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Saitama

I’m back.

After a sizeable absence for Christmas, New Years and getting back into the swing of things at work I have returned to the interwebs to resume blogging duties.

I can’t promise that this year is going to be much better than last year in terms of updates. The plan is to have a definite Tuesday update every week without fail and try and squeeze in some smaller updates on other week days but we’ll see how that goes.

The frustrating thing is that there really is a lot of stuff I’d love to talk about and get written down for you all but my available time for blogging has dwindled significantly whilst at the same time the length, photo content, quality of videos, etc have all grown in size and complexity. So it takes me much, much longer to get a post up and I have less time to do it in. In that situation less blogging is the result.

Anyway to start us off in the New Year I thought I’d begin by talking about how I ended last year and began this year, at a traditional Japanese New Year’s or Oshogatsu.

Oshogatsu is effectively the Japanese Christmas. Whilst in the west we consider Christmas to be a time for families and New Year’s to be a time for hanging out with friends and getting wasted in Japan New Year’s is the time for families to get together.

Actually Christmas Eve in Japan is usually a time for lovers. Young couples go out on expensive dates and give each other presents before retiring to an, ahem, love hotel.

And since my girlfriend (Fran or Mariko-chan to her Japanese relatives) is half Japanese this year I got to spend a traditional Oshogatsu with her relatives.

I stayed with her older cousin’s family (sorry, no names guys I want to protect their privacy) consisting of him, his wife and their three kids. Fran’s mother is the youngest of five siblings and had Fran very late in life so whilst she is only 23 her oldest cousin is in his mid-forties and most of her other cousins are around that age.

As the oldest male in his generation said cousin is basically the defacto head of the family. Japanese people are very concerned with status, even amongst families, and so this meant as the guy in charge obviously Oshogatsu had to be at his place.

They were tremendously generous people, as pretty much every Japanese person I’ve had the good fortune to befriend has been, and during our stay made us feel more than welcome with copious amounts of food and drink.

In fact often I felt that the vast quantities of food were some kind of challenge, a test of my ability to appreciate Japanese hospitality and cooking. I did very little but eat and drink for the entire time I was there. We would get up in the morning, dress and go downstairs to snuggle under the kotatsu (a kind of table with a heating element underneath to warm your legs) and eat breakfast. Breakfast wasn’t anything vast but it was usually nice and in typical Japanese style consisted of five or six different dishes all eaten at once, including rice, fish and soup. After breakfast some tea would come out and we would snuggle under the kotatsu and talk. Then a snack would emerge and more tea. Shortly after that lunch would be served along with the first booze of the day (beer for me, whiskey and soda for everyone else). Next the television goes on and after a while another snack emerges and yet more beer. Yet by the time dinner rolls around, consisting of some vast feat of 10 or 12 dishes, I was still hungry enough to demolish it. Around about 10 o’clock I would finally emerge from my nice warm kotatsu cocoon and have a wonderful relaxing Japanese bath then bed.

Seriously, eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink and then bed. It was almost as if they were scared that if I ever got up at any point I might destroy the house or something so they needed to keep me constantly fed and sedated. Except that everyone else does it too; well, except the poor wife who has to cook everything.

Food culture in Japan is enormous. Anything and everything revolves around food. All seasons and special events are associated with special food. Apologies are made with gifts of food. Dating is primarily accomplished by girls offering boys food and boys then taking girls to restaurants. Workers bond over food. Very few people entertain in their own homes, instead most parties are held in Japanese inns with all you can eat and all you can drink offers. And conversation takes a definite second place at parties to food. People travel principally to eat or buy the food there. I thought Americans loved food and I thought Italians loved food but nobody, nobody has so thoroughly fetishised and idolised food like the Japanese.

I think the best example of this was on the last day of our trip. We visited Fran’s Uncle (who is the actual head of the family but part of a slightly smaller side) whose wife is a fantastic cook. From the moment we arrived she kept bringing out dishes constantly, some leftovers but a few brand new dishes. There was so much food in front of us that we didn’t really make a dent in it despite eating constantly from the moment we arrived. And yet when we were due to leave and get our bus she still insisted on going to the supermarket with us to buy sushi to eat as our supper.

And the beer. I was trying not to get drunk but it is damn near impossible not to. In Japan in a social setting it is considered very rude to pour your own drink. People should offer to pour each others and that way everyone stays topped up and the party stays lubricated.

