Friday, December 31, 2010

Prelude to a Japanese New Year's - A year in Fukushima #4

With only a very limited time to write this post I found it decidedly fortuitous that there were no decent CDs in my wife’s car. Thus the drive from the Internet-less peach farm to a screaming child-less apartment would be a quiet one, as there is a law in the universe that makes it impossible for anything good to be on Japanese radio, and I would have the opportunity to think of an intelligent and snarky opening for today’s blither. But just to make sure the universe was behaving I flipped on the stereo and pushed a couple of preset buttons.
Depending on your opinion of jazz, universal law may indeed be holding constant. But I ended up in mental la-la land for most of the drive listening to a drawn-out jam session called, for no reason I could discern, Autumn Leaves. Another universal law seems to be that jazz titles shouldn’t bear any comprehensible connection to the music.
I came to Japan in September of 2001. This is the first New Year’s Eve I will be spending in Fukushima, where I have officially been living for all but two of the past nine New Year’s Eves. I drove up to the peach farm with the wife and kids two days ago, and while on the surface things appear as they always have (see this previous post), this time around the air in Arai feels different somehow.
‘How long are you staying?’ my mother-in-law asked as I dumped more bags of crap onto the front hallway floor. Yamato pushed his box of new train tracks into the living room while my wife immediately began worrying about whether Seiji needed more milk or a clean diaper or some time with his new walker-wagon as he is now spending a lot of time on his feet and my wife doesn’t want him to lose his developmental momentum. I just mumbled my Japanese greetings and lugged everything into the refrigerator tatami room where we would be sleeping for the next six nights.
New Year’s Eve is one of the most important times of the year in Japan, a time for family and good wishes and lots of silly television shows. Earlier this year my mother-in-law got a wide-screen plasma TV (or whatever the term is) so while the shows aren’t any better the sensational factor goes up, which is all Yamato needs. And the new remote is much more space-age, which helps keep Seiji’s mind off the fact that he is on his back with no pants on again, a set of circumstances that has recently been turning him into baby Godzilla. Of course television in Japan isn’t all bad – commercials for the local Shinto shrine inviting everyone to come do their New Year’s praying where ‘decorations and good luck charms have been prepared’ gives a gaijin like me a deeper glimpse into the ever-unraveling enigma that is this country.
Traditional foods abound in Japan, and perhaps at no time are there more varieties than at New Year’s. ‘Toshi-koshi soba’ is an extra long version of the regular soba noodles available anywhere all year, and are meant to signify long life. Of course nobody, not even Japanese people, believe a bowl of inordinately long noodles has the power to extend your life. For this reason, they eat them every year, banking on a sort of cumulative effect. O-sechi is an elaborate meal consisting of a dozen (at least) different kinds of fish, beans and no-gaijin-knows-what-else all painstakingly prepared and served in boxes that stack on top of each other. Back in 2004 I did have the opportunity to sit down to a real home-made O-sechi meal at a friend’s house in Gifu prefecture. His mother, and grandmother too I think, instead of buying New Year’s O-sechi at the supermarket like many people do now, had spent hours and hours making everything, as is the surviving custom in some places just now getting fully fitted with electrical wires.
My first real O-sechi! I dug in, trying everything.
The black bean thing was pretty good.
On Wednesday, once we were settled in at the snow-dusted peach farm, my mother-in-law fired up the mochi machine. Mochi is a form of prepared rice, thick and chewy and sticky and served in a multitude of ways, and is another New Year’s favorite. Together we made Dai-fuku, small round blobs of mochi filled with a sweet bean paste called anko. It stands to reason that it should not be too hard to get a blob of sticky rice to behave, but my Dai-fuku came out looking like the proverbial clay ashtray every kindergartener brings home to mom and dad, regardless of whether they smoke. My mother-in-law had already thrown together another form of mochi, once upon a time shaped and left to sit in long pieces of bamboo split in half. Now it seems a length of plastic gutter from the home center is the new custom. These half-moon rice cakes can be put in soup, smothered in anko or kinako (powdered soy bean, which is a lot better than it sounds), or eaten as is, usually grilled on top of the kerosene heater.

For breakfast on Thursday we would have mochi in all of these forms. Around 11am my wife and mom-in-law were sitting in a quiet powwow, trying to decide how to serve lunch’s mochi.
We ended up having udon.
It is colder up on the peach farm, and snows quite a bit more than down in town, and yesterday it started snowing again. So after lunch, feeling myself turning edgy being confined to the only warm room in the house and with no professional sports on TV, I told Yamato we should go sledding. From his reaction it seemed he was feeling just as cooped-up, and soon we were heading out the door. ‘Do you need to go pee pee?’ my wife asked him (but not me). Of course not, it was time to go sledding. My mother-in-law pulled out a home-made wooden sled from on top of the firewood pile in the back shed. ‘Here, use this.’ Nice gesture, but I brought along a big plastic bag just in case.
Despite the fast there are exactly zero hills on the peach farm big enough to give daddy thirty seconds rest from having to pull the boy around, a good time was had by all. We hadn’t thought to bring a decent pair of gloves for Yamato, and my wife’s wouldn’t quite stay on his hands, so after a few minutes Yamato decided to go without any, and didn’t complain about frozen fingers for the next hour. I think the same dynamic is at work with little kids and sand in their shorts. How can they not care?
Walking back up the driveway to the house Yamato said he wanted to go pee pee outside. He does this sometimes, now that he knows he can. ‘Come on Yamato, let’s just go inside,’ I said as I leaned the sled up against the side of the shed and tucked my unused plastic bag behind it. ‘Daddy, I’m going pee pee now...’

And he was, pants pulled up and leaking into his boots as he stood there looking back at me.

Now it is New Year’s Eve, and we are all more than sated in the mochi department so I have been commissioned to stop by the sushi place to pick up dinner for everyone. (Plus my mother-in-law might be busy making O-sechi though I haven’t seen any black beans anywhere.) Normally my wife can call ahead and place an order and all I have to do is go in, spit out my name (‘Su-mi-su’ being the standard ear-grating version) and they hand me a bag or two. Today, however, we are not the only ones with moms too busy making O-sechi to cook and bellies overloaded with mochi, and I just got an email from my wife saying the sushi shop isn’t taking orders today. ‘It’s really crowded too,’ she added, meaning I better get my butt over there. It’s just as well. This is New Year’s Eve, a time for family, food and good cheer – one form being the ‘nigori’ Japanese sake my mother-in-law has been letting me sample these past two days. There is most likely at least a few bottles of Kirin Lager still out in the shed too. These will go perfectly with an evening of sushi and silly television shows in a room full of train tracks – the only warm room in the house.

Happy New Year everyone!
Best of luck in all your New Year’s endeavors.