What a New Year for the books. I guess you could say I doubled down on holidays this year, which is to say I celebrated twice over, each time with the same gusto, gluttony and bad music, but with slightly different decorations.
When Christmas was done and dusted, I got myself on a night bus to see my Osaka "family" for the Japanese New Year お正月. I know the ugly images you must be getting when I say "night bus" - and you're not wrong. This time, however, those of us getting a crappy 5 hours "sleep" in the reclining seat of a highway bus had the last laugh. I arrived crabby and sleep-deprived to footage on the news of unhappy Japanese, home for the holidays, pouring out of bullet trains running at 150 percent capacity. Suckers!
After a nap, I was off with pops, Mr. Minoru Terakado, my Japanese "dad". He hosted me 11 years ago when I came to Japan as a 17 year old exchange student. Bit of a feat that we have kept up the ties all these years, but it's pretty awesome, too. His wife was still alive then, beautiful woman, Satsuki - but
that's another story. Really he's more of a grandpa figure, he is 76 after all, and both of my grandfathers passed away before I could become really close to them.
For the next couple of days, we go all around town, paying festive visits to all his pals in the community. He's a teacher, a sensei 先生 of Japanese arts, so he knows a lot of people, and following with tradition, these people have to give him gifts and pay him the respect a sensei deserves; the characters "先生" mean something like "first life." Not like a neanderthal, though - hard to translate something like that. First person, person who comes before. I'd say the rules are changing now, but he's old enough that he still reaps the old school benefits. In exchange, of course, he does some very nice arrangements for everyone - using pine branches tied with gold and silver wire.
Pine is used for Japanese New Year decorations because it's one of the only green things around at this time of year - same reason for Christmas pines as well, I'm sure. They are also a symbol of longevity in Japan, a motif that runs
through the entire New Year period...popular traditions include eating lengthy soba noodles, slurping soup with sticky, stretchy mochi (glutinous rice cakes) or, alternatively, standing in a ridiculously long line at midnight to ring a temple bell (I'm so American that way, I need everything now now now, and I will never fully understand the Japanese capacity for patience).
I spent the rest of the holiday period in quite a lazy fashion. If you think it's hard to get out of a warm bed on a cold winter morning, then you should never get under a kotatsu. A kotatsu is a heater that goes underneath the traditional, low-to-the-ground tables in Japanese homes. You stick your feet underneath, cover your lap with a blanket, and suddenly getting up to pee seems like one of the labors of Hercules. I spent the majority of my time warming my feet under this wonderful invention, alternating between eating, sleeping, and drinking shochu (Japanese liquor, bit like vodka but better tasting) with pops. It was pretty heavenly but I'd say it wasn't great for my circulation. Pops told me the kotatsu would go back into storage after the holidays, which at first made me wonder
Stretchy mochi in soup
New Year traditional soup, "zoni"
"why?", but now I understand if you have any hope of leaving the house this is probably a wise decision.
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