Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year 2011... Note the Differences

Well - it's a little on the late side, but I finally managed to get myself in front of a computer to blog... it's been about a week since I last really did anything... and that's been a good thing. No offence to my 0.75 readers, but, it's nice to spend a little time doing other things as well as blogging. Like enjoying time spent with the family (or even enjoying time with myself... though that doesn't quite sound right now that I've written it).

New Years was (despite every early indication) was a VERY HOT AFFAIR here in Adelaide. Well, New Years Eve was at least. It was forecast to be about 41 degrees here in Adelaide (downgraded from an earlier forecast of 43). In fact, such was the heat that much of the state was in a "catastrophic fire warning" condition... which basically meant that people were advised to evacuate to major population centres. We have these sorts of days every now and again each summer... but the evacuation thing is relatively new (following the horrible fire-storm known as Black Saturday that went through just outside of Melbourne in 2009 that resulted in 173 people being killed). It was a stark reminder in this time of parties and excess that we live in a sometimes dangerous environment. Indeed, there was even speculation that the fireworks in the city were going to be cancelled this year due to the fire threat.

Of course - to a 3yo, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that he can finally try out his new pool that he's been hanging out to use since Santa-san brought it a week ago. 41 degrees... excellent pool weather.

Actually New Years Day for our family is not generally one that is associated with "fun"... let me explain.

You see, in Japan they have a tradition (perhaps it's not that common these days) known as osouji (basically, the cleanup). Traditionally, the end of the year is marked by cleaning your house of dirt and dust (and in our case, clutter) to welcome in the New Year with clean house, and clean hearts.... the latter provided by a little bit of elbow-grease, combined with some sweat and tears. Strange as it may seem... this is one tradition that really resonates with me... it's a great way of bringing the family together and making cleaning the house a great event.

Normally this hard work finishes in the early evening for us (we normally have a lot of cleaning to do)... and as such we tend to have quiet New Year Eves these days. As we were going celebrate this year over at our friends house (let's call then C&Y) we started our cleaning ritual earlier... with a spot of pool time in the middle. We didn't finish till about 4:30 in the afternoon, and ended up about 30 mins late arriving at our friends house. We had a brilliant evening of home-made yakitori as well as copious amounts other delicious food, and just the odd drink or two...

The thing that L-kun loved however were the sparklers. Now in Japan... summertime is the time for fireworks. And fireworks are readily available to buy pretty well anywhere and everywhere. It's one of the quintessential experiences in any Japanese summer to go out onto the street and light up some fireworks. Well, Australia is a little different... and in South Australia it's actually illegal to buy or use fireworks unless you are a licenced pyrotechnician (or working with a licenced pyrotechnician). Therefore about the only things you legally buy and use are... sparklers.

Having been in Japan, I have to say that I think their laws are most likely too relaxed (when it comes to potentially dangerous materials)... but on the flip-side, Australia takes a far too strict stance. It can  be such a magical experience to do real fireworks - but, you've got to make the best of what you've got... so...  we all enjoyed the sparklers very much.

And L-kun almost made it to midnight as well... at 11:30 he suddenly was struck with the strong urge to do a... well... an early New Year "deposit" would be the polite way of putting it. But alas he insisted on going home to do it (a clever ruse used to get Mum and Dad back home where he promptly jumped into his pyjama's and straight into bed almost in the same stride). 10 mins before midnight, L-kun went to sleep. Thank you Y&C for your delicious food and your great company... and apologies for having to make an early (and unwanted) departure!

The next morning we had another Japanese tradition... mochi. I've talked about mochi in a recent post on my other blog (see here). It's a rice-gruel that's converted into an even thicker gruel paste-based rice-cake. It's a fairly strange creation the first time you eat it... very sticky and chewy. On New Years day, mochi is the traditional dish that's served covered in kinako (a soybean powder) and sugar. It may not look that appealing... but it's actually quite nice once you get used to the texture.

In fact, every year, a handful of Japanese will die from choking on mochi during New Years celebrations. Hmmm... I'm a real bundle of joyful news today... Still, the reason I mention it is that we had to be very careful with L-kun when he was eating it. Kami-kami-gokkun (chew chew swallow). First things first however... he had to get it into his mouth. His chopstick practice seems to be going well (with his brilliant trainer chopsticks, or hashi). Ganbatte L-kun.

And I'm not sure that this is a fair indication of his reaction, but the good thing about L-kun is that he normally reacts fairly clearly when he's eating food. There's often little room for doubt when it comes to whether he likes something. In the case of mochi, he ate it all up...yummy. Actually, he's always loved kinako since he was a baby.

Another tradition in our household is to eat boiled pumpkin... the golden yellow/orange colour also supposedly brings good fortune for money. In our case we seem to be good at generating the "spend money" luck. We are always lucky when it comes to our ability to spend.

Yet another tradition relates to the eating of soba noodles; a dish known on New Years as toshikoshi soba noodles... toshikoshi meaning to jump from one year to the next. The significance is that the long soba noodles are meant to symbolise the wish for a long life. There are however other interpretations about this as well, but I don't know which is the correct one.

Finally, we come to the last of the New Year food traditions... the osechi-ryori (which is a New Years dish, normally served as a bento box). Well - this year we kinda skipped this one tradition and had temaki-zushi (hand-rolled sushi) instead. I have to say, for the three of us, it kinda looked a little bare (but was delish nonetheless). To be honest, both T-chan and I were looking to have a rest. We'd had a busy year in 2010... and were looking to ease ourselves into 2011.

Here's a look at a typical homemade osechi-ryori at T-chan's house from way back in 2005. Hmmm... I think I know which one T-chan would prefer to be eating, but that does look like a lot of hard work.
We can but dream.. or in this case, remember...

The one thing that I didn't mention, because it's not really possible to do here in Adelaide, is the Japanese tradition of joya-no-kane and hatsumōde. The first is the tradition where the local temples will ring their temple bells 108 times (to dispel the 108 earthly desires... ah... how many now...?). The second is known as the first shrine visit of the year... note joya-no-kane is a Buddhist tradition whereas hatsumōde is really a Shinto tradition. I understand that sometimes people will go to a Buddhist temple for hatsumōde as well. Unfortunately, we have no Japanese temples or Shrines in Adelaide... so our New Years Day is generally spent on family activities... this year it was called relaxing at home!

Speaking of this year... it's the year of the rabbit...the previous the year of the tiger. So if you were born in 1999, 1987, 1975 (and so on in intervals of 12)... you are all supposed to have particularly auspicious year this year. Unless of course you live in fox country or somewhere (like Australia) which has the calicivirus (which is deadly to rabbits). In this case, if you actually are a rabbit... it might not be a good year at all.

And this brings up another bizarre contradiction about Japan... desipite the fact that the Japanese New Year is most definitely the 1st of January (since the Meiji era) - they still consider the Chinese zodiac for their yearly  meanings. Japan can be so western and yet simultaneously remain so eastern. This contradiction is perhaps at the heart of modern Japanese life.

So that ends my rather belated post on New Years. So, as is the traditional saying in Japan:

akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (Happy New Year) ; and
kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu (I hope we can have a good relationship this year)

And thank you for everyone that has been reading this blog (all 0.75 of you)... and also thank you to all of you  who have been entertaining me over the last year as well with your own great blogs. Hope to see more of you in the coming year!

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