There are some flaws in this system. In a big party that gets quite raucous your own drink can easily get over looked, especially if you are fairly low in the seniority order (like I, the gaijin). The best tip for that situation is to pour someone else a drink and hope they notice that your glass is empty and return the favour.

The other flaw in that system is that if everyone is topping up your drink it becomes impossible to keep track of how much you have drunk, especially if someone fills your drink without you noticing or without asking. Which Fran’s relatives did to me all the time. Almost the first question I was asked in every household was “what do you drink?” Shortly after that a beer glass would be placed in front of me and it would pretty much be full until the end of the night. I was trying not to get too drink I swear but it is impossible not to drink beer when there is a full glass sitting in front of you.

All of which has made me very thirsty. One moment.

*crack* hisssssss.

Ah… where was I?

So yes. Eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink. Any other time left was spent playing with the kids, who were awesome and ridiculously cute. I don’t know what it is about Japanese kids that makes them look so adorable but I want one. Particularly Fran’s baby cousin who wrote Fran a letter when we visited her, one which read;
“Dear Mariko big sister.

I love you.

Let’s play lots!”

Couldn’t you just eat her up with a spoon? It’s just a shame that her brother thought I was scary.

So staying with Japanese people is an Epicurean delight but what about Oshogatsu itself? What are the traditions and ceremonies associated with it?

Well on New Year’s Eve itself there aren’t that many traditions. Most of the focus is on New Year’s Day. This makes a lot of sense to me, for the Japanese the celebration is not so much about the end of the old year as it is the beginning of the new one. Consequently there are a lot of special “firsts” that Japanese people do at this time. The first dream, first visit to a shrine and first meal of the year all have special connotations and traditions attached. Mostly these are based on obscure Japanese word play puns where dreaming about an object that sounds like or has a similar kanji to something good can be lucky i.e. dreaming about Mt Fuji is said to be auspicious.

Other than the first shrine visit the most important of these firsts is the first sunrise of the year. Many Japanese people climb (or these days, drive to the top of) a mountain to get a good view of the first sunrise of the New Year. Fortunately for my abysmal fitness we did not do that.

New Year’s Eve does have some traditions of its own though. A relatively recent one but a popular one is for people to watch Kouhaku Uta Gassen or “Red and White Song Battle” a singing competition where celebrities are organised into teams one red (all female) and one white (all male) who take it in turn to sing songs. At the end a combination of studio judges and a home vote decide which team is the winner.

The show is considered a big honour because of its popular appeal so the top singers and artists in Japan are featured. I’m not madly keen on Japanese music to be honest but stripping away much of the extraneous crap and horrible bubblegum J-Pop and just presenting the cream of the crop has shown me that there are quite a few worthwhile Japanese artists. And my favourite Japanese artist (Angela Aki) did my favourite song of hers, tegami, which was awesome.

Plus the little girl from Ponyo (now two years older so much less cute sadly) did the Ponyo theme. Probably my second favourite Japanese song (and the only Japanese song I know the words to).

Oh and every year a foreign guest is invited onto the show. Anybody have any guesses as to which international singing sensation made it onto Japanese screens this year?

Susan Boyle.

Sadly no clips to show you lot as NHK have ruthlessly excised them from Youtube. That’s a real shame as SMAP’s “tribute” to Michael Jackson really had to be seen to be believed.

The guys won this year but if you ask me the women were robbed. I mean, they had Susan Boyle who is famous for winning singing contests.
Oooooooo, bit of a blow there then Subo.

Another New Year’s Eve tradition is to visit a shrine and hear the monks ring the bell at exactly the stroke of midnight. I did this last year and it was a lot of fun. Although Ikuta Shrine in Kobe was packed all the people’s body heat just made it nice and warm. We did shriney things like get our fortunes read, buy decorations, etc. I would have happily done it again but in the words of Fran’s cousin;

“We’re not going because it is too cold.”

Well, you can’t argue with the head of the family. Instead we watched various snowy temples around Japan ring in the New Year through the magic of television.

The final thing to do before the stroke of midnight is to eat soba (buckwheat noodles). I don’t know why, probably for good luck. Still I like soba so I was all in favour of this tradition.

New Year’s Day was a lot more interesting for me and a much more fun experience. Although we didn’t do many of the “firsts” on New Year’s Day itself we were getting ready for a big party, all of Fran’s relatives that lived nearby were coming and the real heart of Japanese New Year was about to begin. Osechi Ryori.

