Submitted by Grace Etsuko Lee
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Japanese New Year Memories
The staff of Grace Lee International wishes you and your family good health and prosperity in all areas of your life, and may the New Year bring you all that you desire. We look forward to continuing our relationship helping each other reach our goals. It is the Age of Relationship. Thank you for being part of our lives.
The Japanese celebrate the New Year from January 1 – 3. Most stores and offices are closed during that time. Before and after those dates are the busiest traveling days with people returning home to their birthplace and/or to their family.
As a child growing up in Japan my memory of one of the celebrations I liked most was New Years. All the women in the house were busy preparing the very colorful New Year foods “O-sechi” for the family a few days before the 1st to make sure the food would last for 3 days outside. In the olden days before refrigerators they had to make foods that would keep for 3 days in the winter. No one was to work during those 3 days. It was a time to relax, be with the family and to reflect on the past and plan for the future.
As a child I didn’t like most of the New Year celebration foods except for the sweet ones. Now I can’t get enough of all the celebration dishes. The fun was that each dish had a meaning, for example, if you ate food with herring roe in it, you will have more babies, if you wanted more prosperity you ate a dish made from small sardines, chestnuts and sweet potato paste. Tart red or orange carrots soaked in vinegar and white daikon radishes would bring you more happiness and so on. There were foods for good luck, a marriage, more sex, and so on. I remember as a child avoiding certain foods like roe thinking that if I ate it I would receive the gift of more babies.
I was Grandpa’s helper when it came to making the celebration rice cakes “mochi” from scratch. My Grandma made the hot sticky rice and dumped it into a piece of tree that was hollowed out. Grandpa would use a huge wooden hammer like tool to smash the hot sticky rice into a sticky and stretching mochi. He taught me to sing a song that had a rhythm that separated the hammering the sticky rice and my hands folding the rice. It was so that I wouldn’t get my hand slammed. During the New Year we made huge mochi by tearing off a piece like you would a yeast roll and flattening it. The first few mochis were immediately displayed to the home temple. We made different kinds of mochi. We would add tiny shrimps or soybeans or green tea or nothing to have variety of mochi. Then the fun part was making them into little balls that we would flatten.
We ate them for snacks after we cooked them over an open charcoal fire until it ballooned out. We had different ways to eat them; sometimes we ate them with seasoned seaweed and soy sauce or sweetened powdered soybeans dusted over the cooked mochi. I think it is an acquired taste since the mochi itself has no taste accept the ones that had the extra ingredients like shrimp in it.
The reason I liked the New Year celebration was not the food but the little red envelops given to me by my parents, aunties, uncles and some of my parent’s friends. The red envelopes were stuffed with money. As a child I figured out that if I showed my appreciation properly, I would be assured plenty of red envelopes the next year.
There was always at least one visit to the temple. It was also time to visit and say our New Year greetings and wishes to all our neighbors and give and accept gifts.
Sometimes we were lucky to get some light snow, which meant that we could watch the garden get decorated with the snow and change its’ appearance. We use to sit in the hallway that faced our Japanese garden and drank hot tea to keep us warm.
As I remember those wonderful experiences I think of the new experiences I am having in America each year. I sincerely appreciate the many years of relationship with old friends and look forward to developing new relationships.