Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ringing in the New Year in Japan - A Year in Fukushima #5

That I rang in the new year five days and fifteen minutes ago means a few things. One, the synapses should be firing like jiffy-pop up there, making my aluminum foil head explode with ideas for resolutions so outlandishly ambitious I won’t feel bad about breaking them; two, my mother-in-law’s mochi cakes – all fourteen varieties, including the one with the dried bits of squid entrails mixed in – should have mercifully, magically disappeared by now, from both the fridge and the walls of most of my major arteries; and three, I should have written my first post of the year four days and fifteen minutes ago and gone to bed.


I have excuses none of this is happening. Their names are Yamato and Seiji.

My older boy won’t stop making me play trains with him, or take him to the park. I wish he’d get creative and say something like ‘Daddy, just get out of my face if you can’t turn me into a dinosaur.’ Then I can get down to some serious resolution-making – after I fiddle with the settings on my blog page a little more. The younger kid thinks he’s off the mochi hook because he only has four teeth, and cries like a baby until I give in and fix him some pulverized peas instead. This of course means it’s another plate of cooled-off, brick-of-chalk mochi for papa. Then all day they tag-team mom with screaming poopie pants and glue-eating competitions, and in an apartment this size I can’t fake not noticing that the god of hellfire is shooting out the wife’s mouth again, and suddenly I’m back on daddy duty and another day of writing is shot. So here goes another late-night typing session – evidently I didn’t place the prolific writing resolution bar high enough to justify crying a quiet ‘impossible’ to myself and just crawling into my futon.
But really, I’m glad I’m feeling motivated, because I can’t wait any longer to say that my New Year’s Eve was, in a word with countless connotations, amazing.

In Japan, in case you are ill-informed, it’s all about tradition – meaning nothing has to make sense to anyone taking part. Putting it this way lends some vague sense of consolation as I look back on a New Year’s Eve that still has me reeling in the part of my brain responsible for understanding what the hell is going on.

On any other night of the year, and I think I can include my birthday here, I’m more than happy to have the wife fall asleep with the kids at nine. Then I can avail myself to the unclaimed beer, sake and snacks lying in every dark corner of the in-laws’ house. Or fire up some coffee and chocolate and bang out a few more pages of the next novel. Maybe even listen to a CD wholly lacking in songs about perky animals or talking choo-choo trains. But in Japan New Year’s is supposed to be one of the most important family events of the entire year (the others being O-Bon, the return of the spirits of the deceased to the home, and Doyo-no-Ushi-no-Hi, when everyone escapes the summer heat by eating eel). So I was anticipating something at least a little out of the ordinary from my normally-sedate relatives, even if it was going to require my polishing off the plum brandy that has been sitting around too long. (Plum brandy, it has been proven in certain controlled living room experiments, can increase one’s ability to fake comprehending conversations in garbled Japanese dialect and thus delude oneself into enjoying them.) But this past Friday night, up at the old peach farm, my mother-in-law, the last holdout, only made it to eleven. And this only because she was doing laundry.

By the time she said something sounding like ‘good night’ and disappeared into the darkened hallway I had enough sake in me to drown any chance of writing anything halfway intelligible (my standard benchmark). But I had not yet begun to find the humor in the people in the foam costumes on TV playing slapstick pork and rice trivia. Strong-willed reveler that I am, I found a solution. I cracked a can of happoshu and toed the sobriety line and got a jump-start on my Happy New Year cell phone texts. Everyone else in Japan types out the exact same message. They use the same three government-approved New Year’s expressions and send these happy, icon-laden, totally emotionless messages en masse to everyone on their address lists, time-delayed to coincide with the stroke of midnight. This of course sets repeater towers all up and down the archipelago on fire, which is an impressive sight to say the least, and my favorite part of New Year’s in Japan. I can’t believe my wife doesn’t stay up for it.

