On the evening of the very last day of 2010, my husband and I zig-zagged our way through the Musashi-Kosugi train station markets where I admired clear plastic boxes of fresh shrimp tempura and soba. There were a few businessmen in long coats who would linger by the food stands, and some would make a purchase before rushing away towards the dimly lit streets of Kawasaki.
The Japanese grocers were shutting down their businesses early, displaying discounted traditional New Year foods at the front of the store. I stopped to look at the array of fish, the bright scales of the sea bream sticking to its plastic wrapping. There were also tiny fish stewed in a soy based sauce, along with rows of stark pink and white fish cake. None of this appealed to my fish-hating husband.
We would make our way back to the house by 7pm, where we would help set up two small tables to criss-cross the kotatsu in the middle of the tatami floor. Once done, we set out the wrapped chopsticks and sets of mismatched bowls around two large bubbling pots of sukiyaki broth that filled the air with the smell of soy and sugar. As we slid into our floor spots, my cousin and aunt used their long chopsticks to fill the pots with slices pieces of onion, mitsuba, shiitake mushroom, carrots, yam noodles, tofu and fresh bright red and white marbled slices of Kobe beef. My uncle set out the sake glasses, and the conversation began.
The household had modernized their own New Years traditions, leaving out the traditional soba and ozoni meals. The plates of sushi that would arrive at the household on New Years day were ordered from a tiny restaurant across from the local train station. My aunt, a country girl from Aizu-Wakamatsu, would still cook the fresh rice, translucent short grain kernals that were grown on her family’s farm. Such pure rice has a satisfying freshness, each individual piece with an unmatched flavor that rests on the mouth in soft, chewy morsels. We would eat this with fresh roasted red snapper, pickles and root vegetables stewed in soy and covered lightly with sesame seeds.
My father-in-law introduced his own North Carolina tradition to my Japanese family, breaking out a bottle of strong Southern Moonshine that had been smuggled into Japan inside an old Jack Daniels bottle. That liquid thunder, which turned to flame as it traveled down from throat to belly, was passed around from uncle to aunt, from my mother to mother-in-law, to cousins and my cousin’s wife. Amid the racous laughter and strong alcohol, faces were turning beet red. My mother-in-law passed a 5 yen coin to my karaoke champion uncle Makoto, who stood up and offered up a few verses of Enka as his wife furiously waved her arms in the air in a dance.
My uncle Mineo leaned back and observed all the joviality with a smile on his face. Later, he would tell me that this was how the family was, and how it should always be. It was the happiest of memories.
Happy New Year!
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