Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to Spend New Year's in Japan 2017

This is about New Year's as I experienced it this year in Japan. Again. It was my fifth time being here for it, I think? Every year except the very first one I've spent with Yuya's family in Shizuoka. This post goes more into New Year's in Japan in general, but for now I'm talking specifics, more like a diary.

The New Year's season (called 年末 nenmatsu up until midnight on New Year's Eve and お正月 oshogatsu thereafter) has always been an awkward, funky one for me. It's the most important holiday on the Japanese calendar so one can't help but get sucked into it, a holiday that's like all of Japanese culture concentrated into a few short days, much of it quite pagan. While I'm just about ready for a week off and eating way too much food, I'm also missing Christmas and my family in the U.S., and going to church. This year though, I think I had the most fun yet. Here's how it all went down:

December 28th 
The last day of work in 2016 for both of us. I turn down an invitation to a last-minute bounenkai (corporate end of the year party) to rush home and start cleaning and packing to spend 5 days at Yuya's folks' house. The cleaning never happened. I'm busy measuring out and bagging up cookie ingredients to make at Yuya's house. They always treat me to such good food and I never cook there (not since a traumatizing experience when Yuya and I were dating) so I thought this time I'd just do cookies, with real American chocolate chips. It wasn't such a great idea in the end. 

December 29th
We sleep in and I go out to get お年賀 onenga, a New Year's gift (usually nicely-packaged little confections) for Yuya's folks. I have to get five: for his parents, his sister K and her husband A-kun, his grandparents, and two sets of aunts/uncles. I grumble. I'm no good at this traditional stuff, I tell him. Better than me, he replies. I can't argue with that (this is is the person who frequently mistakes his own name's kanji when writing formally) so off I go. The basement of the Isetan department store where such things may be bought is an absolute zoo. There are too many people milling around so girls in aprons color-coded to each shop mix in the crowd to take orders and payment methods right there, and then yell the names of the customers while holding aloft the neatly-wrapped packages. "Last year was kind of a failure, so get something good, spend about $20 on each one," Yuya told me. In this situation however, I have no chance to walk around Isetan slowly and pick something out. Luckily, customers at my workplace often give us sweets when their children pass tests, so I know a few that I like. I just go with my own favorite, five boxes of it, and even better, they were $16 a piece. The apron girl asks my name. "Baba." She doesn't miss a beat. "The kanji are 'horse' and 'place' right?" she confirms. I'm grateful. She could've gotten confused, or tried to write katakana (the script for foreign words) especially since it's not such an obviously Japanese-sounding last name. Whoop-di-doo, I'm like one of them! I think, one of these Japanese wives buying onenga! My boxes get wrapped with the requisite onenga paper (if it's onenga, you can't give it until January 1st) and to my consternation, my last name is also written in lovely calligraphy on the paper. Oh dear. I'd forgotten about that. Is that ok, or was I supposed to have the names of the recipients written on it? Oh well. The majority of the onenga would go to Babas anyway (it turns out it was ok, the name of the giver is all that is written). The wrapping/calligraphy man holds up the giant bag of onenga and scans the crowd (skipping me) "Baba-sama!!" "Right here!" an apron girl rescues me. Ah, it's all so much fun.
We finally get on the train around 4pm. The bullet train takes a little over an hour but costs about $300 for the two us round trip, so this year we get the wonderful Seishun 18 kippu, a discount ticket for unlimited fares on JR local and rapid trains in a 5-day period for a flat $100 (pro tip: within the time period it can be resold and you can get money back for the days unused). What that means is our journey takes close to 4 hours and we don't get to sit down for a leg of it. At one point we had 10 minutes to make a transfer, but everyone dashed out like the train was on fire. The river of frantic people sweeps up across the station and down another platform, ignoring the shouts of station staff that running is very dangerous and please walk. I lose Yuya in the crowd. I see our train, and realize why everyone is running. It's to get seats. No one really gets off this one until its last stop 2 hours away. I know Yuya wouldn't dart into the first car; it's already filling up. I keep running to the end of the platform to the last car--and there's Yuya guarding two seats with his manspread and backpack. Safe! We eat some candy Justin sent Yuya for Christmas. It's Sour Patch Kids and I spill sugar all over my purse and Yuya's laptop. We meet Yuya's family at our final stop and go out for dinner.

