Monday, December 21, 2015

A Merry Little Japan

Have yourself a merry little Christmas 
Let your heart be light 
Next year all our troubles will be
Out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yule-tide gay
Next year all our troubles will be
Miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon, we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

As cheesy as it is, this one Christmas song never fails to give me "the feels" as kids say these days...especially this (original?) version, which I don't hear very often--the lyrics have been changed to include less muddling. But sometimes, we really do just have to muddle through. That's how this holiday season felt to me this year.

Christmas cake--nearly too cute to eat. Strawberries are a winter food here.
It's my 5th Christmas in Japan now. Every year has served to complicate my thoughts about it. To start with, Christmas is a relatively recent import to Japan. There are a few "traditions" (going on a date with your lover, eating KFC chicken, and Christmas cake) but since it's not a native Japanese holiday, I find there's very little substance. Japan has imported the commercial trappings--that we all love and love to hate--only. It makes sense. The biggest holiday in Japan is oshougatsu, the New Year, and a lot of the fall and winter revolve around preparations for it. So Christmas is kind of a commercial afterthought, meant to appeal to children and college students with dates. I have a different reference for Christmas though. Christmas is supposed to mean warmth, cheer, gathering with loved ones and eating good food, singing all the old carols in church with a candlelight service to bring to mind the Light of the World. 

The first year I was here, Christmas was a ton of fun. I was an exchange student with time on my hands; we all got together and had a Christmas party, and I could participate in a Christmas program at church. Then my husband and I became shakaijin , employed members of Japanese society (cue ominous organ music). Suddenly Decembers became very different, and we entered the world of nenmatsu end-of-the-year sales campaigns, several company bounenkai (end-of-year parties, a phenomenon that deserves its own post), the 24th, 25th, and Sunday before as normal working days, company and church oosouji ("big cleaning" like spring cleaning but done before the new year), worrying about how to return oseibo, traditional year-end gifts, and nengajou, new year's greeting cards. Whew! I feel worn-out just listing it all. It's insane. Everyone plugs through December just hoping to make it to the New Year's holiday (generally 4-5 days off when pretty much the entire country shuts down) in one piece. As you can imagine in this society, Christmas is an attraction for non-shakaijin folks, a blip on the screen for us. Our house is too small for even a tiny Christmas tree, our December too packed for any celebration. 

Doesn't it help to be Christian and part of a church? Well, yes and no. I can't always get the right days off work to enjoy it. And then one year I spent at a church that didn't celebrate Christmas so as to stick to Scripture and get away from the Catholic church calendar. That made me question Christmas a lot. I don't really need it, or any of the trappings. The things we enjoy at Christmas, we can and should enjoy any time of the year. Why make Christmas, a completely man-made holiday, so special? What's so Christian about a Christmas tree or presents or good food?

So the next two Christmasses after that, I was fine. Don't need no Christmas. I'm a Christian all year 'round. I give presents and charity to folks anytime. I'm one of the good cool integrated gaijin who don't complain about that kind of obvious cultural difference. I enjoyed the "couples" Japanese-style Christmas and went on dates to light-up events with Yuya. Last year, our first married Christmas together, we stayed home because we were too tired. I made burritos and we listened to records. It was alright. 
Usually all I see of Christmas in Japan. No one here really knows about the origins of Christmas or cares about political correctness. 
But this year is a little different somehow. Maybe all the trappings of Christmas I notice makes me homesick a bit. Maybe I miss my family gathering around and going to church together. Maybe I'm awakening to the irony of working on Christmas Day so as to provide a "foreign country's Christmas" campaign to our customers. Maybe I'm losing my interest in the oshougatsu warm family time because of the demands on shakaijin and my faith which says no to a lot of the Shinto/Buddhist traditions of the season. But to be honest, I miss Christmas. It makes me feel like a bad gaijin, moping about why my second country doesn't have the same stuff going on as my home country. 

Then yesterday, a lightbulb came on. The talk at church was about how Christmas is about waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. How much was just muddling through? Going through the motions? Rinse and repeat? Dealing with hollowness, feeling lonely? Dissatisfied with the lack of substance in celebrations? The faithful must have experienced all of it waiting for the One to redeem them from the empty ways of life handed down from generation to generation. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Christmas, in all its glory, is only a tiny passing shadow. In Japan, I hardly get even the shadow I'm used to. And it's enough, because it teaches me something. The gift and the lesson is priceless. 

"Mewwy Chwismas!" said the 3-year-old at church who handed these to me. BEST PRESENT EVER.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Best Newlywed Recipes: Winter

In our house, I do the cooking. I didn't really start cooking until we got married, because before then I had very simple tastes. And by simple I mean things like rice topped with a fried egg and soy sauce (still pretty much the best lunch!) but it turns out my husband is not so easily satisfied. And we have been a lot healthier since I've tried to cook every day and do as much as I can from scratch. It's been a little difficult learning how to cook in Japan, where foods are priced differently and there are different things available that I'm not used to cooking with--and at least when it comes to veggies, I think Japanese supermarkets have more variety than U.S. ones! The problem is learning how to use them. 

In this post, I list some favorite summer recipes. Now it's at least 20C cooler outside than when I wrote that post, and different foods are in season. Colder temps are for snuggling up with root vegetables! Here are some of my favorite go-to recipes:

This recipe forever changed the way I make chicken soup. I don't know if I've made it exactly like the recipe says except for the first time I tried it (I like to use chicken drummies for soup because I think the bones make it taste richer) and it works great of course with any soup-ish veggies you may have on hand, but now I never make a chicken soup without the secret ingredient: a squeeze of fresh lemon juice! So good. And I love any recipe that gets me eating citrus in winter. 

Tonjiru (Pork Miso Soup) Now for a soup of root veggies, Japanese-style! This recipe uses winter vegetables like daikon (giant white radish), gobo (burdock root), and hakusai (Chinese white cabbage), all of which are so cheap this time of year! The thin-cut pork cooked in sesame oil and ginger beforehand is just melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I must admit konnyaku never finds its way into my version of this soup; that's like the one Japanese food I really don't like.  

Japan has a thing for this kind of white, creamy Western-style stew. You can get the instant bouillon sauce mix for it at any supermarket (just add water!) but in my efforts to make things from scratch, I found this perfect recipe. I like it because it's light on dairy (no cream and only a little butter) which is pretty expensive here. The cream sauce is so easy to make and doesn't really require any more effort or time than the instant version. I often spice it up a bit with paprika and pepper. The photo shows the time I got some round rolls and made us bread bowls! 

Beef and Bok-Choy Stir-Fry Now finally one that's not a soup. I've been making a lot of stir-fries these days, because they're so easy and flexible, and with bowls of steaming rice the meal is complete. I don't think I've used beef in this recipe yet (in case you've not picked up on it yet, I'm pinching pennies where I can) but bok-choy is a great veggie and also very cheap in the winter season, and the sauce became my base for all stir-fries. I like to use soy sauce, an alcohol--usually sake--dried jalapenos cut up, and honey for sweetener instead of sugar. It's great! 

I think I enjoy eating in winter more than in the summer. I'm a fan of quick, easy, warming recipes that get me eating winter superfoods like lemon, garlic and ginger. Do you know any good winter recipes?