New Year’s lasts one night of drinks and one day of college football in the US, but in Japan the holidays lasts for three days. Actually, for many the New Year’s holidays start on December 29th, giving the typical worker a six-day holiday. In fact, for many this is the only extended holiday of any kind.
For my family, the holiday meant starting with a year-end “o-souji” 大掃除 — basically a “spring cleaning,” but in the coldest time of year. Seems odd from an American perspective, but in a way it makes sense. Especially in central Japan, where the high humidity and lack of central heating leads to mold everywhere (particularly concentrated in rooms on the north side of the house), ending the year with a good scrub is essential for surviving the rest of the winter with catching a major illness. Also, since traditionally no cleaning or cooking is done during the New Year’s Three Days, there’s a lot of food preparation to do on the 30th and 31st of December.
Once all is ready to welcome the new year, we settled down for what is still watched by many, though decreasing in popularity among younger Japanese: Kohaku Gassen (or Kohaku Uta-gassen 紅白歌合戦), which is a kind of singing competition between female singers (red team) and male singers (white team). The kids are usually in bed by this time, which allows me to enjoy some quality time (though generally I require a stiff drink or two to make to the end of the “Gassen”).
I’ve blogged about spending the holidays with my wife’s family before, but rarely posted pictures. Also, this is the first year of our marriage that we stayed at home. So, instead of braving the teeming masses of train-weary travelers visiting hometowns around the archipelago, we were able to brave the teeming masses of locals who visited the nearby shrines and temples for hatsumode (初詣, the first shrine or temple visit of the year). Our local temple is Hozanji 宝山寺, properly 寶山寺, which also runs our nursery school. There’s a festival atmosphere; after praying for peace and prosperity (and throwing in a few 5-en pieces for “good luck” to the donation bin), we snacked on tako-yaki (たこ焼き, dumplings of fried octopus, though the version we ate also had quail eggs in them), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, usually called “Japanese pizza,” although “cabbage pancake” is more like it), frankfurters on a stick, and “baby castella” (ベビーカステラ, tiny sponge-cake pastry puffs). The adults also had amazake (甘酒, sweetened, unfiltered warm sake, which unfortunately had been watered down by the festival vendor; supposedly a drink of this at New Year’s guarantees health the rest of the year).
We had toshi-koshi soba 年越しそば for dinner on New Year’s Eve, and then ozouni お雑煮 (with mochi in it) for New Year’s Day breakfast. The soba represents long life (because the noodles are long), while the ozoni is said to bring good luck. In our area (Kansai) ozoni is a clear white miso-flavored soup with various vegetables and meat (usually fish or chicken), and round mochi which is supposed to be boiled separately (actually, we put it in a bowl of water and nuked it in the microwave). My wife’s family usually prepares their own o-sechi-ryori おせち料理 but we didn’t bother, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, we’re busy until the end of the year and barely have time for regular cooking let alone special cooking. Also, I hate kazunoko (数の子, lumps of dried fish eggs (lots of eggs means “lots of children”)) and my kids hate kuro-mame (黒豆, black beans, for health) as well as ebi (海老, prawns, whose curved backs symbolize long life). We did get kamaboko (かまぼこ, fish paste cakes) but my kids wouldn’t touch them, sato-imo (里芋, sweet, sticky potatoes which, like kazunoko, represent a desire for lots of children) and tai (鯛, sea bream; o-medetai means “a great event”). The kids consented to eat the sato-imo and tai, and I also tricked them the next day by using beans in their tacos (yep, a white dude using TexMex food to celebrate a Japanese holiday).
After returning from the temple, we played karuta (カルタ, a card game in which one person reads a phrase and contestants try to touch the matching card on the floor before the other players). We use a set of cards specially made by the nursery school to teach Japanese hiragana syllabary. Only then did we hand out the otoshi-dama (お年玉, gift money; young children get a couple thousand yen in small envelopes with various TV show characters).
We ended the holidays by driving to a park we’d never visited before, a 45-minute trip that took two hours (emergency bathroom and lunch break). At Taketori Koen 竹取公園 there were plenty of slides, ropes, monkey bars, and what have you. Some flew kites (takoage, 凧揚げ another New Year’s tradition). We left ours at home but promised our eldest that we’d give it a try the following weekend.
All in all, a relaxing yet eventful nenmatsu-nenshi 年末年始 end of one year and beginning of the next. From my family to yours, best wishes for a prosperous, peaceful, and joyous New Year!