Yesterday was Setsubun
, the day before the beginning of the "spring season" in Japan. Setsubun
is a day akin to New Year's, when people engage in rituals to chase evil away from their homes and bring good fortune in during the year. The most famous ritual is mamemaki
, or "bean throwing." Mamemaki
involves the head of the household throwing beans out the door of the home at someone dressed as a demon, while the family members chant: "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!
" ("Demons out! Good luck in!"). You're also supposed to eat one bean for each year of your life to bring good luck. Here in Kitakami, stores were selling peanuts to be used for mamemaki
, rather than soybeans.
We didn't do mamemaki
at home (scaring demons away is why we have big fuzzy dogs), but we did partake in the ritual of eating ehomaki
's place. This tradition allegedly originated in the Kansai region, but has spread to other areas of Japan. Ehomaki
is a fat sushi roll (called futomaki
days). If you can eat the entire uncut roll while praying, and without speaking, it is believed that you will have good fortune throughout the year. You eat the ehomaki
while facing the eho
(direction of good fortune) for the year. The eho
is determined by the year of the Chinese zodiac; this year, for the year of the mouse, the direction was south-southeast. Hige-oyaji
had a fancy Setsubun
compass, set with zodiac symbols and their related directions, to tell us what direction to face. Unfortunately, I didn't completely understand what was going on, so I ate most of my ehomaki
facing a wrong direction. Oops.
Ah, the life of the expatriate in the small city ― teach a little, learn a little, get a little press. After our neighbors brought over the newspaper article about the shinnenkai
, including the photo of our musical interlude, some of our students told us that the prefectural newspaper had put us in their coverage of the event as well. One of them brought us the article this week; Matthew is quoted in it as thinking that Japanese culture is enjoyable. Alas, it's also not available online.
It's pretty entertaining to learn from our friends, students, and neighbors that they've seen us in the paper or in a magazine. Or on TV ― Matthew was onscreen briefly during a news spot about a train show that he attended with the local model railroading group. We've got a prominent spot on one of Hige-oyaji
's photo pages
with some of our local friends. And Matthew has been featured in James's promotional materials, including this charming shot on the Kitakami school page
Just think: you can say you knew us before we were big in Japan. ;)
Here and There, Then and Now
It's strange to think that we've been in Japan long enough to be talking about renewals, but here we are. Matthew's residency status expires in March, only two months from now. His contract is up for renewal in April. My residency status expires in June. We intend to renew everything for another year because our lives here aren't finished yet. Even so, there's something that makes me wish we were making plans to go back to America instead.
Life in Japan is very rewarding. We both enjoy our work, we're making friends, and we love Kitakami. The hard things of six months ago have become today's commonplace, almost second-nature things. Even on the worst days, a look around at the mountains brings a sense of serenity that I don't remember feeling in a very long time. What can I say, I'm a westerner. Mountains go a long way with me.
Still, the approach of a natural transition point causes me to think about the things I miss about America. Washington doesn't have mountains, but it does have its own grandeur. Every day of the eight years that I traveled downtown for school, work, or leisure, I saw the Capitol dome. And it never got old. We spent many an autumn afternoon windsurfing on the Eastern Shore, stopping for a rockfish sandwich and a pint on the way home. I miss the contented feeling of driving down the GW Parkway, confident in our ability to navigate to any destination, despite the completely blinkered signage. It took us years to figure that mess out.
I miss Jazzercise, the Vie, the U Street dining tour, and the patio at Les Halles. I miss Woodside and the Swedewagon. I miss American Idol!
For all that I miss, though, I know that there are more new adventures in store for us here. There's more to learn, more to overcome, more keys to lose and reports to file, and more stories to have for when we do return to America, feeling nostalgic for Kitakami.
On Sunday, we went bowling as part of a group event. Bowling in Japan is no different from bowling in the States, down to the clownish rental shoes.
We haven't gone bowling in a very long time, so it took us a few frames to get back into it. Our team actually did pretty well ― three of us broke 100 on the first game, and we all did on the second.
The event was a fundraiser for the local sign language club, some of whom we've met through local friends. In between turns, they were teaching us little bits of Japanese Sign Language, including the signs for "Washington" and "America." As it turns out, the frowny face accompanying a blown spare is an international sign.
