New Year's in Japan!

My sister has lived a total of about fifteen years in Japan, between study abroad, work and marriage.  The work program she took part in after college determines where they send people based partially on language ability - people with less Japanese skill will be better off in cities where there is a relative abundance of English.  My sister, being the badass that she is, got sent to the booniest of boonies: a small farming village in Kyushu where she was the first foreign resident, like... ever. I should mention, my sister is 5'10", blond and blue-eyed, about as non-Japanese as a humanoid can get. 

My sister's best Japanese friend, Chieko, is the only child of the sake brewers of that village.  My favorite New Year's ever - and it will be hard to top - was spent at her family's house in Kyushu nine years ago.  New Year's is the big holiday in Japan. Sort of the reverse of the U.S. - Christmas is the date holiday, and New Year's is the go-home-and-get-fat-with-your-family holiday.  Stores close, business associates exchange gifts.  My sister's friend's family had mountains of mikan, and platters and platters of traditional New Year's food from their business associates.  We basically sat around the kotatsu and ate for a couple days.  Everything was closed. Granted, it was a small town, but you could've heard a pin drop anywhere in the village.

On New Year's Eve, my sister and I went to the local Zen temple.  They have a giant bell there that is rung with what is much like a suspended railroad tie with a cord to move it.  The bell is rung 108 times on New Year's (see here for the significance of 108).  Since it's such a small town, I got to smash the railroad tie into the bell a couple times.  Some little kids were keeping count of the rings.  Then my sister and I hung out, drinking green tea and eating cakes with the priest and his wife, who remembered her from her time working in the town.  At midnight, the priest went to the altar (?) and chanted.  We returned to her friend's house, where it was a few degrees warmer inside (no joke, we could see our breath when we were brushing our teeth - I'll have to talk about Japanese houses another time).  We slept on futons under super-warm futon comforters, then got up and had sake for breakfast.  Er, with breakfast.  I'm pretty sure there were few cessations of eating that week. 

Japanese kids usually receive gifts of money at New Year's. I was very surprised to receive such a gift from Mr. Yano, one of the townspeople who had come to New Mexico in a tour group organized by my sister.  My sister's local government job was basically cultural exchange, so why not get to take a trip home by bringing her Japanese country mice to check out Southwest America and its country mice?  Fun was had by all, even Mr. Yano, who put up with an abcess tooth with typical Japanese don't-want-to-trouble-anybody stoicism until it became unbearable and had to be removed in my hometown - imagine having emergency dental work done in a language you don't understand!  Anyway, Mr. Yano gave me a generous New Year's give of 10,000 yen (almost $100) instructed me to get something for myself and for my parents, whom he'd met on the New Mexico trip.

A note on Mr. Yano: had WWII lasted any longer, had we not dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would never have gotten to meet this kind, humble man.  He was training as a kamikaze pilot when the war ended.  He got to see the yards of the Pima Air Museum near Tucson, AZ, and he said something to the effect of, "What were we thinking?  These were your leftovers," about the giant machines.  The Japanese were prepared to fight until every last one of their young men had gone down in a paper airplane.  So, while I think that the museum in Hiroshima should be required viewing for every single 8-year-old child on the planet, so that we impress upon them before puberty how very stupid and fucked-up war is, I also think that there are at least two sides to every story.  Before Mr. Yano said it, I never thought there could have been any upside, at all, ever, for any individual anywhere, to dropping an atomic bomb.  And even with that slightly conflicted view of that particular sad event in history, I couldn't smile for several hours after leaving the museum in Hiroshima when I visited with my then-boyfriend last time I was in Japan.  Ugh.  Imagine all the people, people, please.

Meanwhile, back in the Kansai area where my sister now lives, my sister and nephews and I went to visit Chieko.  Chieko married a sake brewer from this area, so my sister very conveniently has a friend nearby.  We had okonomiyaki lunch with Chieko and her kids, sent her son to cram school with a packed dinner (6+ hours of cram school on vacation, ugh!), and went to her house via the sake brewery.  I got to have a quick little tour of the brewery, proof that even when I am almost-studiously avoiding tourism, I still get to do cool stuff.  Tamara and Chieko and I drank tea and ate little yummy things like good grown-ups while the kids ran around and played their noisy rambunctious bilingual play.  Chieko's daughter can definitely keep up with my two nephews.  I'm pretty sure she's a superhero. 

I wasn't sure where I was going with this when I started writing.  I probably wanted to talk about food.  That's usually where I'm going when I start - food or music theory.  But my natural gravitas strikes again, and I can't help but notice something non-food-related:

My grandpa, who earned a Purple Heart fighting in Europe in WWII, often referred to "Japs", at least until my sister moved to their country and seemed to be happy.  Mr. Yano got his tooth extracted while visiting America, a tooth he wouldn't have had in a lifespan he wouldn't have had if WWII had lasted only a few more days.   My sister was doing a summer internship in Florida between years of grad school when one of her assignments was to interpret for a Universal Studios Japan team that had come to study the park in Orlando prior to building the park in Osaka.  One of the few young, single Japanese men who is taller than my sister happened to be on that team, and he is now my brother-in-law.  They have two little halflings, who live in Japan but speak English much of the time, and who live in appropriately-neutral Switzerland for several weeks every summer while my sister works in-house for her main client in Geneva.  Chieko's daughter picked up more English yesterday while playing with my nephews - (kids learn so fast - I heard her correct her pronunciation of "sneck king" to "snake king" after hearing it a couple times from my nephews... goodness knows what a perennially-useful phrase "snake king" is, but it had something to do with whatever game they were making up). 

When the bomb fell on Hiroshima in August 1945, it killed everything for miles around - tens of thousands of people, and all the vegetation.  No one knew when spring might come again, or if it would come, in a stark wasteland peopled with grievously-injured survivors.  In the museum, there's a photograph of one brave little flower coming up out of the barren ground the following spring.

Every culture seems to have a winter solstice observation of hope and light before the darkest and coldest time of year sets in.  This has been my Blog Post of Hope and Light.  Thank you.