Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Happy New Year, Japanese-style
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Happy New Year, Japanese-style

Japanese New Year

Unlike other Asian cultures, the Japanese don’t celebrate Lunar New Year. Instead, they celebrate the Western calendar New Year, January 1, and some of the special traditions for the holiday, called “Oshogatsu,” have been handed down to Japanese Americans over the past century.

Japanese New Year’s traditions are different from Western (or at least, American) ones: First of all, New Year’s Eve isn’t the big holiday, and the focus isn’t on partying and waiting until midnight on Dec. 31 to watch the Times Square ball slide down, or to see fireworks or make hearty toasts. A lot of us do, because we go to parties to celebrate with friends — after all, we are Japanese American.

In Japan, New Year’s Eve and the days leading up to it are all about cleaning house, cleaning yourself and your soul, putting your business in order to prepare for the new year. It doesn’t sound like much fun. And traditionally, people spend New Year’s Eve quietly at home with family or friends. There are events, such as the release of thousands of balloons at Tokyo’s Zojoji temple to pray for world peace — pretty different from Times Square, huh? My mom’s hometown of Nemuro is at the easternmost tip of the northern island of Hokkaido, and thousands of people gather on Cape Nosappu outside of town past midnight on January 1, to see the first sunrise of the new year in Japan. Buddhist temples ring their bell at midnight to mark the start of the new year, a very spiritual sound.

There are other festive events throughout Japan too, with live music and fireworks just like in the US — it’s not all traditional.

By the time the clock ticks over into the new year, Japanese have spruced up their house with traditional decorations made of pine, bamboo and plum trees to bring good luck. On New Year’s Eve, families settle in with special toshikoshi soba noodles to bring long life, and watch Kohaku Utagassen, a men versus women singing contest that’s like karaoke on serious steroids featuring the country’s biggest enka (a traditional style of pop music) and J-pop stars. This show has been aired on New Year’s Eve since the end of World War II, and for decades it was Japan’s equivalent of the Super Bowl in popularity. Denver’s Japanese community has held a Kohaku Utagassen competition for many years too.

The main event in Japan isn’t New Year’s Eve and the midnight celebrations. It’s New Year’s Day, or Oshogatsu, and not because of college sports contests. The first days of January represent the start of a clean slate for everyone, and a time to celebrate family and friends by visiting people and wish everyone well. January 1 is also the day for a family feast that can put American Thanksgiving to shame.

In fact, New Year’s is memorable for me because of the food, which has its own name in Japan, Osechi-Ryori, and is served for three days.

My first New Year’s Day with my wife Erin’s family was an incredible feast. The gathering, which included a large extended family was 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 suburban Denver home — a sound as familiar to me as the sound of rock and roll in my head.

A cross-cultural blend was served 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), Korean beef, Jell-O (Japanese Americans make a lot of layered Jell-O specialties) kanten (a gelatin dessert), cake, brownies, cheesecake, and a lot more.

Plus, the family serves the traditional Osechi Ryori dishes: Ozoni soup (a vegetable soup with chewy soft mochi rice cakes — I grew up with my mom’s New Year soup, Oshiruko, a sugary broth made of sweet red beans with mochi), kuromame or sweet black beans (you’re supposed to eat an odd-number of them for good luck), nimono with simmered gobo (burdock root), satoimo (taro), renkon (lotus root), carrots and shiitake mushrooms.

In the years since then, we’ve also been fortunate to attend a New Year reception in January at the home of the Consul General of Japan held for the local Japanese community, where the photo above was taken. Traditonal Osechi Ryori dishes are served and it’s a terrific way to usher in the year.

I have other memories of New Years spent in Japan as a kid, and not surprisingly, they’re all abut food.

Americans are more familiar with mochi today, partly because of gimmicks like frozen mochi ice cream or the tiny mochi bits that can be added to Asian-style frozen yogurt. I grew up with mochi as something only available around the New Year.

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.

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 teriyaki 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, the family tradition faded. As adults, we started to get together with my folks for a smaller New Year’s eve dinner, but these days we all keep to our own families, and I pig out with Erin’s family once again.

We’re cooking our dishes today in preparation. The house is clean, and we’re ready for the New Year.

To all my friends, family and readers here on the Nikkei View, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn PosterousM, Tumblr, HuffingtonPost Denver and elsewhere online: AKEMASHITE OMEDETOU GOZAIMASU!