So I actually kept a writing journal when I visited Japan in the winter of 2012-13 and never posted it. so here it is, not in order. Will post more as I type them up from the chicken scratch hand writing I have.
A Glimpse into the Future: A Foreigners Look at How A Typical Japanese Family celebrates New Years. (pt. 1 of 2)
The strangely therapeutic sound of traffic driving on the Free Way just 50 meters from the house stirs me from my sleep. The chilled air that I’ve quickly grown accustomed to remind me where I am, Japan. Osaka to be specific, the second largest city in Japan and the home too many Japanese comedians, a few game companies, and some of the best night life one can ask for. I was here visiting my girlfriend and her family for the winter break. Spending Christmas and New Years in a place 8000 some odd kilometers from home was something I had never thought would cause me to rethink my future up to that point.
I stumbled around the small tatami matted room. The house as a whole was old, built in the late 70’s, but the smell of the tatami mat was still noticeable. It wasn’t pungent but rather pleasant, like the unique smell one would acquit to finding when visiting home after a long time away. All hygiene related tasks accomplished I walked downstairs only to be greeted by a jacket. Quickly being hurried out the door I was barely able to stomp my feet into my shoes before I was thrown into a vehicle and we were driving down the tiny streets of the neighborhood.
We arrived at a small karaoke bar; the unlit neon sign read “Snack” in a semi cursive English font. It was run by my girlfriend’s aunt, who inherited it from her grandmother who still lived in the 2 story apartment situated above. This was our destination. Narrow steps just to the right of the bar’s entrance lead up to an equally narrow door through which the sound of laughter and fast conversations could be heard. After the normal amount of pleasantries (which is a lot) we sat down and what lay before me was Osechi. Osechi or Osechi-ryouri (お節料理) is the traditional New Years food. It dates back to the Heian period back in the early 10th century. I had never seen such an assortment of food during my time in Japan to that point and was both surprised and embarrassed when I leaned over and asked why there wasn’t sushi. Now though sushi is popular within Japan it’s certainly not the only claim to culinary fame that Japan has.
The kind of foods that comprise your typical Osechi are healthy, seasonal and all with meaning. Some of my favorites were the Kamaboko (蒲鉾), broiled fish cake, Datemaki (伊達巻 or 伊達巻き), a sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp, and Konbu (昆布), a kind of seaweed. It is associated with the word yorokobu, meaning “joy.” I was also given some really dark grilled meat, incredibly sweet but not fatty like bacon. I later found out that it was Whale and that it’s not necessarily a typical Osechi dish, just a favorite of her grandmothers.
All throughout the meal people came and left, often times stopping by for a brief moment to say hello to the grandmother and then off to do whatever else it is they must get finished with before the evening. We stayed the whole time, and after being yelled at to stop helping wash dishes for the 5th time I was finally banished to the upstairs room where the kids were playing games and watching television. I was given my girlfriends pink Nintendo 3DS and told to be patient and have fun. Everyone was playing the new Animal Crossing: New Leaf or as Japan knows it Tobidase Dōbutsu no Mori (とびだせ どうぶつの森).
Eventually I was allowed back downstairs to enjoy a couple beers with the adults and to watch a popular comedy program Gaki no Tsukai (ガキの使い). I knew of Gaki Tsukai long before my trip, it was shown to me by an exchange student who came to my elementary school many, many years ago to learn how the education system in the states is constructed. That, however, is a whole other story.
Gaki Tsukai puts on a very lengthy Batsu or punishment game that runs from the early afternoon on New Years Eve to midnight New Years day. Usually around 6-8 hours of ridiculous acting, painful punishments, as the name implies, and some of the best slapstick standup I’d ever witnessed. During this time more people came and went and more introductions were made and more beer was consumed and time blissfully fell away until the program ended people began to put on their coats and bundle up their kids. A night well spent, or so I thought.
To the Shrine:
What I had thought meant the end of the day’s festivities, having said “Happy New Year!” and watched the end of the comedy show; it was time to go to sleep. But alas I apparently had forgotten I’m in Japan and in Japan, midnight on New Years means it’s time to visit a Shrine, or two.
