Like most Asian cultures, New Years is the most important time of year.
Bonenkai season starts towards the end of December around the 20th. Pronounced “bone-en-kah-ee” it’s the end of the year party for companies. After New Year’s day the Sinenkai season starts, it’s the beginning of the year party. Imagine the amount of drinking at a Pikey wake, then imagine that for a solid 3 week period your relatives are dying at regular intervals… that is what the back-to-back bonenkai/shinenkai season is like.
Japanese New Years Traditions
There are a lot, a lot more than I’ll list here, but these are the ones that I notice and participate in. As another forward, I am not a Japan-o-phile like so many of my fellow gaijin. Culturally significant practices are about as meaningful to me as my gallbladder is to Scarlet Jo…
I am a generous man. I give to my friends and family as much as I can and then some. Otoshidama rubs me a little bit though, because I’m paying into a system that I never received any benefit from.
Otoshidama is a monetary gift that children receive from their older relatives and occasionally friends of the family. As I was bouncing between the Gulf of Mexico and Shenandoah Valley most of my childhood, I never got any otoshidama. I did however get Christmas presents, a tradition that’s not widely practiced in Japan. So it all evens out right?
Well… I do love toys, and I love buying Christmas presents for the younger kids on the Japanese side of my family. So each year I talk Yuuki out of her typically terrible ideas for presents and get the kiddos something they’ll enjoy, like Legos, fighting robots, and talking books. On top of that, not a week after Xmas I give the kids money for otoshidama as well. The kids are cleaning up… I’m just banking on one of them becoming the next Ichiro…
Mochi is an odorless, flavorless, colorless food covered in a fine white powder that just might be iocane. People do actually die while eating it each year, but not because of the iocane, but because they try to eat too much in one bite and the sticky rice gets lodged in their throat and they choke on the celebratory New Years food… it sounds like there’s a Chinese proverb in there.
The act of making mochi is terrible process made worse by the fact that we follow traditional methods and we make enough to feed half of starving N. Korea.
You start by soaking rice overnight. The rice is then steamed until soft. Sounds simple so far right?
Then we dump it in a large stone mortar and mash it up with wooden hammers like Mario going after Donkey Kong.
Mashing mochi is like sprinting for 100m using only your upper body. The hammer is slick with warm water to keep the rice from sticking to it so you have to grip it so hard you’ll give up masturbation for a month afterwards out of trepidation… maybe not… depends what you’re into I guess.
Each batch of mochi takes 10-15 minutes of mashing and grinding in groups of three and then standing in pairs on either side hammering. The hammering takes between 200-400 strokes total. We take turns at hammering, each turn is around 20-30 swings per person, after which your arms will burn, your back will ache, your hands will feel like stone, and even simple tasks like breathing will seem almost alien in difficulty. On each batch of mochi everyone will have 3-4 turns hammering.
We do 30kg of rice, which equates to 17-18 batches of mochi. You do the math…
The mochi is used as an offering at the shrines of deceased ancestors and the little shrines people keep in their homes. I don’t know much about Japanese religion, maybe another post.
I wanna buy a machine and race everyone, John Henry style
We also eat it in soup, baked on the grill, and fried like a chicken finger. As it is itself without flavor it’s traditional to fill it with anko, a sweet paste made from mashed up red beans. To imagine what anko tastes like take some refried beans and add some high fructose corn syrup.
Kouhaku: Red vs White
This is a type of battle of the bands that plays every year. Most Japanese music sounds like cats dying horribly to me (same for K-Pop).
Can animal control still help me out here?
There are some good Japanese artists out there… but I don’t watch much Japanese TV, as it’s usually only good enough to make me miss terrible American television like LOST, American Idol, or Gilmore Goods. Now I don’t know why I brought this up…
Fukubukuro means “secret bag”. It’s a stellar shopping opportunity in if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like shopping.
How it works:
You buy a bag for around $100 (prices can vary), and the contents of the bag will be valued at at-least 3x what you paid. The bags are separated by size and it’s a cash only sort of thing. A few fukuburos and you’d be set for the coming year.
The jacket makes me look like the Michelin Tire guy… or any h.s. football lineman at a 10 year reunion…
This falls into the culture thing… on top of it the shrines are packed this time of year. It’s better to wait until the 2nd or 3rd to go. You can play a lottery game by buying a fortune at the temple. All I’ve ever gotten was lollipop that tasted like grass (2009), a bag of sugar (2010), and wooden arrow with no point (2011).
There’s lots of festival food around to eat, like yakisoba, takoyaki, yakitori, and squid on a stick.
My fortunes are usually lousy too. They usually come with ambiguous ominous warnings, like “avoid fire”, “beware new opportunities”, and “stay away from high places”.