David Chart's Japan Diary

January 1st 2004

Akemashite omedetou! Happy New Year!

I've been quite busy the last few days, finishing off the revisions for the next round of testing Ars Magica 5th edition, and I've also had a bit of a cold. Nevertheless, it's been good. On Tuesday Adam and Julia, two of my classmates, were leaving to go back to America, and they gave me their video recorder. Which was very kind of them. I've got it working, and it should be very useful for listening practice. Most notably, with a video recorder it's possible to rewind and listen again when you don't catch something...

Adam and Julia are going to start at Nagasaki University in April, so I'm hoping to be able to visit them when I go to Kyushu. Checking in my guidebook reveals that Kyushu is a long way away, though, so I may need to make two trips: one to see Yuko in Fukuoka, and one to see Adam and Julia in Nagasaki. It's a shame that they needed to go back to America for this quarter, but visas and money mandated it.

New Year's

Mieko invited Amy and me to spend New Year's with her family. (I teach Yoshiki, and Amy teaches Mieko.) It was great; a proper Japanese New Year celebration. When I was invited, I hadn't realised just how much family there was going to be; Mieko's parents, both her sisters, their husbands, and their children were all there, and Mieko's niece's boyfriend turned up a bit later (and looked very uncomfortable at first, poor guy).

Dinner Dinner at Mieko's. The big pot in the foreground is the shabushabu pot.

The first event was a big meal. We had sukiyaki and shabushabu, which are notable for being traditional Japanese dishes that don't involve fish or rice. Sukiyaki is fried (I think) beef and vegetables, which you eat out of a raw egg sauce. It was the first time I'd had raw egg, and it worked really, really well as a sauce -- the sukiyaki was delicious. It is cooked at the table, so everything was fresh and hot.

Shabushabu is also cooked at the table, and also involves beef and vegetables. This time, they are cooked in boiling water. You dip your meat into the pot, swirl it around a bit while it goes 'shabu shabu' (yes, that's really where the name comes from), and then put it in another sauce before eating it. You can cook other meats in shabushabu, but the beef was the best.

Dinner was delicious. If I ate like that every night, I wouldn't have lost weight while I was here... Amy and I were put next to each other, which was good; in all, we spent about eleven hours with Mieko and her family, and the chance to lapse into English from time to time was very welcome.

Motomi-chan Motomi-chan in a kimono for New Year's.

After dinner Motomi-chan, Mieko's younger niece (not the one with the boyfriend) was dressed in a kimono, and came to have her picture taken by everyone. Motomi-chan is five, and thus looks really, really cute in a kimono, as you can see from the picture. She was a little bit shy about having her picture taken by everyone, though.

Amy in kimono. Amy in the kimono, and me. The one in the pink kimono is Amy...

After Motomi-chan had been shown off, Mieko and her mother took Amy upstairs and put her in a kimono. We repeated the 'everyone takes pictures' thing, and the kimono was very nice indeed. Apparently, Mieko's mother had made it, and while there was also a man's kimono, it was too short for me, which is a shame. I'm sure everyone would have liked to see pictures of me in it. (Note: men's kimonos are not pink and do not have pictures of flowers on. Usually.)

We sat around chatting while Yoshiki, Taiki, and Motomi disappeared upstairs to play videogames, and the television was on in the background, playing the Japanese New Year shows. These seem to be basically the same as the British ones, except that they don't have Clive James making fun of Japanese television. (Mind you, he probably doesn't do that any more.) There were several music shows, and most of the female singers had routines that involved layers of clothing being taken off to reveal skimpier outfits underneath. This included Morning Musume, a group of about a dozen singers, maybe more, with an average age of 13 (literally -- I'm not making a joke about how young Japanese women look). It got to be slightly strange, so I wonder whether one singer did it last year, and it was very successful.

At about ten thirty I walked over to the local shrine with Yutaka, Mieko's husband, to help them set up for later. On New Year's, Japanese people traditionally visit a shrine or temple just after midnight, eat mochi (pounded rice) and oshiruko (a sweet soup), and pray for health and good fortune for the coming year. So, people have to turn up in advance to prepare the oshiruko, and start the bonfire. Large and famous shrines draw huge crowds. This shrine is neither large nor famous, so it was much quieter.

Amy and me at the shrine Amy and me at the Shrine somewhat after midnight. Amy is holding her oshiruko.

It was fun to help; the oshiruko was heated on a wood-burning stove , but it took a while to get it actually burning. After that, there wasn't a great deal to do, except to have Yutaka's next door neighbour guess that I was in my late twenties and be gratifyingly surprised at my real age. Apparently, I look about five years younger than I am, which is good, and gives me a chance of dating Japanese women in their thirties without looking like a dirty old man.

I went back to Mieko's to eat toshikoshi soba with everyone else at around half past eleven. Soba is a kind of noodle, which is eaten all year round, but toshikoshi soba ('passing the year soba') is only eaten on New Year's Eve. It is very long, which is supposed to be a good omen for long life. That was very nice as well, and I got a really big bowl.

Then Amy was dressed up in another kimono, and we went to the shrine to pay our respects for the New Year. People had showed up by that point, because it was nearly one am, and we were given instructions on what to do to pray for good health at the main shrine building. It is interesting that this basically religious tradition is still extremely strong in Japan, possibly the most secular country in the world. Kanako, Mieko's older niece, also went in a kimono, although it wasn't as fancy as the one Amy was wearing, and they were the only people I saw in kimono.

After that, Mieko took Amy and me home (her house is a long way from ours), and it was about three am before I got to bed. It was a really good night, and an excellent ending for my first three months over here.