David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

Japan Stories #13: Shin-nen-kai and Matsumoto-san Visits Kansai

On January 2nd, we went to our first shin-nen-kai, or "beginning of year" celebration. Professor Torii, my host in Osaka, and his wife tradtionally invite student and staff to their place soon after New Year's. Their mansion is on the 15th floor of a complex consisting of five or six buildings. It's about a 15 minute train ride and then a 15 minute walk.

Anticipating 15-20 people, they had taken some sliding doors out, nearly doubling the size of their living room. There were two long tables set up, complete with three or four burners for cooking sukiyaki, the main dish. Indeed, when we got there around 2PM, about half a dozen students had already started eating. Mrs. Torii must have been slicing vegetables, tofu, and beef for hours, since there were massive bowls ready to be cooked. There was lots of beer and sake, too: when the sukiyaki needed extra liquid, somebody would just pour in a couple of shots of beer. We also had o-zoni, a special soup for the New Year's, which (in the Kansai area) includes some white miso.

The party was relatively informal, for a Japanese party. There were no speeches and people mingled quite a bit. On the other hand, when ex-students of Torii's came he almost always introduced us formally, kneeling on the tatami, and made sure we exchanged life (meaning education and work) histories.

During a brief break from eating, the games started. People played Pente on a go board, traded card tricks, once again played Hyakunin-isshu, the 100 poem game. Cathy held her own in a couple of the games (I didn't play), to the continued amazement of the Japanese. But we were even more amazed by one of the players, who consistently got more than 50 other players. After several games like this, the two best other players challenged him again: they would play against him as a team. He beat them handily. But I was glad to hear that he had in fact wasted much of his youth playing games like these: he took eight years (the maximum allowed) to finish his undergraduate degree, which I had thought was unheard of here.

Later on, we ate and drank more, and then headed home stuffed and happy.

The next day we had a visitor: Matsumoto-san, the secretary from Tokyo Institute of Technology who had taken us to her house, to her tea ceremony teacher, to the baseball game in Yokohama, and more. She was bravely taking the big trip from Tokyo to Osaka to see her American friends for a couple of days.

We met her at the bullet train tracks at Shin-Osaka Station, and we immediately left for Kobe, where an architecture professor Cathy knows was hosting a shin-nen-kai. Matsumoto-san was alternatively asking us to be her guide to Kansai and being amazed that we knew our way around. The party at Professor Ohno's house, who is on the faculty at Kobe University, was wonderful. He and his wife dressed in kimono, and there was great food, great drink (including some strange and wonderous kind of Chinese alcohol with herbs in it), and a relaxed group again. In addition to Ohno, his wife, and their two sons (aged 14 and 9, I think), were two women undergraduates and another professor (all from Kobe University).

Both undergraduates still live at home, even though one of them has a two hour commute (each way) every day. She said it was fine, especially because her mother did all her cooking, cleaning, and so forth. The America idea of trying to become independent by leaving home just didn't make much sense to them. (American parents may punish children by sending them to their room. Japanese mothers punish children by sending them outside the house, which is punishment because being part of the group is so essential in Japan. The kids next door often scream "O-ka-san! O-ka-san" (Mother, Mother) to try to get their mother to let them back in the house.

The big hit of the afternoon, for the Japanese, was when Cathy read palms. (On weekend nights we often see long lines of young women waiting to consult with mysterious looking palm readers sitting at small tables on busy streetcorners.) Cathy, looking not so mysterious, read Matsumoto-san's, both of the students, the other professor, and both of the Ohno sons. The big hit of the afternoon, for us, was seeing the two sons help out (including the elder son doing dishes), which is almost unheard of in Japan. All in all, it was a relaxing and pleasant afternoon.

It took us about an hour to get back to our place, which Matsumoto-san was dying to see. We settled in, accepting presents she brought for us (mostly food, including some pickles her mother made and some exotic kinds of mushrooms and fish wrapped in seaweed). We ordered a seafood pizza (shrimp, squid, and tuna fish) and drank beer while watching the "Wizard of Oz" on video. We ran a hot bath for Matsumoto-san, and she washed and showered and sat it in the o-furo while Cathy and I played Yahtzee. And more Yahtzee. And more Yahtzee. After Matsumoto-san finally finished, she came out, corrected a couple of mistakes we had made in laying out her futon (like the cover sheet was on inside-out), and we all hit the sack.

Matsumoto-san got up early, and we dragged out of bed soon after: the bo-nen-kai and shin-nen-kai were getting to us. After breakfast we walked over to Osaka University, so she could see the campus and the offices in the Torii Laboratory. From there we took a bus to Senri-Chuo, a big shopping center, where we caught the monorail. Matsumoto-san was just like a kid, amazed at anything and everything. When we crossed train tracks, she wanted to know what line it was and what color its trains were. She wanted to know the name of every "ku" (which is a city district) we were in. She wanted to know which ku was the biggest. She wanted to know which stores were most popular. She wanted to know where the stores from all the big Tokyo chains were. And so on. By the time we got to Kyoto, Cathy and I felt like we had heard every question the "Japan Help Line" had ever been asked. And more.

