In the United States, New Year’s Eve is mostly spent with friends partying it up in places like Times Square, a cozy house/apartment, bars, clubs etc you name it. When I was younger, I used to dread bringing in the New Year at the table praying and talking about our goals for the New Year ( sorry mom and dad). After hearing about what all my other friends were doing, I would have much rather been chilling out with my buddies than reviewing my goals for the new year. In Japan, New Year’s Eve is a little different than in the United States. It’s a family holiday. Much like Christmas and Thanksgiving in the United States, New Year’s Eve is spent with family. As you read in my previous post, foreigners tend to be excluded from certain activities. Thankfully, I was blessed to be invited to spend New Year’s Eve with my friend and her family. I had a wonderful time and would like to share a few things I learned about Japanese culture ( still hesitant to label this a Japanese culture because it might have been something only her family did) during my visit.
Let’s rewind the story back to mid December. One of the teachers at my school mentioned a tradition that most families do before the new year. He said families send new year cards to other family members across Japan. I think he mentioned that the post offices are so busy during that time that high school students help deliver cards in the city. When I walked into stores, I noticed many racks filled with new year cards. I went Christmas cookie shopping with my friend and she also mentioned that she needed to get cards to send her family.
Now fast forward to December 31, 2012. I decided to arrive early for the ‘party’ because I wanted to help prepare the feast. In her family, they normally eat crab, deep fried shrimp, and sushi ( yum). While my friend and I prepared the crab, her brother and sister fried the shrimp ( the pieces of shrimp where pretty BIG). Weeks before the new year celebration, I mentioned to my friend that I wanted to learn how to cook a Japanese dish. Well, that night it was my turn to take a swing at it. Her mother called me in the help her make sushi. Sushi in Japan is NOT like sushi in the United States. Of course it’s fresher but they do not make california rolls, dragon rolls, gorilla rolls and so on– just simple fish on top of rice or sometimes rolled with sea weed. When her mother called me in to make sushi I thought, this is going to be a piece of cake. Man, I was so wrong. There was a certain way I had to handle the rice and fish. Too much rice or too little rice would mess up the flow. Oh, and it was obvious when you skipped a step because the sushi would look either lopsided or too small or wasabi would be in the wrong places. After about 3 tries, I finally got the hang of it. Her mother was a pro– knocking out a plate of sushi in less than 5 minutes. I was quite impressed and later learned that her father used to own a sushi restaurant.
Once the everything was ready it was time to feast! Of course we had drinks BUT we didn’t drink like most people in the United States drink on New Year’s Eve. The drink was simply to share a toast and have with the meal. Shocker I know, since most Americans imagine spending their New Year’s Eve throwing back drinks. Once our bellies were fully, we still had a few hours to go before we wished each other a happy new year. My friend’s mother and sister knocked out and I was fighting sleep. I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to sprawl out on their floor. We spent that time watching a Japanese comedy show that airs every year on New Year’s Eve. Her dad pulled out a deck of cards and you know what that meant!! Yup, I ended up teaching them how to play spades. Once they got the hang of it, I started to feel their competitive side come out. We played up until 11:45pm. I noticed her mother head back to the kitchen to make us bowls of soba. Soba noodles are a special noodle in Japan. It’s pretty much a buckwheat. But on New Year’s Eve family eat soba RIGHT before midnight to wish longevity and a prosperous year. Why soba noodles? It’s simple! Soba noodles are long ( this was the explanation given to me). Her mother said that we had to eat the noodles before midnight because you’re wishing longevity for that year. It doesn’t make sense to wish longevity when the year has already came. Once we gobbled down the noodles, it was time! We had a minute left. midnight struck and my friend’s mother turns my direction and bows saying ” Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu”(Congratulations for the opening of the year).
After that, we cleaned up and prepared for bed. I stayed the night because it’s illegal to have even an ounce of alcohol in your system while driving. The next morning, her mother cooked a special meal. My friends told me that families usually eat a special meal (a meal that isn’t normally eaten) to start the year. I honestly can’t say what all we ate but it was delicious. I left with Tupperware full of good food. I hung out a little longer then I headed to my chilly apartment. It felt great not being alone for the new year and bringing it in with a loving family. I got to eat delicious food and learn a few things about Japanese culture.!
Oh, before I forget, this year is the year of the snake. Japan has 12 animals that represent the year. Once they’ve reach the last animal, they start all over. Last year was the dragon and now it’s a snake! Oooooo and people do not kiss their lover when it hits midnight in Japan– womp womp sorry to all those who enjoy PDA.