Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
This year, we rang out the New Year in a very different way. Rather than try to celebrate in our “normal” way, watching the countdown with some champagne and friends, we decided to fully embrace being in Japan for the holiday.
New Year’s food: soba, mochi, sweet potato/chestnut soup, and two types of sake.
After reading about many of the meaningful and unique ways that Japanese folks use food to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next, we bought many of the special New Year’s ingredients and did our best to create some festive dishes of our own.
- Renkon- Rachael made these little lotus root chips, which, due to the swiss-cheese-like holes in the root, symbolize being able to peer into the next year (through the holes). Eating lotus roots supposedly brings good fortune, so we had our fill!
- Soba are buckwheat noodles symbolizing longevity in life. These are common year-round, but especially important for new year celebrations. Rachael made a soup with soba noodles in dashi broth. Delish.
- Mochi are small balls of glutinous rice-flour, or hand-pounded rice if you have the wooden mallet and accessories to make it from home. We made ours in a Chinese style after having a few of the slightly-sweet delicacies in Yokohama’s Chinatown earlier in the week. Apparently these sticky balls can be a problem in New Year’s celebrations, however, as there are several choking deaths due to pesky mochi reported each year in the newspapers. I’ll let you know when I find out how many people are pushing up daisies via mochi this year.
- Kuri kinton is mashed sweet potato with sweet chestnuts (kuri). The golden color symbolizes prosperity for you and your family. Instead of serving it like mashed potatoes, Rachael made soup with both ingredients. Maybe we’ll get some extra college debt paid off this year!
- Sake was served at the Shinto shrine after the midnight festivities began. First we were able to try unfiltered sake (see video below). Though the texture was a little difficult to swallow as a brown liquid with mushy, fermented rice chunks floating around…it was delicious and a nice preview to the upcoming traditional filtered sake. That sake, like any you’ve probably tried, was served as a clean, clear, refreshing drink. Love it.
New Year’s Eve at the Shinto Shrine
That leads me to the celebration of the new year itself. We crossed the river to a large shrine (where last year we attended a small festival akin to a county fair) and looked for signs of life at about 11:45pm. Not really knowing anything about what we were about to experience, we followed an older man with his Cocker Spaniel puppy as they climbed the stairs to the local shrine.
Once we got to the top, we joined a line after about 50 others, again, not having any idea what we were waiting for. Everyone was strangely quiet in the minutes leading up to midnight. There was no clock or countdown. But right at midnight, a bunch of drummers began pounding on massive taiko drums and everyone cheered and hugged for a minute.
Then, the line started moving. Remembering lessons from previous shrine visits, we brought 10 yen ($0.10) coins with us in case we’d need them for our prayer. As we got closer to the shrine’s main building, we noticed people praying in the “normal” Shinto manner.
It goes a little something like this: Stand facing the center of the building, drop your change in the clanking box in front of you, bow, clap 2-3 times or ring some bells to get the god’s attention, say your prayer about your family/business/etc., bow deeply again and move on. We did our best to follow the crowd, said a prayer about the new year, and moved on as well.
Then, we purchased a few of the fortune-telling arrows, which show an image of the tiger since 2010 is the Year of the Tiger.
After enjoying some warm & sweet red bean soup and the two types of sake, we stood by as countless people from the neighborhood tried their hand at hitting the large drum. Here’s a video that we put together for Rachael’s blog- you’ll see people taking their turn to hit the huge drum.
After freezing our tails off for an hour, we biked back home and warmed up with a yuzu bath (more of a winter solstice tradition than new year’s, but it was nice nonetheless).
New Year’s Day
On New Year’s Day, most of Japan closes down for a day of rest, so we woke up late and checked for our one and only nengajo, a new year’s card similar to American Christmas cards. One of my students’ families sent us a nice card, but most Japanese will get many of these on New Year’s day, and they are all guaranteed to be delivered today by a temporarily augmented post office force of student helpers.
We relaxed all day, played badminton (hanetsuki), and we’re hoping to write a haiku or two after dinner tonight. Tomorrow we’ll be getting up early to hit up some sales at IKEA, along with about 10 million other shoppers. Should be fun.
All in all, it was incredible having the opportunity to experience the holiday in Japan. Happy New Year to you all!