December 30th
Yummy
My mother-in-law (okaa-san) treats me and K to haircuts at her favorite salon. The owner has won competitions or some such but it's all wasted on my hair, since I never get more than a tiny trim. The first time I went there (and the last time I'd cut my hair) I was super nervous for some reason and I don't think I said a word. The owner says my Japanese has really improved. "Did I speak at all last time?" I wonder. Japanese haircuts are a whole new level of haircut experience by the way. Shampooing is typically included and so is a head, neck, and shoulder massage. No tips needed and the price is high. Afterwards K and I get dropped off home to make cookies. I measured out and brought a lot of the ingredients, assuming Okaa-san would have flour and eggs (she did) but what she didn't have were the American measuring cups I use with American recipes. Measurements are different and Japanese usually measure by weight using kitchen scales. The result is too much flour and cake-y cookies. Oh well, A-kun eats a lot of them which surprises me, since he is very much a "rice and miso for breakfast" kind of person. Inwardly I give up on cooking at the Baba house. It's just impossible to make something well in a strange kitchen.
Dinner is at an amazing izakaya (bar?) in a private room. Everything's delicious, and everyone's in a good mood. Yuya and A-kun keep up a lively conversation about their jobs.


December 31st 
We all get up early and bundle into the rental car for the six of us for a day trip to see Mt. Fuji. At least, that was what I thought it was about. I should know by now most traveling in Japan by Japanese people is for the purpose of eating. It started the evening we arrived, really, it "snowed food and rained drink" as a hobbit might say. This year I wised up and attempted normalcy by refusing food except during the three daily mealtimes. My stomach thanked me! 30 minutes into our roadtrip (and an hour after a substantial breakfast) A-kun announces he's hungry (how??) so we stop at a conbini for nikuman meat buns and corndogs. I'm getting carsick with rental-car-smell and now corndog-smell, but I'm glad I was forthright enough to decline any food. We run into trouble. Okaa-san and Otou-san fight about the map and directions. The map's batteries meanwhile run out (it's an iPad). I'm worried because in the distance, clouds are steadily moving up Mt. Fuji's slopes and it's looking like it'll be blocked from view. We finally arrive at our destination however, a giant pedestrian suspension bridge with an uninterrupted view of The Mountain (Japan ver.). I notice there are only Japanese people there. I'm used to Kyoto where you can see all kinds of nationalities at the main tourist spots. I get stared at more in Yuya's countryside hometown, hear comments like "there's something you don't see every day!" In Kyoto people glance, and then immediately lose interest, but here the stares are long and follow my movements. We enjoy the bridge and the brilliant blue sky and Fuji who decided to come out and play after all. Yuya's dad disappears mysteriously as is his wont, to reappear in time for dango (rice balls on a stick) and ice-cream. I decline the latter. Yuya is less than impressed with the bridge. "So tourist trappy!"

Mishima Skywalk

Finally we get to our foodie destination, Numazu market on the coast. The market is dark, smelly, noisy, and closing. We sign our names at a very busy restaurant and wait to be called in. A bossy, hoarse old lady uses a megaphone to call guests and give orders to the kitchen. It's chaos inside, but I can almost imagine the fishing boats pulling up in the back to deliver still-wriggling menu items. We all get big bowls of seafood including sea urchin, roe, shrimp. It's all delicious and melts in my mouth like butter. We can't get good seafood to eat raw in land-bound Kyoto so it's a once-a-year treat.

