Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Eve 2007

A New Year's decoration (kadomatsu) hanging on a resident's door.

Note: Last year I did an extensive series of posts with pictures of our neighborhood during New Year's day. Since there isn't any significant variation in celebration from year-to-year, I'm focusing on the happenings the day before this year. If you'd like to see typical New Year's day celebrations, have a look back at part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 from January 2007.

Most of the posts you see in Japan blogs around this time of year tend to focus on the midnight visits to big shrines and fireworks displays. These represent what I consider to be the more "glamorous" celebrations of the holiday, but I think that the lion's share of Japanese folks are at home engaging in a much quieter and less showy manner. As Roy once wrote in his blog (and I'm paraphrasing), most Japanese people want to spend their holiday relaxing at home sitting under the kotatsu, eating snacks, and watching television rather than being jostled by crowds and freezing at shrines. This is a fact that has been confirmed again and again when I ask students about their plans. Also, let's face it, if the majority of people went to shrines on New Year's eve, the crowds simply could not be accommodated even if every shrine in Tokyo were filled to capacity. A lot of people wait until New Year's day to make a pilgrimage (or even a day or two after).

There are certain ways of celebrating that almost everyone will observe whether they stay home or not. One part of this is displaying traditional decorations (kadomatsu) outside their homes. As the holiday approaches, you can find them everywhere in many shapes, forms and at different prices. The local 100 yen shop had small ones available in early December for those who want them cheap and don't mind if they're made of plastic (and likely made in China). Those who want something more elaborate and real can opt to buy a pre-made arrangement at a flower shop.

More ambitious sorts will make their own decorations from pine sprigs, bamboo, and other supplies purchased at flower shops. One of my students is a retired gentleman who is 65 and he told me that his father-in-law (who I believe is in his 80's) always made the kadomatsu himself. I commented that his father-in-law must be quite talented and he got a funny look on his face and said that, "he's not a professional."

My student didn't want to say it (or didn't know how to), but I realized that some of these decorations are quite simple and are little more than bundles of branches and paper tied together (as you can see above on either side of this home's entrance). I was imagining his father-in-law made one of the more elaborate types that I see pre-made in stores.

One other type of decoration most Japanese folks display inside their homes is kagami mochi. It's displayed inside of people's homes so the only place you see them is on display in shops (pictured at left in the picture of a tea shop above). I've seen these for sale every year since I arrived and at first thought they looked pretty appetizing. Now that I know what is in them (mochi) and that a lot of old folks choke and die eating it each year, my personal posture regarding it has changed. I've never actually purchased one though I have eaten mochi-wrapped sweets before and find them enjoyable. I think that a big mochi disc isn't going to be quite so much fun as a shell of it wrapped around some sweet beans. Mochi is too gummy for me to enjoy in this particular form. Though I have read that people eat these as part of the New Year's celebration, I have my doubts. Most of them are mass-produced and sold in molded plastic containers. They seem designed more for uniformity and decorations than for consumption.

The other part of traditional celebrations is osechi-ryouri. This is a traditional meal which is usually prepared ahead of time so the mothers can sit under the kotatsu, eat snacks, and watch T.V. instead of slaving over hot pots in the kitchen. I've asked a lot of Japanese folks about these meals and most of them shrug their shoulders when asked if they are good or say it's not actually very good. The main complaints are that the food isn't fresh and therefore not very tasty.

Of course, there's a market for moms who don't want to prepare their own food or folks who are on their own and you can see it on the streets on New Year's eve as well as in a variety of stores.

Soba is sold at a table set up on the street. It may be "toshi-koshi" (year crossing) soba which is eaten on New Year's eve.

One of my students told me that she always buys her osechi-ryouri because it's too big a pain in the ass to do it herself. While a lot of western folks who have never been to Japan like to write articles about all the meticulous and preciousness of Japanese cuisine at this time of year, the truth isn't quite so homey or traditional in many cases. Modern women are busy and don't have time to prepare a variety of preserved dishes for the holiday so they sometimes pick up at least portions of the meal in grocery or department stores.

Of course, lower down on the osechi-ryouri food chain are bentos from 7-11. The sign above this one says you can reserve your yummy New Year's bento from them and pick it up for the greatest possible holiday convenience. I'm guessing this sort of thing is purchased by people who find themselves all alone for the holiday rather than families.

A sign showing a rat (for the year of the rat) hangs on a closed shop named "Piggy Bank". The same posters are plastered all over the place in our neighborhood.

The Japanese observe the Chinese zodiac and most folks know the animal of the year they were born in. Last year was the year of the boar and next year (now this year) is the year of the rat. If I were a kid, I wouldn't want to have been born in the year of the pig or the rodent, but I'm sure that's an ethnocentric western viewpoint and there are actually no negative connotations associated with any particular animal. Nonetheless, I'm happy to have been born in the year of the dragon (and my husband was born in the year of the tiger which is also very nifty). ;-)

Happy New Year to all my readers and their families.

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