Parking the car a few blocks away we walked through the throng of thousands of people, my thought was this shrine must be huge to have this many people deciding to come here. I was wrong, the shrine grounds were maybe 1 acre, and 3 small buildings stood in the far back in a triangular pattern. Leading up to those buildings was a long paved walkway about 3 meters wide with shops and carts lining both sides. The air was bitter cold but it didn’t stop people from coming out by any means. I shuffled along too busy snapping photos at everything I could to notice I had been separated from everyone else. I moved to a slightly less crowded side next to the smallest of the 3 buildings. This one housed a small shrine surrounded by 6 fox statues all wearing small red scarves. I started snapping a few photos of this very picturesque scene when one of the monks came up to me shaking his head. It was at this time I discovered, well realized I was alone in the sea of people. Well alone in the sense that I knew no one and the combination of the monk’s thick Kansai accent and the noise of everyone else it was very hard for me to understand what I had done to upset him so much. As it turns out I had offended him and the god that the shrine represented by taking photos of that particular altar, the one inside the building. I then went through my DSLR and under the very strict supervision; deleted every photo the Monk tapped the screen at, which to my dismay was a lot.
It was at this point I was discovered by a little cousin who grabbed my hand and guided me back to the group, all after apologizing profusely to the monk as I had did just moments before.
Reunited once more I began following the family back towards the road, stopping at the last stall to grab some Taiyaki (small Japanese pastry in the shape of a fish and traditionally filled with a red bean paste). Though I love Taiyaki it wasn’t enough to keep my mind of the embarrassment of what had transpired with the monk which I later explained to me girlfriend who just shrugged and said “what can he expect, you’re not Japanese” which in it’s own way stung worse than the actual event. I had always thought of myself as a very culturally conscious and respectful person. I’m not some dumb culture blind American trampling through Japan making Godzilla jokes, (Although I do love Godzilla) and eating on the train(It’s considered impolite to eat on trains because its closed off space and the smell with disturb others). After all I had majored and studied in Cultural Anthropology and Public Diplomacy so if anyone understood the importance of understanding culture it should be me…right?
We drove a short distance, though with traffic it seemed much longer, and wound up at another shrine. This one was much bigger. On the walk to the actual grounds I was explained that the one we just visited was a local community Shinto shrine, only worshipped by those who had grown up or lived in that small area whereas the one we are going to now is well known throughout Japan. After a short 10min walk we arrived at Sumiyoshi-taisha shrine (住吉大社) sometime around 1am. This shrine is most noted for its incredibly steep bridge called the Sorihashi Bridge. Sumiyoshi-taisha is also famous for one other little fact and that it that it’s the oldest shrine in Japan.
Whereas the local shrine had about 10 vendors on a single street Sumiyoshi-taisha had closer to 50 and it felt like similar to the fairs I had frequented going to the Vermont State Fair as a kid. It was at one of these stalls that my years of intense military training came into play. I’ll talk about that a little later. There was even more food at these vendor shops as well as games and strange little knick knacks, even antiques. I took my time combing through the booths, devouring everything that I came across, grilled squid glazed in soy sauce (one of my favorites), more taiyaki, and something called okonomiyaki soba which is a pan fried noodle with ribbons of red ginger pickle and sauce.
Now feeling overly full from eating pretty much everything I began to focus on everything else, the sounds, the people, the shrine itself. We walked up to this rather large wooden box by the shrine. The top was slotted for people to throw offerings and pray for whatever it is they hope the New Year would bring them. I dug a few 5yen coins out of my pocket and tossed them in, clapped twice, keeping them together on the second clap and prayed. I prayed for what pretty much everyone prays for, a productive and fulfilling year, a better job, more money, and of course a chance to come back to Japan again.
On our way out I was dragged by my host mom (the girlfriend’s mom) to a particular game booth. This one had targets on the far side sitting on small wooden posts. Prizes sat underneath the targets. Each target’s bull’s eye was a star; you had a full clip to completely shoot out the star. The prized were all air soft guns. “you’re military, this will be simple” I’m told being handed the gun that the vendor man had just handed her in exchange of a 500 yen coin (roughly 5 dollars). This was it, my defining moment, a chance to make all my years of military training finally mean something. I took a deep breath, felt the cold air sting my lungs, firmly gripping the plastic replica of a Sig Sauer 228 I locked eyes on the star. Over-dramatization aside it was only a 3 meter shot, nevertheless I walked away with the exact same model as I had just fired. Knowing there’s absolutely NO WAY I could get this thing through Air Port Security I gave it to a little cousin who was pretty excited to have his own model gun. We left shortly thereafter and I crawled into bed, exhausted, looking at the clock which brightly, almost defiantly blinked that it was 3:16 am. I remembered how long of a day it was and I was happy to sleep in a little. Except that it was still New Years and well that means sleeping in would have to wait.
(Continued in next post).