We feel really full now, but Okaa-san, K and A-kun say they want to explore the market. The smelly market isn't so appealing to Otou-san, Yuya, and I, so we say we'll wait in the car and head in that direction. Yuya gets in right away but I notice beyond the cement blocks in front of our car is a little marina filled with adorable fishing boats, Mt. Fuji floating above in the background. "Can we go over there?" I ask Otou-san. "There's people walking there who don't look like fishermen," he says, "let's go!" We leave Yuya and head towards the water. I realize I'm off with Otou-san on one of his mysterious jaunts. I snap a few photos of Mt. Fuji when something catches Otou-san's eye. A little crowd of people gathered around a...tall ship?? It's a very small one, or perhaps just a sailboat outfitted with three tiny masts, but anyway, we can't resist getting a closer look. Captain looks the part with a pea coat and grey whiskers framing a sea-browned face. Otou-san finds out it's running little sunset tours daily, and just now they're late to depart but still missing one passenger. The captain manages to hand up a business card to us. Otou-san really seems interested, and chuckles when it turns out the missing passsenger's last name is Baba. "Otou-san, don't get any ideas," I say playfully, "you can't say 'that's me!' and get on the ship." He laughed. "I wonder where I'd end up!" The missing Baba turns up at last and we wave goodbye to the little schooner as it melts into the setting sun.

When we return home, we decide to skip New Year's Eve dinner. We're all too stuffed. That doesn't mean Okaa-san stops bringing out snacks and Shizuoka mikan (mandarin oranges). We settle down to watch the Red and White Singing Contest--an annual singing competition by the Red (female) most popular singers of the year, and White (male). Viewers can vote red or white with their TV remotes. We comment on who has or hasn't aged well and who wasn't invited back and who was on too much (PPAP), and ring in the New Year. Actually, we watch a little clock countdown on TV, and then everyone bows solemnly to each other あけましておめでとうございます Happy New Year Year, and 今年もよろしくおねがいします Looking forward to your continued support this year too. Here it is January 7th and I'm still hearing those greetings exchanged at work as our customers come in for the first time in 2017. Finally, we go to bed around 2am.

January 1st 
We're rudely awakened at 5:30 am to somehow bundle on layers of clothes and coats, hats and mittens to get in the car and catch the first sunrise of the year. It's a Japanese custom, many clap their hands in prayer for health in the new year. Yuya and I don't pray to the sun but we go along. The sunrise from the Pacific Ocean, with nothing between us and the sun, as it were, is really dramatic. Yuya knows participation is not optional here and gets up without complaint. The sky is getting lighter and by time we get to the beach, it's a clear white color. We grab some free cups of 甘酒 amazake , slightly alcoholic fermented rice drink like watery oatmeal and served full of sugar and piping hot. It's actually not half bad. We run for the beach, hampered by our steaming cups. The beach is crowded with people out to see the sun, especially where we can see the sky reddening between peoples' legs. And then, there it is! Suddenly, the sun is up! With no low clouds to hide it this year, it came up unexpectedly quickly. The cold grey beach and our pale faces turn brilliant red and gold in a matter of seconds, the wet sand and waves sparkle so hard my eyes hurt. It's early and no one slept much, but somehow I never mind coming to see the sunrise here.
We sleep in the car on the way home and go back to bed until 12:30 or so, waking up to eat osechi, special pickled and salted New Year's dishes served only this time of year. Most of it at Yuya's is handmade and saran-wrapped to be snacked on for the next day or so. We spend the day in pajamas while K and A-kun must go to Yuya's grandmother's house (a few houses down) for New Year's greetings before setting off to see A-kun's side of the family. A new bride is busy at New Year's. She has to greet and spend time with two families. She seems reluctant to go, but A-kun's grandmother is waiting too. We exchange onenga and say goodbye. K and A-kun's onenga is small and handmade. "Yuya!" I yell later, "Why didn't you let me give them cute little Christmas presents instead of onenga like I originally wanted to?! Theirs isn't traditional at all, and we gave them a big ol' traditional thing, like from a grandma!"

