let's get to it! lots of stuff to tell you. i'll start with the new year and weave crazily through time from there. lots of pictures too; prepare yourself.
this was my first christmas/new year in japan, even though i've lived here for 2 1/2 years; it was my first christmas away from home ever (more on that later). i wanted to experience something authentic or traditional from the japanese new year holiday, like making mochi or whatever, but i didn't have any takers right away. i at least wanted to eat some of the foods (like the mysterious osechi i heard people talk about). i got in the spirit of things by buying some of the fancy sweets that come out for the new year. they didn't really taste as good as they looked.
ok, this one was the prettiest and had the best texture.
something that tasted wonderful, though, was my latest obsession--ichigo daifuku! marina tried to get me excited about these when she lived here, but i just wasn't there yet. my slowly changing tastes have finally found their way back to this winter sweet. inside soft pink mochi and bean paste is a fresh strawberry. they're a little difficult to find, so when i did happen to come upon them, i bought as many as i could conceivably eat in a day (they expire very quickly). YUMMMY.
my tastes have really changed a lot since i came here. i'm actually proud of that. it's fun to get used to, and even begin to like things that used to be weird to you. a barely-poached egg (floating in liquid like an amputated eye), all yellow and runny and swirled into rice for breakfast used to be barf-o-rific. this year i started craving it; i couldn't get enough! i stopped barely tolerating bean paste and started liking it. i look forward to pickled vegetables with my meal. i relish the tart saltiness of umeboshi. my feelings about fish have changed a lot too; i used to only like sushi or a cooked fillet. but now...fish for breakfast? pickled fish with the skin on? whole tiny fish with sesame seeds? all fine with me.
anyway, cat and tomohiro came to my house for a little new year's party, and we played Uno (surprisingly hard to follow after all this time, even sober!), watched a movie, and at 11:30, hiked up the mountain behind my house in the dark (not one of my better ideas) to see the midnight fireworks from the top. i've been up that path several times in the daylight, and it's not very difficult, but between the two measly flashlights and tomohiro's odd city-boy lurching on the trail, it was more dangerous than i expected. it didn't help that we couldn't see how steep the trail was around us...or in front, or behind. we slid in leaves and stumbled over boulders and finally found our way to the rock that overlooks the city. in the darkness it looked a million times smaller and more precarious than in daylight. plus, i had just recalled the stories of wild boars in that area (was it a tall tale?). the idea of being cornered on a cliff by a massive wild boar terrified me. it would be all my fault, too. great.
after the brief fireworks, i begged the other two to go straight down, and we did. i didn't relax until we finally reached the safety of the road. 2009, ushered in by the fear of being gored or plunging to my death.
our "wild" night.
new year's day i got my wish. my friend wakana offered to make me lunch at her family home, and what was it? osechi! it turns out to be a collection of traditional foods (which vary by family) made or bought during the new year that you can kinda eat at any time without much preparation. that frees the womenfolk to relax too (supposedly). wakana's family's osechi looked like this:
the soup is ozoni, a soy-sauce broth with meat or veggies and mochi in it. there were also sweet black beans, jammy orange chestnuts, pickled sushi, fish cakes, fish eggs, and vegetables with lotus root. i liked everything but the fish eggs. her sweet grandmother beamed at me from her hospital bed in the living room. when i first arrived, i thought, "oh crap, am i disturbing her?" i remember my own grandmother when she got to the point where she was in hospital bed. she was often confused and distracted, but this tiny old woman was sharp! she gently got herself up and pulled out a photo album of wakana's baby pictures for me to see. she had taken all of them, and they were large, color prints that captured the parallel time of my own childhood in another country. the family's love was palpable in the pictures. it was surprisingly touching to see it. the only odd part was the occasional naked baby picture...which turned into the occasional naked middle-school picture as the album progressed. i don't really have a problem with tasteful? appropriate? nudity in art or life, but it was weird to have someone watching me look at nude pictures of my friend who was in the other room. what was i supposed to say? still, i was impressed by the collection and the fact that i had a chance to meet her sweet granny.
i went for a solitary walk on the 2nd. it was chilly, grey, and blanketed in that inpenetrable stillness that falls over towns during holidays when everyone is wrapped up inside. it was lonely, but in a good way; it was nice to be out in the freshness. most people put up sprigs of cleyera on their homes and businesses like we do evergreen wreaths, but i chuckled when i saw this one was put up with tape. i used to tape Everything, and my mom used to tease me about it. see mom! i'm not the only one!
the next stop was my favorite teacher and dear friend naoko's family home in tsu. i drove as the sun set and snapped pictures out the window.
a mikan (mandarin orange) grove above a bridge. mie is chock full of them. we are swimming in mikan. sometimes they terrace them over train tunnels. there is just No More Room for another orange tree.
hilarious. not a lot of competition to post signs here...on this abandoned shack.
finally i got to meet naoko's parents, who are both as sweet and wonderful as naoko herself! they said i was their "other daughter" and that it felt comfortable to have me there. i felt the same!
they made me osechi meal #2!
a lot of the same things here: in the middle; black sweet beans and a different kind of chestnut, then fish cakes, fish, veggies with lotus and shiitake, and fish eggs.
a side plate of sea cucumber (nice taste, weird texture) and pickled radish with a golden dish of sake.
a slightly less traditional dish; sausage and cabbage, and chawanmushi, which i helped make.
finally, homemade mochi toasted and wrapped in nori.
i shared artichoke hearts with them, so they could try something i love.
our family picture of sorts.
naoko's mom even gave me otoshidama, a gift of money (given to kids up through high school age) in a little envelope! i was really lucky and got just what i wanted for the new year: an experience of the traditional new year holiday with a wonderful family.