At the end of the tournament, the group gave prizes to each participant, ranked from highest score to lowest; I think we were all in the top twenty. Also, people who threw gutter balls had the dubious distinction of getting extra prizes based on the number of gutters thrown. Matthew got one:
Yes, it's candy poop on a stick. A lollipoop, if you will.
According to our local friends, January 21 was Daikan ― the coldest day of the year on the Japanese calendar. The two weeks surrounding Daikan are also supposed to be colder than the rest of winter, which is easy to believe. Many roads in town resemble skating rinks because temperatures have gotten just above freezing during the day, but it hasn't been warm enough to evaporate the snowmelt. Riding your bike on these roads is quite treacherous; I've taken some spills in the last week or so.
The Japanese have different ways of dealing with winter weather than we've experienced in America. It's common to see cars sitting with their windshield wipers standing out. People do this so that they won't freeze to the windshield, which totally makes sense if you've ever tried to prise frozen rubber away from glass. In Kitakami, street crews don't salt or sand the roads ― driving precautions are up to individuals. Almost everyone has snow tires or chains. Roads aren't graded down to the asphalt. As far as we can tell, they're not really graded at all, but harvested. Snow is clearly removed from them because the level on the roads is lower than that in yards and parking lots, but a layer is still there and there aren't piles of gray, dirty snow lining the streets. The result is that even two or three weeks after a big snowfall, the landscape is still quite beautiful, if the roads are a bit more dangerous than we're used to. It's not a bad trade-off.
On Saturday, the Kitakami International Assembly Hall hosted its Shinnenkai
, an introduction to Japanese culture. Attendees could try out a range of traditional activities, from tea ceremony to shodou
(Japanese calligraphy) to koto
(Japanese zither). Matthew is interested in learning shodou
, so he got a quick lesson.
We also tried koto
, Japanese bamboo flute. Our trial was featured in a photo in the Sunday newspaper, which unfortunately is not available online.
Each group also put on a demonstration. The tea ceremony practitioners prepared the traditional New Year's tea, which contained a pickled plum and a tied bit of seaweed. The tea was served with youkan
and black bean and walnut mochi
One of the more energetic groups performed a type of Japanese street entertainment. They chanted a folk tale while dancing with props resembling small bamboo fences that they could manipulate into different forms.
New Year's in Japan seems to be an ongoing celebration throughout the month of January. Shinnenkai
, or New Year's gatherings held after January 1, bring people together to share in the optimism of the fresh year ahead and to partake in traditional events. We were invited to one such event last week, mochitsuki
As we've mentioned before
is one of the traditional Japanese New Year's foods. Mochitsuki
is the traditional mochi
-making ceremony, during which members of the community use large wooden mallets to pound polished, cooked rice into a sticky paste. Once the paste is made, it is formed into small cakes, which can then be eaten.
At the encouragement of our hosts, we took a turn kneading the mochi with the giant mallets.
It was fun, but we clearly lacked the energy and expertise of the locals.
Once the kneading was completed, people alternated pounding the rice with a quick water rinse to keep it from sticking to the equipment. Children, assisted at times by their parents, got in on the pounding too. It was a great community event; one that we're glad we went out into the white-out conditions for.
J-Life Lesson #46: When living in a part of the country where it snows every day during the winter, check frequently on your air-drying laundry.
Let's take a look at today's weather, shall we? Here's the weather report. It's pretty typical for winter in Tohoku: snow in the morning, and cloudy all day after that.
Now, let's take a look out the window:
That's about how it goes with the weather forecasts here. They aren't just inaccurate, they're willfully dishonest, or at least it seems so. My theory is that the weathermen are part of a secret government program to emotionally control the people and prevent revolt. When it's nice out (or will be), the forecast shows nasty weather, so that everyone gets a pleasant surprise and is happy. When it's nasty out, the forecast shows nice weather tomorrow or the next day, which gives people hope (even though the nice weather doesn't actually arrive until three weeks later).
At dinner with friends the other night, the topic of horseradish came up. This left our Japanese friends at a loss, as they'd never heard of the stuff. We tried to explain, "it's like wasabi, but it's white. In fact, we call wasabi, 'Japanese horseradish' in English."
A quick dictionary consult, and we had found the Japanese name for horseradish: seiyou wasabi (西洋わさび) — literally, "Western wasabi".