Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I felt a bit lonesome going into the New Year. It wasn't overbearing. It didn't bog me down and leave me laying on a futon in a dark room listening to Pulp. It was more like a fleck in my peripheral vision--something that only became visible to me when i'd stop and take a look around. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
It's reasonable to say that New Years holiday carries as much weight for my family as Christmas does for yours. It was a big holiday in Soviet Union and is still huge in the former Soviet Republics. Most everyone i know who came from Soviet Union starts preparing for how they'll spend New Years at least a month in advance. Reservations are made at russian restaurants, trips are booked, outfits are carefully decided, and of course, presents are bought. On 31st, most people will take a nap during the day, so that they can party through the whole night; it's reasonable to expect to stay out 'til 6am. New Years' eve is spent with family when one's younger and with friends, when one's older. On New Years day, families get together and presents are exchanged and left over food is eaten. We usually put up a tree after Christmas in my house. We started doing that because years ago my father found out that live trees are given away for free on the 25th. These days, my mom puts up a large, fake tree and all the presents get piled under it. So you see, spending New Years alone was not something I'd have wished on myself, but this year i wanted to spend it Japanese/Okinawan style, and so i had to deal with the fact that midnight was not going to be a big deal and i would have to be alone.
So here's a picture shorthand of how i spent my New Years with Okinawans.

The New Years is a major holiday in Japan. It's a time for families to gather and relax together. For this purpose, the special New Years food, osechiryouri, is prepared in advance so that the females of the family can also relax and join everyone in celebrating the holiday. On the 31st families relax together by going on outings, playing games at the house, watching TV, visiting relatives' homes, etc. New Years is not a holiday that celebrates the one moment when the old year becomes new; the holiday is celebrated over a period of several days during which New Years food is eaten, people don't work, and children are given envelopes of money as presents.
Follow the wiki links for more info on Japanese New Years' Eve, New Years and osechi-ryouri.

On the 31st, the Taira family picked me up and we went to play park golf in Kunigami. This is Mr. Taira who is the Ogimi BOE's superintendant, his wife, their youngest daughter and their grandson. Park golf is not quite mini-golf, because there are no funny obstacles, but it's played with giant balls on a mini version of a regular coarse. It was my first time and so naturally, i came in last. There were quite a few families on the coarse; it was a clear day and really lovely.
After park golf, we went to the Taira house and had a simple lunch of miso soup and rolled mochi. The mochi was sent to Mrs. Taira from a friend in the Sendai prefecture in the north of Japan. On New Years, friends, and collegues send each other presents that are usually drink or food. It is customary to send a present like that to your elder, senpai, or a higherup at work. So mrs. Taira received quite a few presents, so did grandmother Taira, but Mr. Taira didn't get as many because he works in the public sector and so it could be construed as bribary and is not done.

This is Kai, the son of the eldest Taira daughter. See if you can spot a giant caterpillar near him.

After lunch, Nao, Mr. Taira, Kai and i drove to the aquarium in Motobu. Even though i've been there 3 times already, it's still a nice place to walk through, and i noticed that they change up some of the smaller tanks. The aquarium was packed with mainland tourists, foreigners (by that i mean US military), and Okinawans. It was a bit cloudy and gray, and Kai fell asleep on the ride there and back. It was the first time that we were given a break from his rendition of Mr. Ozma's "Bounce with me" song. Unfortunately Kai could only remember a small and very repetitive bit from the song, but he cracked everyone up every time he'd do it, especially if he had space and freedom to combine the song with dance.

This is the Taira family gathered around a dinner spread on the 31st. We made our own sushi hand rolls, which so incredible delicious, i can't even begin to describe my happiness with it. One of these days i'll have to throw a sushi temaki party at my house. It'll be great.

After dinner we sat around and chatted and played games and watched NHK's "Red vs white concert" which is a staple of any Japanese household on New Year's Eve. Famous Japanese bands and singers perform popular songs and it's a competition between men and women. At the end of the evening, the audience gets to vote on who's won. I didn't actually get to see won that evening, but more about that in just a moment.

This is Saori, the eldest Taira daugher. I taught her how to play backgammon online that night. We were playing a children's board game called sugoroku which in the electronic dictionary translated to "Japanese backgammon". It looked nothing like backgammon to me, just your simple boardgame with obstacles. So i showed Saori the backgammon i'm familiar with and it got her hooked.

