David Chart's Japan Diary

December 31st 2007

I can't really blame the blog for the hiatus this time, as it's been almost equally short of entries. Instead, I'll blame the fact that I have a new baby, and she, together with my work, has been keeping me really busy. This is a good thing, of course, but it has cut into diary-writing time. However, there are some things to write about, and the New Year holidays in Japan mean that I have a bit of time to write about them.


Yuriko and Mayuki at the Kuizome Mayuki's Kuizome

"Kuizome" (koo-ee-zo-meh) is the name for a Japanese custom involving young children. It means "first eating", but it is a largely symbolic event. It takes place a hundred days after the birth (in theory), so no babies are really ready for solids by then, and they certainly aren't ready for the solids that are normally served at a Kuizome. This is a household ceremony, rather than a shrine one, but friends, as well as family, may be involved; we were invited to one for one of Yuriko's friends' children a couple of years ago. Ours, however, was a family affair, although Yuriko's parents made a special trip from Nagoya to join us for it.

Yuriko and her mother prepared the food, because I was working all day, and then I joined them for the celebration. This is basically a special meal, but samples of all (or at least most) of the dishes are also put in front of the baby. Before we started eating, Yuriko and I both pretended to feed Mayuki from the food in front of her, while we were videoed. This is the key part of the ceremony; it is a request for the baby to grow up healthy, so that she can eat that sort of food for real in the future.

Kuizome Meal Mayuki's meal at the Kuizome.

The plates and bowls for the Kuizome were all gifts to Mayuki. The round ones were gifts from Yuriko's parents, while the rectangular one with the fish on was a gift from a group of her friends from university. I'm not sure whether that's traditional, but I think it maybe should be. It was certainly very nice.

The food itself is a bit special. First, the whole fish is traditional. Serving a whole fish, with head and tail still attached, at celebratory occasions is a Japanese tradition that goes back at least three hundred years; it's mentioned in the book I'm currently helping one of my students to translate. These days, the traditional fish is a bream, called "tai" in Japanese, because this, apparently, brings to mind "medetai", which means "congratulations". The green stuff just to the right of the fish's mouth is konbu, which is auspicious because it sounds a bit like "yorokobu", which means "rejoice". The things to the left above the fish, on the same plate, are beans, which are connected to good health, because the word for bean, "mame", is also used for "healthy". The brownish thing on the round plate at the top of the tray is an umeboshi, pickled Japanese plum. These are quite sour, being pickled, and are therefore auspicious for long life. "Therefore" because, when you eat them, your face wrinkles up, just like it does when you get old.

Look, I don't come up with these connections; I just report them.

The other, redder, things on that plate are also pickles, because they should traditionally be part of the meal. The other, orange, thing on the fish plate is persimmon, which is also apparently somewhat traditional, although I don't know why. The round plate in the centre of the bottom of the tray contains sekihan, or red rice, which is rice cooked with azuki beans. This is a very standard celebration dish, although, unlike tai, I don't think it tastes particularly good. The large round bowl on the righ contains boiled chicked and vegetables, while the small bowl at the bottom right has miso soup, with shellfish. The cup contains barley tea.

All of these things were picked up in chopsticks (we didn't actually use the knife and fork) and held in front of Mayuki's mouth, but she showed no interest in them at all. Fortunately, she was her usual sweet self, and didn't complain about them either. Then, while she watched proceedings from her bouncer, the four of us enjoyed a meal, chatting about Mayuki and a few other things. In all, it was a very nice, low-key celebration of Mayuki's first three months or so.


Mayuki with presents and Christmas dinner Mayuki's First Christmas

This year was Mayuki's first Christmas. As I've mentioned every year, Christmas isn't really a big holiday in Japan; Christmas Eve is bigger, and anyway it's aimed at couples, particularly young couples, rather than families. However, we are planning to maintain English customs as well as Japanese ones, so I took the day off and we had a family Christmas.

For this, I cooked Christmas dinner. We got a really, really small turkey from the same place as last year, and I took it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge 24 hours in advance, just as the instructions said. On Christmas Day, it still had ice crystals on. I don't think our fridge is set to be that cold. (Actually, I know it isn't, because I checked.) So, convincing the turkey to defrost became a major performance, involving lots of cold water, even cold running water for a while. It did eventually thaw out, and, being small, did not then take too long to cook.

Fortunately, after all the effort, it was rather tasty, and the roast potatoes came out very nice indeed. (The vegetables were OK too; I gave the carrots enough extra boiling time this year.) After eating dinner, we did Christmas presents, following the Chart family tradition, and this year, at least, Mayuki was perfectly happy to wait for them. This may, I fear, change in the future. We took more video of Mayuki receiving her presents, and then did our presents for each other. Add in video chats with most of my family (Mum and Ray were on holiday in New Zealand, and thus not easily contactable; I suspect that this was the first Christmas Day I haven't spoken to my mother since I could speak), and we had a very nice day, fitting in most of the things you do in a traditional English Christmas. I even did the washing up.

Year in Review

Mayuki was born. There may have been some other minor events, but that's about all that springs to mind. So it was a really good year.