First sunrise of 2017
That night, Yuya and I visit his grandma and grandpa for the New Year's greeting and onenga exchange. His grandma is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She doesn't make eye-contact anymore, and apparently didn't recognize K this year unfortunately, though she talked about her afterwards. This time she knows Yuya, and me. She acts shy about coming into the living room with Grandpa and Otou-san and Yuya and I, so we go back to the kitchen to see her. She's fumbling in a drawer. "What are you looking for?" asks Okaa-san. "I'm gonna give it to her," says Grandma, and says "Yuya's wife must be lonely living so far away from her home during New Year's." "Don't worry" I say, "New Year's here is very fun. I just want you to be healthy and happy!" but just like that, she pops a silver necklace with a single grey pearl on it into my hand. "Oh, Mom," says Okaa-san, but Grandma says, "Well I feel much better now. That's a load off my mind." Later I try to give the necklace--perhaps something Grandma had when she was young, back to Okaa-san--but she says, "Oh keep it. Grandma said she felt better giving it, and she worries about you. She's been saying she wanted to give you something. She chose a funny little thing, though, haha!"
Later thinking about it, I almost cry. I'll definitely treasure the necklace. All the silly dumb things I complain about here that every gaijin complains about, the other things I have to keep bottled inside, the loneliness at Christmastime...when it comes up I'll look at the necklace and hope Yuya's grandma isn't worrying about me anymore.

January 2nd
We get up slowly and get ready for our own departure back to Kyoto in the evening. I'm not looking forward to another uncomfortable, crowded, hectic 3.5 hours back ala Seishun 18, so I drag my feet packing a bit. Okaa-san tries to load us up with chocolates and mikan and for some reason a giant pooh-bear of honey to take home, but I make her keep half the mikans. It's not easy to run and transfer crowded trains loaded down with stuff. I was glad to get rid of our cumbersome bag of onenga but ended up having to carry the same amount home again anyway. Yuya with his incessant sweet tooth will be happy.
We talk about the New Year on the train. "This time, you seemed to have a lot of fun, more relaxed," says Yuya. "Yeah, I was more comfortable, I said 'no' more," I laugh, "But did you notice? A big reason I could relax is because A-kun did too." A-kun comes from a wonderful Tokyo family and that prestigious university. His family probably eat osechi properly in lacquered boxes, Grandma might even wear a kimono for the day, his dad definitely doesn't wander off mysteriously by himself during family outings. A-kun had visited Yuya's house before he and K got married, and then he was pretty formal, and never made clear his own preferences, but just went along with the majority opinion. This year though, he said "I'm hungry!" from the back of the car, went to bed instead of staying up to drink with Yuya and Otou-san, and laughingly showed off his round belly after eating one of our bigger meals. Yuya had noticed the change too, and we reflect that photogenic Tokyo families must be awful sticklers for ceremony, to the point that even a really weird family like Yuya's becomes a place to relax.
It is the first time I've ever really been able to relax there, I think. I'm more sure of myself. I know his family a bit better. K is married, we have all grown up one more year. This was an Oshogatsu to come home and find refuge from the outside world, to be selfish and free and to let each other be selfish and free, together.
When we arrive home late at night, the first thing on my mind is our mailbox. "Yuya, let's get the mail now! What if we got nengajou??" Nengajou are New Year's greeting postcards you write to every person you know. We don't, which is hardly civilized, but it's even less civilized to not return nengajou to someone who has sent you one. Last year Yuya painstakingly wrote 2 or 3 to people at work. This year he's in a new division, so I worry that all 20 people there sent him one...we open the mailbox, and out tumbles the rubber-banded stack of nengajou. My heart sinks. Yuya frantically shuffles through them...they are all fake! All advertisements, except for one from K and A-kun, and one from an uncle. Phew.....we dodged a bullet this year. Relieved from the burden of duty to tradition and the expectations of people we don't even like, we collapse in our bed. Selfish and free. "Happy New Year."

Family shadows at the beach