The biggest holiday in Japan is the celebration of the New Year. There are many different traditions to bring in the New Year throughout the country and our members at the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese have probably experienced them all. Since I relied on AFWJ members’ input last month, gathering ways to celebrate the holidays as transplants in a new country, I thought I’d give them a break during this busy time of year. For this month’s post I will share the memory of the first time I spent the New Year holiday at my in-law’s home. It was definitely a learning experience!
My first surprise during my first trip to my in-laws house for the New Year holiday was to find out how cold it was - inside the house! My in-laws live in western Kyushu and I was coming from northern Shikoku so I packed the same type of clothes I normally wore during the winter season, since the climate is exactly the same. Unfortunately I did not pack warm house-clothes, such as a big comfy sweatshirt to wear while sitting around the kotatsu or warm sleepwear for sleeping in a bedroom that was about 3’C. I only had my usual winter coat and it felt weird to sit around in that all day, and it certainly wouldn’t be comfy to sleep in! Luckily my husband kept some of his old clothes there and could provide me with some warm items to wear in the house. Coming from a tiny apartment that heated up very quickly and didn’t cool off too much at night, I had no idea how freezing cold Japanese houses could be - it’s basically like sleeping in a tent.
Don’t even get me started on the next surprise, the huge amount of time we spent just sitting around the kotatsu not doing anything but staring at the TV, which only played Eki-den relay racing during the day and year-end variety entertainment shows in the evening. I hate those darn heated kotatsu tables that collect dust and make my legs a hundred degrees while the rest of me stays chilly. I know many people love kotatsu but I associate them with a cold nose, sneezes and boredom. Maybe I am doing something wrong? I’ll admit that there is one fun part about sitting around the kotatsu - when the evening comes, so does the never-ending sake, if you like good sake then having Kyushu in-laws is definitely a bonus. Once the sake starts flowing, communication starts happening and we all become one big happy family for the evening. A word of caution though - never-ending sake can be quite hazardous and you might end up laying down at the end of the night not only to find yourself in a freezing futon, but in a spinning room as well.
The more solemn traditions began on the first day of the year, New Year day. First thing in the morning my mother-in-law chastised me for still being in pajamas when it was time to gather in the Buddhist altar room to begin. Of course I had no idea what was happening, so with my feelings a little bruised I changed into the most formal attire I had brought with me, a simple skirt with pantyhose and a dress-shirt. Any member of AFWJ can probably attest to the fact that skirts and sitting on the floor don’t mix all that well. Once I was prepared and disgruntled to observe that my husband could get away with wearing an atrocious purple track suit he had slept in, yet I was criticized for my pajamas, we began. The first New Year tradition my in-laws observe is to drink a sip of an herb-infused sake, starting with the youngest family member - a sort of toast to the New Year. Followed by a snack of dried squid, herring roe, kombu seaweed and a vinegared radish and carrot dish. Each item has a special meaning, for example the roe is to symbolize fertility and the radish and carrot are red and white, the most auspicious colours in Japanese culture. Some years my in-laws have ozoni, the special New Year soup with mochi and some years they do not. I do not think they had it that first year, too bad because it is one of my favourite New Year dishes!
After the morning tradition was complete it was time to go out and make the first prayer of the year at the neighbourhood temple, local shrine, and at the Confucius shrine. The inclusion of the Confucius shrine is somewhat unique to the area my in-laws live in and is not something done throughout all of Japan. The Confucius shrine is the most lively of the three places we visited so I enjoyed going there the most and seeing all the people and food stalls, it was a bit like a festival! I was quite bewildered at the temple/shrine prayer tour at first, as I didn’t really understand what we were doing or that there would be three places to visit and the way we prayed at each one was slightly different - with varying orders and amounts of bowing and clapping. However, it wasn’t as confusing as the greeting-tour we did afterward, which consisted of stopping by various relative’s homes for a quick prayer at the family altar followed by a hastily drank cup of green tea, everything done on my father-in-law’s schedule, of course. Where I come from, a stop in to a relative’s home is a long affair with coffee and snacks and chatting about family news, completely different from the pit-stop approach of my in-laws. Everything was overwhelming that first year, but once I knew what to expect, I began to enjoy the temple/shrine tour and quick visits to relatives in subsequent years.
The best part of celebrating the New Year with my in-laws are the parties full of delicious sake and food. After we had come home from the temple-tour and pit-stop style visits that first year, I thought we were done and changed into my more comfy (and warm) indoor clothes, only to be told we were going out one more time to an aunt’s house. I thought it would just be another pit-stop visit and was somewhat dismayed to arrive at a full-blown party totally exhausted and in my comfy clothes! It ended up being a lot of fun though with great food and tasty beer and sake. Now I always count on that particular aunt to have the good food trays that features tasty western appetizers alongside the usual osechi dishes. The partying didn’t stop there, the next day there was a party at my in-laws house featuring an obscene amount of sake, sushi, osechi food, crab from Hokkaido and more! It was very festive and a lot of fun.
I don’t remember how long we stayed at the in-laws that first year but I have those first impressions of the traditions burned into my mind, for better or for worse. I certainly won’t forget that first year! I wonder if my husband feels the same about the first (and only) Christmas he spent at my parents home? I tried to inform him of all the traditions and expectations ahead of time, which wasn’t hard because Christmas at my parents’ basically consists of opening presents, eating a huge tasty brunch, relaxing, and then eating a big dinner. The holiday celebrations in my hometown are about a million miles away from the New Year celebrations at my in-laws, but both styles have their merits and all kinds of celebrations are fun.
No matter how you choose to bring in 2019 I hope you have a lovely holiday and wonderful year. Happy New Year from all of us at AFWJ!