Sunday, January 18, 2009

New Year Celebration

The Japanese New Year is a holiday of importance. Almost every business closes down from the 31st of December through the 4th or 5th of January. Some even observe the older tradition of remaining closed until the 8th! It is a time of gathering with family to let go of the previous year and welcome the new one. I had the great fortune of being invited by my beloved`s family to join them at their cabin in Shizuoka for this auspicious time of year.

To say I had a fantastic time would be an understatement. There are many photos and information about the holiday that follow. Enjoy!

I left on the evening of the 30th via the shinkansen (bullet train), after teaching my last class in Kyoto for the year.

Even the train name is auspicious. Hikari means “light”.

December 31st

The day begins with mochi (rice cakes) making and eating.

Remember the hammer and huge wooden mortar used in the Mochi Tsuki Taikai from several postings ago? Eri`s Dad, Jun, used a mechanized version to pound the steamed rice into the doughy mochi.

This dough was then brought to the dining table to be rolled into the rice cakes. Eri`s grandmother, Tomoko, taught me the technique of how to pull a piece off and then roll it.

Eri & I doing our share.

The family enjoy the traditional first meal together. From left to right, Shou (younger brother), Tomoko, Kumi (mother), Jun (hidden), and Eri. There were three main ways to dip, stuff, and top the mochi: azuki (red bean paste), kinako (soy powder), shouyu, nori, and daikon oroshi (grated radish).

After our lovely breakfast, Eri`s father took us to see Fuji-san. The day was crystal clear and very cold, but the sun shone strong and bright.

Jun guided us to one view of Mt. Fuji...

...then a second view.

During the ride we saw this fellow out for a New Year`s Eve Day stroll.

After our excursion, it was back to the house to help prepare the osechi ryouri (New Year`s food). Eri`s Mom and Grandmom had actually done most of the food prep on the 30th. The tradition is to prepare enough food for the entire New Year`s celebration, so it is quite an undertaking. In these modern times, some families will actually just buy prepared items offered by the local stores. However, Eri`s family prepared every dish by hand. On the 31st, Eri prepared three dishes, with my assistance, so that I could play some small part in the creative process.

Eri making a sweet potato and chestnut puree.

A fine wine.

Eri and her Mom taking a brief break.

Eri making one of her favorite desserts, a gelatin flavored with red and plum wines, called kanten.

After a couple of hours, we took a break for dinner prepared by Kumi and Tomoko, cooked in the nabe pot, a traditional way to make large meals for many people. Ingredients are continuously added to the bowl as they are depleted.

A simple presentation.

A yummy meal of kani (crab), mizuma (the thin green stems on the left), ooki negi (”giant green onion”, brought by Shou from a friend), daikon (radish), shiitake, porcini, sashimi scallops, chicken, and wasabi.

Smiles and joking around were as plentiful as the food.

After dinner we had wagashi, which designates any Japanese sweet desert served with tea. This particular wagashi is called monaka. It is made of a crispy mochi shell, and filled with shiroan (white bean filling), which is only used in wagashi.

The final step, after all of the food is made, is to place it within a three to five tiered bento (lunch box). This was Eri`s task. Here are the three tiers, and what was placed within each of them.

Bottom tier: starting in the back, left to right, iwashi (sardines) marinated in sesame, shouyu, sweet sake, & sugar (the dish is called gomame), kamaboko (whitefish cod in a paste form) tied into knots, kuromame (semi-sweet black beans), tatemaki (sweet eggroll); hidden behind the decorative leaves just below the sardines is a pile of ginnan (ginko nuts) and directly opposite these is kamaboko cut in quarter circles; the bottom row begins with more kamaboko, then a big pile of the sweet potato & kuri (chestnut) dish, and finally the kanten

Middle tier: beginning in the back row, left to right, kazunoka (herring [nishin] eggs with fish flakes atop marinated ninjin (carrots) and daikon, matsumaezuke (squid, kelp, & carrots); more knotted kamaboko; the bottom row starts with gobou (a delicious root veggie), renkon (lotus root) wrapped around sake (salmon) and tied with konbu (kelp) - this creation was the third of Eri`s I assisted with, and kabu (another type of radish) cut into decorative flowers and marinated, with a tiny bit of carrot atop each

Top tier: the back row is a pair of two of my favorites - tamagoyaki (eggroll) and Kumi`s homemade chicken meatballs laced with carrots and kelp - both were very tasty!; the white ramekin contains fish eggs, and to the left of it is a dish I cannot remember; the bottom row holds grilled sawara (Japanese Spanish mackerel) which was very yummy, roast beef, and more kamaboko

The green leaves that serve as separation for the various dishes are camelia leaves (called tsubaki).

The stacked and sealed bento. It is interesting to note that every piece of food in the bento has a symbolic meaning, and are eaten to produce abundance in specific parts of life. For example, one dish is to increase one`s joy, while another is to increase one`s children. It is a very symbolic meal, and I felt very blessed to have been invited to participate in it.

This dish is kinchakuni. The pouch is the outside of tofu (age), and the thread is called ito. The inside is stuffed with carrots, gobou, dried shiitake, and ground meat.

