miso paste), kanten (a gelatin dessert), cake, brownies, cheesecake, and a lot more.
The kids retired to the basement to play video games while the adults sat upstairs and reminisced and caught up with each other's lives -- it could have been a Thanksgiving evening in a typical middle-American family home.
The dinner renewed my interest in celebrating Japanese holidays, and also renewed my interest in cooking lots more Japanese food. Plus, it made me excited to look forward to the Chinese New Year coming up (even though it's not a "Y2K" celebration -- the Chinese calendar is a lot older than the Western one, and its year 2000 passed several centuries ago!).
I'm planning on attending the Denver Chinese community's New Year celebration later this month. When I go, I'll visit the tables of friends and offer hearty "akemashite omedeto" wishes for the coming year. They may not understand the language, but they'll definitely get the meaning.
NOTE: To all the readers of the Nikkei View in the Rocky Mt. Jiho in Denver and other publications around the country, as well as on the Internet, AKEMASHITE OMEDETO!
"Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View" is hosted by Blue Ray Media.