Oshogatsu: It’s all in the family

This sojourn would fall over Oshogatsu, the week-long New Year’s holiday. In contrast to many Western countries, New Year’s in Japan is chiefly a family occasion, and full of symbolism in the dishes eaten, the decorations that adorn houses and neighbourhoods, and the 108 chimes of the temple bells at midnight, each tolling with a discrete meaning.

The Tanahashi home was lightly dusted with snow and it certainly felt chilly inside. Astoundingly, this steely family of eight were unfazed. Coming from England, where energy-guzzling central heating is the norm, I found two refuges from the cold. One was the kotatsu, a low table heated from below, where we spent our mealtimes. The other? A large cedar bath for long, blissful soaks in the evenings.

I was also taken aback by just how warmly I was welcomed — without the remotest nuance that I was a “gaijin” or outsider.

“You two are good together!”

Takeshi’s father raised his voice over the slurping of noodles at the dinner table. His three daughters nodded, chiming in with their father’s sentiments. While I enjoyed being the centre of attention, Takeshi, blushing, gazed into his bowl.

Once their offspring have fled the nest, most Japanese parents will seize the vital opportunity of Oshogatsu to reassert their values. So delighted were the family for their eldest son, who I’d just started dating, that conversation soon turned to his introducing me to the rest of the village.

“Takeshi! Take her to Auntie’s house tomorrow. Then Mrs. Kawano’s. Do you think the Murata’s are on holiday? Knock on their door anyway. On Thursday we will go to see Grandpa.”

Little did I know that Grandpa was resting just down the road in the quiet cemetery with several generations of Tanahashi ancestors. Besides the Obon Festival in August, Oshogatsu is a time to make offerings to the deceased.

The major event for this town was a large bonfire gathering at the local shrine on New Year’s Eve. Elegant kadomatsu pine and bamboo arrangements had been placed at the somewhat dilapidated shrine gates. I was puzzled when the local farmers, merry on amazake, a hot New Year’s beverage brewed from rice, told me stories of their dealings with people from the former USSR until I realized they’d mistaken my headscarf as a mark of Russian ethnicity. Moments later, inside the shrine, Takeshi and I had our foreheads stamped in red by a cackling fellow in an over-sized, long-nosed demon mask. I was handed otoshidama: little envelopes plastered with cute cartoon characters containing money, a custom I thought reserved for children. Warmed by the crackling embers and the villagers’ generosity, we retired home to a firework display in the distant hills.

New Year’s morning, okaasan returned from town with a three-tiered lacquer box. Osechi-ryori, the New Year’s meal, is incomparable to the Western turkey dinner: each element is intended to bring luck for the year ahead. Once, most mothers would labour in the kitchen for days to craft this exquisite feast; nowadays it is usually made to order and sometimes fetches astronomical prices in department stores.

“Have you ever tried kazunoko?” I was presented with a thick, rubbery sliver of herring roe. The dull sheen and sickly yellow were not enticing.

“You will many children!” Otoosan said, clarifying the significance of this dish in English. I gulped it down awkwardly, and eagerly moved onto the juicy lobster sitting its golden compartment.

Shivering to a chorus of “kawaii!” in the neighbour’s most treasured kimono, a white furisode, I set off with Takeshi. Time for hatsumode, the year’s first shrine or temple visit. The shrine precincts were a miasma of people, including kimono-clad girls donning extravagant hairstyles and ostrich feather collars. Stalls sold skewers of yakitori and plump rice cakes. A sacred white horse basked in the attention of the crowds.

After rattling the bell to wake the kami and pray, we scoured the tens of stalls for tasty souvenirs and omamori amulets to protect us. We stumbled across intricately embroidered enmusubi charms said to promote a lasting relationship between new couples. I must have dropped mine.

Now the year-end is approaching once more. Here in the old capital, my toshidama envelopes are still in my desk drawer: a reminder to live in gratitude for what has passed and what will be, year after year.

Lucinda “Ping” Cowing’s profile

Lucinda “Ping” Cowing is a graduate of SOAS, University of London from the UK living in Kyoto. In her endeavour to better understand this extraordinary city and its people, she joined the magazine Kyoto Journal in 2010, where she is now an editor, and more recently took a room in a one hundred year-old machiya in the historical textile district. Her interests include playing piano and the Okinawan sanshin (three-string banjo), exploring her neighbourhood’s quirky cafes and galleries, and collecting teas from around the world.