Osechi Ryori is a special meal prepared on or just before New Year’s Day but eaten on the 1st. Traditionally it consists of several beautifully presented dishes stacked in gorgeous boxes. Department stores will make Osechi for you and a box for a family of four can easily run into the many hundreds of pounds. These are massively elaborate and ornate dishes with an insane amount of time and effort put into their preparation.

But we didn’t make any. Why? Let’s ask Fran’s cousin.

“Because nobody likes it.”

Which is true actually. I have had left over Osechi before (most of it is eaten cold) and wasn’t very impressed an opinion apparently shared by most young Japanese. So if the food isn’t especially nice then why make it? Well as ever with the Japanese it is all about puns. Many of the foods in Osechi sound like auspicious or lucky things and so Japanese eat them as a way of summoning good luck. For example;

“Kazunoko (数の子), herring roe. Kazu means “number” and ko means “child”. It symbolizes a wish to be gifted with numerous children in the New Year.” Stolen from wikipedia.

We did make some Osechi but very little. We made some edamame, (black soybeans which sound like “health”) some kazunoku, some kamaboko, (fish cake in pink and white colours that are considered festive because they are the colours of the Japanese flag) and some kurikinton (I have no idea but it is bright yellow and sweeter than sugar).

And I say we and not Fran’s cousin’s wife because I helped! I was finally allowed to roam free of my cocoon and actually assist in helping prepare the food I consume. Japanese people are actually always really surprised that I can cook (as a rule, Japanese men cannot and eat out pretty much constantly until they marry) to the extent that I have had fawning admiration for a cheese sandwich I prepared. Consequently my beautifully made and presented Inarizushi (sushi rice in a sweet tofu wrapper) was met with much appreciation. I did feel a little bit bad when Fran’s cousin used it as an excuse to complain about how his wife always fills the parcels with too much or too little rice though. Whoops.

Although we made very little Osechi we made an enormous feast which puts most Christmas dinners to shame. Here’s a brief run down of what we ate;

Various Osechi products
Green soy beans
Fried prawns
3 different kids of fish cake
Boiled eggs
Soy simmered carrot and root
Fried chicken
Spring rolls
Sausages
Boiled Hokkaido crab (which was gorgeous)
Konnyaku (devil’s tongue potato jelly)
Pickled octopus
Raw tuna
Sushi
Salad

It was an epic dinner.

As Fran’s relatives started to arrive they started to give the kids Otoshidama (as did we, bloody sponging kids). Otoshidama are elaborately decorated envelopes filled with money and are basically the Japanese version of Christmas presents.

By the end of the day one of the kids who was about 12 had accumulated nearly 500pounds worth of cash! £500! At his age I had never seen so much money in once place. And he just keeps it in a flimsy envelope. It just goes to show that there is hardly any crime at all in Japan.

Throughout the meal we talked of various things. As a guest and a foreigner I got a lot of attention, most of it the usual stuff (can you use chopsticks, do you like Japanese food, why did you come here?), some of it startlingly original (what British films have we all seen? Um, James Bond and ….. nope, that’s it.) and a bit of it quite embarrassing. Particularly when everyone commented that my Japanese is better than Fran’s brother. Whoops, that’s going to be a bit tough for him the next time he visits.
I had expected the conversation to be a bit awkward and me to be intruding into a family situation but it was actually fine. Whenever they wanted to gossip and be a family they just switched into Japanese too fast for me to pick up. At which point I nattered to Fran or gorged myself on pickled octopus (my new favouritest thing in the world evers) Whenever they expressed a genuine interest in my opinions or me they slowed down and simplified and I joined in.

Afterwards exhausted, drunk and full the family fell into a catatonic stupor and watched television.

What we watched was this.

This is a show called Sasuke (apparently it’s called Ninja Warrior in the states) which is basically a televised obstacle course. However some of the obstacles look absolutely insanely tough! Witness, for example, the climbing task about 2:40 where the contestant has to hurl a bar upwards and hook it onto some hooks then using momentum hurl it upwards again in order to climb a wall. These people are superhuman!

The man in the video is the only contestant this year who actually managed to complete all four courses although one guy lost by a mere second. I recommend watching this and just letting your jaw hit the floor.

So good food, good drink, good company and good telly. All in all a great start to the New Year.

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