Celebrating Japanese New Year in a Mountain Village

Garden of Sanzen-In Temple, Kyoto (from a vintage postcard)

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Note: One year ago today I wrote the following post about what was perhaps the most unusual and memorable New Year’s of my life.  Because it is timeless and because of most you are new to this blog, I’m reposting it:

In contrast to  the U.S. where New Year’s is something of an after thought compared to the glitter of Christmas, in Japan where New Year’s is known as  “Oshogatsu,”  it is the most important holiday of the year. The entire country slows down, even Tokyo becomes quieter. Millions of people  travel to their home towns. New Year’s food, known as osechi, is purchased or prepared in advance so everyone is free to enjoy the holiday. My remembrance of a New Year’s holiday spent in a small village in Kyoto prefecture is after the jump.


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A REMEMBRANCE  OF OSHOGATSU IN  KYOTO  PREFECTURE


In 1977 I was living with ten people in a picturesque, but drafty, old-style Japanese house in Kichijoji, Tokyo, teaching English, studying the Japanese language and trying to make sense of  an intensely interesting but sometimes perplexing country. I felt there must be more to Japan than the stressful Tokyo life I was leading, and when an invitation came from Tim, an Englishman I’d  met in Tokyo, to spend  New Year’s with him and his wife Kiyoku at their home in a village in the mountains of Kyoto prefecture, I readily accepted.


And so it was that I found myself at Tokyo Station early one late-December  morning about to board a Shinkansen train headed to Kyoto.  As this was not my first time on a bullet train, I  knew to be on the platform early, for once the station clock’s second hand reaches the  scheduled moment of department, the  doors close, and the train is swiftly gone.


Three hours later I was in Kyoto, searching an out-door bus terminal, just  near the train station, for the bus which would take me to Kiyoku and Tim’s village.  Somehow I found the right bus, asked the driver in my broken Japanese if it was headed to my destination and soon we’d left behind the apartments of suburban Kyoto and were threading  narrow mountain roads lined with tidy stands of ramrod straight pines.   As we ascended, more and more snow appeared on the side of the road. After about an hour and ten minutes, the driver called out the name of the village I’d so carefully memorized, I alighted, and there, thank god, was Tim waiting for me. Pointing out the sights as he went, Tim lead me on the ten-minute walk to their home.


A modest and a bit rustic home it proved to be, two rooms if I remember correctly, a living-dining-kitchen room where  I would sleep on a futon rolled out at night and Kiyoku and Tim’s bedroom. I surveyed the main room: a small wood stove, a low, square table, cushions on the floor, a pine tansu or two, strands of persimmons hanging from the rafters to dry.


Fluent in Japanese, Tim was not your average English-teaching gaijin (foreigner) in Japan.  He had a degree in horticulture from an English university, had lived and studied natural farming on Shikoku Island with Fukuoka-sensei, and  now along with Kiyoku was gardening and growing  rice organically on several acres of rented land. What we all three had in common was that we’d studied macrobiotics, a philosophical and dietary system based largely on the ancient Oriental principles of yin and yang.

The next day,  New Year’s Eve, passed quickly. While I don’t remember  this clearly, I hope I helped Kiyoku and Tim clean their house and garden.  In a tradition I’ve come to love, Japanese people, at least in those days, tried to tidy up loose ends at the end of the year: clean  work places and houses, pay debts, ask forgiveness from people they’ve wronged.


New Year’s also involves special cooking called osechi, foods that can be made ahead and kept for several days, thus freeing the cook to enjoy the holiday. I remember  Kiyoko’s cooking  as being artful and traditional and mostly vegetarian.   Almost surely she made kuro-mame, simmered black soy beans, an  auspicious dish because the mame part is the homophone of a word meaning “to be in good health.” Likely, she made gomame, sweet and salty, crisp dried  anchovies. Gomame is an osechi  dish because it’s written with Chinese characters which can  also mean “fifty thousand grains of rice,” an affirmation for prosperity. And I’m sure she made kinpira, sautéed burdock with sesame seeds, a dish thought to provide energy because burdock is such a prolific, sturdy plant.


You can’t have a traditional Japanese New Year without eating mochi  and I remember we joined an American family living nearby in making what seemed an unreasonable amount of the chewy treat. Their kitchen was taken over by the project, pots of steaming sweet,  whole grain mochi rice, trays of already made mochi cakes. Properly made mochi involves steaming glutinous mochi rice until it is very well cooked, then pounding it with a heavy mallet to break down the grains and bring out the sticky starch.  This is then flavored and formed into small, cookie-sized cakes. Traditional mochi  can be rolled in roasted soy bean flour, stuffed with sweetened bean jam, or flavored with mugwort.  It  was a merry scene, kids running about, stuffing pieces of mochi into their mouths, having a boisterous time.


Later we returned to Tim and Kiyoku’s to finish up the osechi. Tim and I went out to the  garden, brushed snow off the last  of  the season’s broccoli and picked it.  When all was done we ate a late, quiet dinner consisting mostly of soba noodles in a  soy-flavored broth and  garnished with thinly-cut  nori strips,  green onions and sesame seeds.


Just before midnight, we bundled up against the chilly night and made our way along a snow-covered path up a small hill to the local Buddhist temple. There, along with dozens of villagers, we lined up for our chance to ring the huge temple bell.  When it was rung the prescribed 108 times, we joined the priests inside the temple  for hot green tea, mikans, the Japanese orange in season at New Year’s time, and quiet conversation


New Year’s day and the day after we ate the osechi along with ozoni, soup broth with pieces of mochi melting deliciously in it, drank sake, visited with neighbors and talked about what we wanted to accomplish in the  coming year. I retraced my journey back to Kyoto and on the Shinkansen to Tokyo, standing all the way because the trains were packed with people returning from their home towns.


I was to visit Kiyoku and Tim and the people of their village several times later on, even helping with a traditional rice harvest. I’m thankful that they welcomed me into their home and into their lives. They shared with me  a vivid experience of Japanese village life which more than thirty years later, I cherish still.
–Gary Alinder, December 28, 2009

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Above: A later photo of Kiyoko, Tim and baby in a field of buckwheat. Right:  me participating in a rice harvest at their farm, 1978 (rice-drying racks in background).

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Afterword: You can find mochi in most Japanese supermarkets, but it’s likely to be made with rice flour rather than whole grain rice, and to my taste, to be overly sweet.  You’ll find better quality  mochi in the refrigerator case of your natural foods store.  The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco sponsors a Buddhist bell ringing every New Year’s Eve, and later in January, a mochi-making event.

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