Saturday, January 4, 2014

Celebrate the New Year with Traditions

The New Year's Day is the biggest event in a year for Japanese. The God of the Year visits our homes to bless us on this day. Our spring cleaning happens in winter. We clean and cleanse our houses inside out starting on December 13th to welcome the God and show our respect to him. We've believed that cleaner the house more blessing to receive. Our December has so many customs and traditions to properly prepare our homes for the New Year's Day.

We also prepare a feast for the God. We eat the feast, but we actually share it with the God. The idea is inviting the God as a guest of honor. Each dish has its own meaning for best wishes in different matters. One is for a long healthy life, another for great harvest, other for fortune, and so on. By eating them, you would get blessings. This is how we wish a great year on the first day of a year.

I tried to prepare some dishes with ingredients I can get around here in the US. Some are sent by my parents in Japan.

Let's go over from the top left to clock wise, shall we?

Rolled Cake
This is my original due to lack of ingreedients. The actual dish is called datemaki shown on the right (source: Rebunese Co.ltd,). It's rolled sweet omelette made with eggs and fluffy fish cake. It's soft and moist, actually tastes like cake. Kids love this. You never imagine it has fish in it. No fishy smell at all.
Datemaki is for a wish to establish in arts and sciences. The dish's rolled form indicates a hand scroll which contained great knowledge, wisdoms, stories, engineering and paintings. Ancient people leaned a lot from those scrolls. Well, I'm talking about the era long before Gutenberg. By eating the dish, we wish that we would learn and establish in subjects we pursue.
Renkon Manju
Steamed Lotus Root Cake with gravy
Lotus roots have a lot of holes. It is believed that these holes help to look through futures clearly. I believe each hole indicates an aspect of life, and more aspects you have, you could better prepare for each scenario to obtain successful futures. By eating lotus roots, we wish to have solid stable futures filled with peace and happiness.
The dish also has some shrimps. Shrimps have curved backs. Who else have curved backs? Some old people. A wish for a long life until your back gets bent by aging. Nobody really wants a bent back, but the wish originated to the time when people's average life span was 40. Considering that, you would understand they wished to live until they reached senior age.
Chawan-mushi
Steamed egg soup. Its texture is like a flan, but it's not sweet.
This time, I put shiitake mushroom, shrimps, a piece of salmon, chicken and a chestnut, which was alternative to ginseng nuts. I would say that every home and restaurant has their own combinations of what to put in the egg soup.
The yellow color of the eggs for wealth and fortune. It's hard to associate this yellow with wealth and fortune since it's so soft, but we consider yellow as gold color in certain cases. Now, you can connect wealth and fortune with yellow through gold. Shrimps for a long life described above.
I made this super size since it's my favorite. Generally, it's not served in a bowl. It's served in a small and tall cocotte to keep it warm. So, it looks much more sophisticated.
Kuro-mame
Slowly cooked black beans with brown sugar. Very tender and sweet. They must retain their black skins on. It requires a skill to do that. So, my parents sent ones already cooked and vacuum sealed. Lucky me!
The color of black to ward off evil spirits.
Mame is a bean/beans in Japanese. The sound of the word also describe diligence. Here, we are playing with the words. We eat this dish to wish we would work diligently through the year.
Kazunoko
Hering roes. They are marinated in a dressing made with dashi (broth from sea weed and shaved smoked bonito), sake, soy sauce and mirin which is a Japanese seasoning.
There are so many eggs in a roe. We wish to have many children with this dish. In a farming culture, having more children in a family means having more workforce, which is essential to succeed, even in the western culture. You get the idea. Nowadays, we don't really wish a big family, instead we wish the family thrives for generations.
Chikuzen-ni
Stewed vegetables (shiitake mushroom, lotus root, yum cake, taro root, carrot, and burdock root) and chicken in soy sauce based soup.
It seems each vegetable in this dish holds a wish:
Shiitake mushroom for ??? I couldn't find anything about this one. Maybe, they are in because they are simply yummy?
Lotus root for great futures as mentioned earlier.
Yum cake to satisfy my personal taste. My wish has already come true for this one, woo hoo!
Taro root for having many children since this plant produces many round roots, which looks like having a lot of children.
Carrot's reddish color (In Japan, we actually have bright red carrots.) for celebration of having a new year. Red and white is a combination of colors for celebration in our culture.
Burdock root for a small but long lasting happiness because this thin root grows underground very long and steady.
We tend to cut vegetables in certain shapes in occasions. It's popular to trim lotus roots like flowers, carrots to plum flower shape (Carrots in Japan are much bigger than ones in the US. They are much more suitable to add this type of details.), and taro roots to octagon shape. I only did it to the lotus root.
Kuri-no-Chakin-Shibori
I put this as an alternative to Kuri-kinton shown on the right. Its golden yellow is for fortune and wealth. I have one problem with this... too sweet. It's not just sweet, but "it makes me sick" sweet. Whenever I had a bite or two of this, I got very sick for the rest of the day. Please note that I also get sick with fudge because it's too heavy and sweet to me. That says if you are fine with eating fudge, you should be fine with eating Kuri-kinton. Unfortunately, Kuri-kinton is not for me. No wonder I don't have any links to fortunes. Now, I know why...
Kuri-no-Chakin-Shibori is actually a sweet in fall. In Japan, chestnuts' season is fall. It's a very simple sweet from smashed steamed chestnuts and a little bit of sugar. You can enjoy the delicate sweet flavor that chestnuts naturally have. This is my all time favorite. Interestingly, I found this is also called Kuri-kinton in Nakatsugawa, Gifu. Hum.
Tataki Gobo
Burdock root cooked in vinegar, dashi, mirin, soy sauce and sesami.
For a small yet long lasting happiness.