Now, as I am a writer and therefore determined to be unique in even the most pointless of situations, I began sending individualized texts to everyone I thought might be planning on sending me a New Year’s message. Then I got started on the B-list. My superior powers of concentration were on full display (though no one was around to witness) as I kept thumbing my phone right into midnight. It was a bit of a shock actually when my mother-in-law crept into the room to say ‘Akemashita omedetou gozaimasu, kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu,’ leaving out the state-mandated ‘Ii toshi ni narimasu you ni’ because she’s just crazy like that sometimes. I looked at her, then at the clock, and saw it was already 12:03. So far I’d received not a single New Year’s text. Those repeater towers must have really been going up in flames out there.

‘Can you hear the fireworks?’ she asks. I listen, above the sounds of the people on TV laughing with themselves, and hear a faint boom-boom. ‘To the north,’ she adds, and I follow her into the kitchen to lean out the side door with her. There are no sparks, no colors, just flashes in the sky like far-off heat lightning. ‘They’re in Kunimi and Iizaka,’ I am told. Apparently Fukushima City, the prefectural seat of government, is too busy for fireworks as they are monitoring the airwaves to make sure people are using the proper three sentences in their New Year’s text messages. (Violators are firmly, politely reprimanded.)

I wasn’t the least bit disappointed in the heat lightning display because, like it was scripted by the ghosts of past generations who celebrated New Year’s without bad TV, or any TV, it had also started snowing. And this, standing in the cold doorway of my in-laws’ cramped kitchen, nobody conscious but me and my mother-in-law, made my New Year’s something to remember, at least in some small but comforting way.

But then mom fired up the stove.

Ten minutes later I was slurping down soba with my wife and both her parents. Sleep until ten past midnight, then wake up and eat. Do the Japanese have to do everything backwards? Twenty minutes later I was back in the living room, just me and the TV, my in-laws all having gone back to bed. They’d apparently decided to forego the traditional New Year’s bath at midnight, followed by an offering of fruit or sake or fourteen kinds of mochi to kami-sama sitting up in his altar above the hutch. I guess getting up for the soba is good enough for recent generations though I’d say they’re playing with fire.

New Year’s Day is a traditional day of cleaning in Japan, similar to the customary (and, perhaps like the midnight bath, quietly ignored) spring cleaning deal in the States. Now, I get the symbolism here: a new year, a fresh start, and all you Shinto demons get out from under the spare futons in the closet. But what do you say we stay up on New Year’s Eve instead, split the plum brandy and sleep in on January 1st instead of waking up early to throw all the windows and doors open to the snow still swirling in the breeze? I am just now beginning to think that it’s been more than just wanderlust that has compelled me to spend New Year’s in Malaysia, New Zealand, even New Jersey in recent years. I can deal with the mindless exchange of mandatory New Year’s greetings, but can you please shut the god damn doors? It’s like, one out there.

I tossed back the rest of my happoshu and was about to call it a night when a voice told me to switch the channel on the TV. (Okay, I was having a hard time finding the big red OFF button.) On the screen was Ichiro Suzuki, whacking another of his trademark singles through the infield. I watched for a moment as it sunk into me that it was not baseball season. Then a clip of another Ichiro hit, this a double to the gap in left. Then another single, then a slap home run, against a different team. A few more hits and I realized what was happening: they were replaying in order every one of Ichiro’s 2,244 Major League hits. With this I knew it was time to wish the empty house a happy new year and crawl into my futon – which I did after watching about one year’s worth of Ichiro highlights. Like I said, amazing carries many connotations.

Well now it has been six days and five minutes since I rang in the New Year. Teaching manufacturing company workers English, having two little boys who I can’t get to not like me no matter how well I imitate the wife’s god of hellfire routine, and the daily odds and ends of trying to sell my books to libraries, tracking down a notary public and eating a meal occasionally, all make it very difficult to get in ample writing time. But it seems my jiffy-pop is popping. I know exactly now what my New Year’s Resolution is going to be, starting this very moment.

I’m not going to sleep for the rest of the year.

I may make it, now that the plum brandy is gone.