Sunday, February 5, 2017

2016 Winter Vacation 冬休み (Part 2): New Year's Day // お正月、初詣、お節料理などなど

Sent a 年賀状 (New Year's Card) to my colleague!

お正月, or the New Year, is a big deal here. Back in Singapore, the term 'New Year' meant a well-deserved public holiday/hangover recovery day where everyone would stay at home and laze on the couch watching TV and the Channel 5 Primetime Movie. Major bonus points if 1 January fell on a Friday or Monday. Also, the majority of my youth was spent at a MacDonald's on 31 December and/or 1 January with a bunch of friends, in mad desperation to finish the mountainous pile of holiday homework, while listening to the 98.7FM's Top 100 Songs of the Year Countdown. That's pretty much how I ushered in the new year for most of my life.

Japan, though, gave me a significantly different experience to commemorate the beginning of 2017.

On New Year’s Eve a whole bunch of Singaporean JETs finally met up in Tokyo. Every time I recount this story to my colleagues, students and friends I’d say it was a gathering of people who are currently living all across Japan - Akita, Iwate, Ishikawa, Hiroshima, Okinawa, and myself in Tokyo. And they would be so amazed at our ability to organise and succeed in having such a large group meet-up. Trust me, we were too!

After they checked into their Airbnb, we decided to head to Asakusa half an hour before midnight, in the hopes that we may be able to join the queue for the first shrine visit of the year. We arrived, saw the massive queue that stretched on for BLOCKS, and immediately gave up on that idea. We still stayed a little past midnight though, just to count to midnight and usher in 2017, and take an obligatory picture at the side of the famous 雷門. You know, just to show that we tried to be there.

We also tried 甘酒 (amazake) for the first time, thanks to Kimberly who introduced us to it. It’s officially my new favourite drink for the winter. We all returned back to our apartments (Carmen was staying at my place while the rest were at the Airbnb). It took us more than two hours to find our way back because the trains were running a lot less frequently throughout the night and it was hard to decipher the announcements at the train station that would tell us which one would bring us to the correct stations, but we made it back in the end.

The next day, I did my 初詣 (hatsumoude) alone at a local inari shrine, about five minutes away from my apartment. I eventually ended up visiting another two shrines over each of the next two days, but I considered the first one to be the most important and special one. I loved the fact that the local shrine wasn't crowded, and the atmosphere was very serene and optimistic, paving the way to a good start for the new year.

That evening, we all met up again at the Airbnb (because my apartment was far too small to hold more than 3 people at any one time) for…. A HOT POT PARTY. Yes, a Singaporean-style 鍋パー, because Tammy went back to Singapore and brought packets of drunken hotpot stock back. I also bought a large hotpot/grill from Nitori a while back, enough for groups of 5-8, which we used for the party.

I shared with my students about the hotpot party when school reopened and everyone agreed that our hotpot was essentially more Chinese than Japanese. We’d always throw in the cabbage first to sweeten the stock, before adding fish balls/chicken balls and everything else in, and prawns are a of course a necessity. On the other hand, Japanese hot pots are always aesthetically arranged in a pot, and presented with a complete image. We ate SO MUCH that night.

Eat until shiok only

Visiting a Japanese home/Osechi/Tokyo Daibutsu/Odaiba

The next day, 2 January, was one of the most exciting things I’ve had the chance to experience in my first year here in Japan – a traditional Japanese-style お節料理 (osechi-ryori) at my colleague's home. I first asked her candidly in November if I could spend New Year's at her house, and she said I could bring a friend or two over too. I mentioned that actually, six of my friends are going to be here in Tokyo (at that point I think she might have regretted extending the invitation in the first place lol. I kid I kid) But she said her parents and family are willing to host us for a New Year's lunch, because they really wanted us to see what a Japanese New Year gathering is like.

Most of us have never had お節料理. I really recommend you to try it the next time if you haven't, because it's SO DELICIOUS. Every single ingredient prepared has a significance/symbolism (eg. longevity, good health, fortune, etc.) and my colleague's parents printed out the pages from an illustrated children's book to teach us about all the customs of the New Year celebrations. We have never experienced such amazing hospitality - we're so grateful for the meal and everything they prepared for us that day.

There was so much food leftover, to which my colleague remarked would be their meals for the next two days. After our gathering we went to see the nearby 東京大仏 (Tōkyo daibutsu, or Giant Buddha) - most people are more familiar with the Kamukura 大仏, but there actually is a giant Buddha statue right here in Tokyo! Go look it up :) That evening, all of us (except Ali) decided to head to Odaiba as it was be the last evening we would be spending together. Such a bittersweet evening. Spent most of it taking selfies with the B612 app, with the Rainbow Bridge and the Gundam statue.

On the 3rd day of the new year, I met up with Olivia for a couple of hours in between errands. She was in Japan for the holidays and heading to Nagano for a ski trip the next day. We essentially did the #basicSingaporeantourist shenanigans: eat Ichiran Ramen, visit Asakusa (浅草寺) and take shameless amounts of selfies. I'm glad I managed to pay a visit to Sensoji during the customary three-day period.

Had a great start to 2017, here's hoping for more times like these :)

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