After all of the work was finished, Jun, Eri, and I had a lovely conversation about tantric yoga over a second dessert of coffee and Eri`s homemade biscotti of chocolate, almonds, and rum raisin. Yummy!

January 1st

All the previous food preparation culminates in this day, in which families gather and eat, eat, eat!

Eri and her Grandmom setting out the feast.

Two platters of ika (squid), tako (octopus), ebi (shrimp), and a very tasty whitefish. The octopus was the best I have ever had.

The three bento boxes, plus one of two huge trays Tomoko had put together. This one contains tofu, and several types of yummy potatoes.

Tomoko`s other huge tray, of daikon, ninjin, tofu, renkon, and shiitake.

The traditional mochi centerpiece.

The Nakamura goddesses.

These hashi (chopstick) holders were made by Eri, Tomoko, and myself the night before from a design Eri found.

By nightfall we had gone through a bit of the food, but there was still plenty left. The evening meal was a combo of the afternoon`s feast with leftover nabe from the previous dinner.

Jun breaks out the sake for the traditional toast.

January 2nd

We began the second day of the New Year with a small breakfast of leftovers, just as tasty as when we first had them. Most of the food that is made for this celebration are things that can be eaten cold or at room temperature, and keep well in the cold, so there is a minimum of additional cooking needed during the week.

After our meal, Jun treated us to a local onsen (hot spring), with a spectacular view of Fuji-san from both the indoor and outdoor pools. Simply breathtaking!

Following the onsen, Eri`s parents again graciously treated us to a fantastic meal at a soba place known for their unique noodles which are almost four times the width of normal soba! Delicious!

The decor was simple but spacious.

My kabocha soba.

Happy diners.

These potatoes were outstanding!

The lake behind the soba restaurant.

A bit of post-soba horseplay.

Onsen. Soba. But there was more to come. We drove into the mountains to attend the New Year`s festival at the Hakone temple.

One of the many torii (gates).

This pit is where people can toss in last year`s various New Year`s decorations, to clear the space for new blessings.

This gorgeous forest walking path is placed below the temple.

The stairway goes down through another torii to the lake.

Lake view through the torii.

Ishidourou (stone lantern).

Jun by one of the many path entrances leading to the temple.

There were a small group of vendors clustered just outside the temple grounds. Here is one of them, offering azuki (red bean paste) & shiroan (white bean filling) cakes. These were scrumptious!

This reminds me of "Spirited Away" (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

To keep warm as we waited in line, we drank hot amazake (sweet sugar sake).

Hakone temple.

To enter, we first pass through this circle, which is to purify the Spirit of evil energies...

....then one can make an offering, ring the bell, clap twice, and set prayers for the New Year.

At Hakone, Eri and I bought an arrow to place over our entrance, which is to simultaneously ward off evil spirits while attracting the gods of good fortune to enter. We tied our fortunes around the shaft, and it now hangs in our genkan (entrance foyer). Kumi gave us a decoration for the door that is supposed to attract good fortune as well. Next year, we will bring them with us to the celebrations, to offer to the fire pit.

2009 is the Year of the Cow in Japan.

The wooden prayer marker is blank on the other side to write down our prayers for 2009.

Our fortunes received at Hakone temple.

January 3rd

Our final day at the cabin. To my delight, Eri dressed up in kimono, and then performed tea ceremony for us. I took about fifty photos of her getting dressed with the help of her Grandmom. Wearing kimono is no small task, and requires a lot of time to put on. It was a special treat to observe this process, and especially the interaction between Eri and Tomoko. This was my favorite event all week. Here are a few photos from the process.

Once Eri was dressed, she artfully performed a simple tea ceremony for us. The bowl Eri used is from Jun`s family, and dates back to the Edo period of Japan, which ran from 1603 to 1867! Jun and Eri gave me a great deal of information on the history of sadou, literally “The Way of Tea”. A particularly interesting story is of Sen no Rikyuu, a great tea master who is said to have the most profound influence on the tea ceremony, and Hideyoshi, a master general. The tea master had begun to use the ceremony as a place to influence the decision makers who attended his events. Hideyoshi, fearful that Sen no Rikyuu was trying to usurp him, ordered the master tea artist to commit hirikiri (a form of suicide by knife in the stomach, that inflicts a very painful and slow death).

Prepping for the ceremony.

The room.

Presenting the wagashi.

Folding the cloth.

Cleaning the bowl.

Measuring the tea.


Jun performs the ceremony for Eri to partake.

This bowl was extraordinary to the touch. It felt as if you could leave a fingerprint in the surface, like it was wax or unfired clay.

This last image is a poem by Jun`s favorite poet, Aida Mitsuo. I was actually able to read it in its entirety without any translation help from Eri. It is very simple, yet profound. It says:

amenohi niwa, amenonaka wo
kazenohi niwa, kazenonaka wo

On a rainy day, you are in the rain
On a windy day, you are in the wind

This was the most enjoyable New Year`s I have ever spent. Being in the company of such a warm, heart-centered family with my beloved, celebrating in their traditional way, engendered a deeper appreciation for the Japanese culture as well as deepening my appreciation and love for Eri.