These are just some of them. There are so many more beautiful dishes. Some are region specific dishes reflecting ingredients produced in the areas. Some could be family originals.

You can enjoy most of them with room temperature. This is because not to make noise in the kitchen by reducing the use of it to offer a quiet and peaceful stay to the God. We also have traditions for the ways of serving of them. I'll talk about it another time.

After munching the dishes, we wrap up the meal with this soup dish is called zoni. This is one of dishes reflect their own families' styles. As you see my family's zoni has clear soup. Some families' have miso soup. In general, it is said that ones in Tokyo area have clear soup and ones in Osaka and Kyoto area have miso soup. Tokyo area has a lot of influences from the samurai culture. Some say that samurais didn't like the saying with miso which indicates failure, and sticked to clear soup for the jinx. Since my family is from samurai, it makes sense that our zoni has clear soup.

Zoni contains mochi which is cake made from sweet rice. This is a requirement of zoni. It cannot be zoni without mochi. The mochi in zoni is previously offered to the God. We believe the energy from the God of the Year stays in the offered mochi. By eating it, we receive his energy to get through the new year.

It seems all wishes about the family, but not for others. The celebration is generally kept in the family. This is a time for the family reunion. That's why everything is pretty much focused on inside the family. In fact, it is considered rude to visit others on the New Year's day. You don't want to step on the God where they are hosting him as a guest of honor and only guest.

I almost forgot to mention about these special chopsticks. They are called iwai bashi only used for celebrations. Both ends are narrowed, one end for you and the other for the God. Thus we share the feast with him. Once you start using one end, don't flip and use the other. This is a big no-no. If you do that, no blessing to you.

These chopsticks are made with willow. They are hard to break. We believe it is a bad sign that chopsticks break especially during a celebration. We use iwai-basi for the first seven days of a year, until January 15th in some areas. Once the New Year celebration ends, we get rid of them. New pairs will be prepared for next year.

I love Japanese culture full of traditions from religious and folk origins though it's not as cheerful as western ones. I always find interesting stories behind them. Even I grew up in Japan, I didn't have enough opportunities to learn all, and am still learning. The funny thing is we just do things without any doubts because our parents do them and our grand parents show those to us. We often don't know why we follow certain traditions. Once we find out their reasons and origins, things suddenly make sense in ourselves. We enjoy this type of "a-ha" moment in our life. And they turned to precious gems in our daily life. They help us to think what we do.

We, Japanese, are not so religious, but quite superstitious. In fact, we believe jinxes, visit shrines to make wishes, get cleanse and get married, and have weddings, funerals and anniversaries at temples or with monks. Shrines belong to Shintoism or other religions which worship other gods. Temples and monks belong to Buddhism. They are totally different religions. And, most of us are Buddhists. I can see some people would say that is unfaithful. But, what our ancestors learned about the way of living with appreciation, respect and care to others through those religions beyond the worships has been blending into our culture and become our rituals as traditions. Those traditions never forget respect to the gods and Buddha either. In fact, when somebody does a bad thing, we still say "Don't do that. It's so rude to the God/Buddha. You'd get punished by him/her." I've heard so many wars which people have fought and are still fighting for their faiths around the world. In our culture, multiple religions live together peacefully. Isn't this good enough to tell them that they don't need to fight?

It is also true that we've skipped or forgotten many traditions. The New Year's Day celebration is a good opportunity to think about those, and lean from the old. Amazing wisdoms are hidden there.

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