At 11pm. Mrs. Taira prepared a New Year's soba dish. Eating of the long soba noodles symbolically says goodbye to the old year while welcoming the new. It's a tradition from mainland, as most that are observed in Okinawa on New Year's are, but in Okinawa the buckweat mainland soba is substituted for the Okinawa kind. Yum. After eating the soba, we watched the concert for a few more minutes and around 11:45pm Mr. Taira politely indicated that it was time for me to return home. Actually i wasn't their only guest that evening; the man in the above picture oposite me is a good friend of Mr. Taira's who came over around 9pm and brought sake with him. I was home with 10 minutes 'til midnight, so i opened a bottle wine, poured myself a glass and decided to take a picture of myself at midnight. By the time that all got set up, it was midnight already and fireworks coming from Okuma resort started off outside. I ran out and to the road and watched them with a glass of wine in hand. Fireworks, wine, a great feeling of serenity from having spent a day with lovely and goodhearted people put me in a wonderful New Year's mood. Nothing to dread afterall.
On the 1st, at 11am i was back at the Taira house for osechi-ryouri. If you followed the wiki link above, you already know that the food is served in large stackable boxes and is not just an everyday Japanese fare. Each dish in the osechi box has a deeper meaning that has to do with the New Year. Red and white are majestic colors that can be found in major Japanese celebrations, and of course in their flag, so certain foods are arranged to show off those colors. Other foods carry messages of fertility, prosperity, abundant harvest, and health. I think that's one of the amazing factors about being in Japan is the constant reminder of how traditional and deeply cultural the people's lives are. It's a modern society with all the comforts that that can afford, but it's still very firmly rooted in very concrete and all enveloping cultural ideals and principles.
I haven't told you about Kai's greatgrandmother yet. Grandmother Taira is an extraordinary woman. She has been named Japan's National Treasure and for good reason. This woman singlehandedly brought back the nearly lost art of Okinawa bashofu weaving. In the 60's and 70's, she organized the women of Kijoka into a bashofu workshop and it is now the only place in the world where bashofu cloth is woven. At nearly 90 she is still an integral part of the tradition. She goes to the workshop every day and has a room for weaving set up in the house where she sometimes works with Mrs. Taira and Saori. She participates in and supervises every arduous step of bashofu weaving, and her indigo stained hands show it. A wonderful story from a little village where i live. After eating, i went back to my apartment to call up my family and friends on their New Years eve. Later in the afternoon, Mr. Taira and the usual crew picked me up for a leisurely drive through Kunigami. A nice and relaxing conclusion to my New Years with the Tairas.

This is my supervisor's wife and their dog, Candy at a shrine in Naha on the 2nd. We went to a shrine called Naminoue. It is one of the biggest on Okinawa and a popular spot for those wishing to make their first visit to a shrine in the New Year. At the shrine we threw in a coin and clapped our hands to wake up the gods so that they could hear our prayers. After that we walked past several stalls that sold amulets for the new year in form of prayers sown into decorative pouches, beautiful arrows to display in the house, representations of various gods, etc. It is traditional to receive New Years fortune at a shrine as well, so we each paid 100yen and picked one out of a box. They have some with english translations as well. I read my fortune and tied it to a rope as did every one else. My fortune for the year is "very good," so let's hope that's right. There are several degrees of fortune ranging from "excellent" to "poor".
After walking to a Buddhist temple next to the shrine we bought some yakisoba at the food stalls and ate. This is a photo in the park next to the shrine; a family enjoying a lunch after their shrine visit. I just thought it was a perfect way to show you what Okinawa is like during New Years. Gorgeous, peaceful, and all about the family.
Here's a giant stalagtite that hangs in a cave in Tomagusuku. After the shrine visits, my supervisor drove us to a Ryuku culture park that was initially built to show off a nearly kilometer long cave. It took nearly a half hour to walk through the cave, which in parts was decorated with christmas lights in a no longer surprising to me Japanese fashion. There was even a giant, lit up Shisa near a beautiful display of stalactites to provide a fun point for a picture. On top of the cave, the park is an exhibition of traditional Okinawan arts, crafts, dance, and food. There is also a small museum about snakes, specifically the poisonous habu that live on Okinawa. We even watched a show with live snakes. A ferret was also involved. No worries, no animals were harmed during the show.

So here i am near a giant Chinese shisa in the cave park. Happy New Year!! Sorry this post took so long in the making and turned out to be exceptionally long but hopefully not too boring.

In the next post, i might get up the bravety to try and explain why i've just signed my recontracting papers for a 3rd year on JET. Although, after seeing the pics and reading the stories, some of the reasons are quite evident, no?


Craig Mauelshagen said...

Heya, looks like you had a wonderful festive break. Sorry I just got round to reading your blog but it was a looong post! You say that newyears is big in ex USSR states. Well Scotland to, did you know until the 1950s we didnt even celebrate christmas! Newyears (Hogmanay) was our big party, people used to give presents then although that has been moved to christmas. It is still the biggest party of the year though and some people still go first footing and things. Just though I'd let you know.

-e said...

i didn't know that. but it would explain Pratchett's referrence to Hogswatchday. what do you think?

Craig Mauelshagen said...

Yep the english are aware of Hogmanay. It's quite a big party we have in edinburgh on new years you know, attracts a few folk from beyond our shores. I watched a movie my mum sent me about scottish new years and aparently a hogman is a good spirit of some sort. It is all quite pagan ya know, we even have a flaming torch procession and there is always a pagan thingy up on cartlon hill when the green man pops out.

Jason said...

Yes, you are right . in ex USSR new years is a big holiday. bigger then MX. I was in USSR and ex USSR, but never been in Japan. I like backgammon game (you mentioned it). I saw backgammon in USSR too. They call it 'nardy'. Really nice game. Now one good blog about this game bingo guide.
But waiting for next article about Japan.