We tried to eat lunch at Knuckles, the deli, but it was closed. We found a nice noodle shop, though, and then headed off to Dai-toku-ji, a complex of temples in the north part of Kyoto. It wasn't very crowded, which made it even easier to enjoy the traditional grounds and gardens. We entered a few of the temples, especially a couple with famous rock gardens. Cathy had visited in November, during the one week in the year when the general public has access to some of the most special gardens and to a very famous teahouse. In fact, this teahouse was the reason Matsumoto-san decided on visiting Dai-toku-ji, since it is an important teahouse in the history of her practice of the tea ceremony. At one of the most well-known temples, we sat and had tea (the bitter kind for the tea ceremony, made one at a time by the staff).

Afterwards, we took a taxi to Shimogamo-jinja where another festival was ongoing. We were too late to see a traditional game similar to hacky-sack, but there were lots of people in traditional garb, including more young men than we had usually seen. Matsumoto-san made a special prayer that she would get married this year. She's getting a bit old for marriage here (we think she's nearing 35), and she worries about this constantly. (The very first time we met her, in 1988, we learned in fewer than five minutes, literally, that she was unmarried and that we should keep an eye out for eligible, Japanese men for her. If any of our readers know anyone...) We then headed off to Gion and Yasaka-jinja, the shirine we'd visited on New Year's Eve.

It wasn't as crowded as New Year's Eve, but there were lots of people still buying arrows, praying, and wearing kimono. Matsumoto-san prayed for a husband, and then she bought an o-mikuji. Although it was in Japanese, she made it clear that it was *not* a good fortune, and she became really quite depressed. She cheered up a bit when we wandered back into Gion and she bought some o-miyage (presents to take back home), first at a handicraft store and then on the food floor at the Hankyu Department store. She took about 30 minutes at one stand in Hankyu, picking out five special kinds of candy for teac ceremonies. At least twice she decided on what she wanted but, after the clerk had wrapped everything, changed her mind. She spent less than 6000 yen here (under $45), but got lots of service. And a smile. Amazing.

We took the train into Osaka and ate okanomiyaki, which are sort of like noodle-omelet pizzas served on a table with a hot grill built in. We all had quite some appetite by the end of this day, and washed it all down with a cool draft beer. We took the train home, looked at some photographs and some pcicture books of Washington State, and ran a bath for Matsumoto-san. While she washed, showered, and soaked, Cathy and I played Yahtzee again. And more Yahtzee. And more Yahtzee. And even more Yahtzee. It is really good that Japanese baths are separate from the sink and the toilet, since the average bladder could not last through the average Matsumoto-san bath.

Saturday was Matsumoto-san's last day with us. We headed off to wander around Umeda, in Osaka, before lunch. We found the special pickles she wanted to bring her mother in one of the department stores. (The previous day, in Hankyu, she hadn't found them, and had scolded Cathy for looking at one display of pickles because they were "from the wrong prefecture".) Later we were walking along a main street and Cathy and I crossed a little alley. Well, it turns out that there was a traffic light at the corner, and the light was red. Matsumoto-san would not cross the alley against the light, even though probably 50 When it *finally* turned green, she crossed and scolded us for doing something incredibly dangerous. She said that we must have crossed since we were Americans, even though she had just seen (or, I guess, had not seen) maybe 40 or 50 Japanese cross against the red, too.

We had made lunch reservations at the "Little Carnival", the restaurant where the waiters and waitresses sing opera. We figured Matsumoto-san would enjoy this, and we were right. The seafood was decent, and the all-you-can-eat salad bar was a treat for her. She told the waiter that it was my birthday (it was only off by a couple of days), and sometime later three servers brought a small cupcake with lighted candles to me and birthday babies at two other tables. In full operatic form, they belted out "Happy Birthday" (to Da-Bi-Do-san, for me), shook my hand, congratulated me, and handed me yellow roses. After they sang a couple more opera numbers, we finished up and headed to Shin-Osaka Station to see Matsumoto-san off to Yokohama.

We then headed to a dinner at our Chinese friends, Feng and Chien. They had an incredible dinner cooked for us at their apartment in the Osaka University International House. They made their own wonton (which they call wondon), but filled them with shrimp instead of pork so Cathy could eat them. There were tofu dishes, fish dishes, some strange kinds of duck eggs, and lots more. The only thing I couldn't manage to eat was the pigs feet: the problem was that they looked too much like pigs feet. I figured that they were a real delicacy, and that they'd be happy having an extra one to share. After dinner we looked at a some pictures from China. Feng's family still lives in what looks like a mud house outside Shanghai. Both of them have done incredibly well. They might well be in the top .1 in China in terms of education, which literally makes them "one in a million."

The next day, Mrs. Ishizeki, the mother of our friend Naomi who was married in Kyoto in October, invited us back to her house. Once again, we got there by taxi after meeting our friend Mayumi at the cosmetics department at the Hankyu department store in Senri-Chuo. Also as before, Ishiseki-san was prepared with a day-long feast. The first course was a Japanese obento, or lunchbox. A set of five bento boxes was laid out, each exquisitely lacquered. But the insides, which Ishiseki-san made entirely by hand, was even more incredible. Vegetable rolls, plump shrimps, carved lotus roots, and much, much more was laid out perfectly. She apologized because she had only spent about five hours putting them together!

After another course or two---each on a different, beautiful set of dishes---the doorbell rang. Cathy and I stared at each other and said, "Sushi." And we were right. A huge tray of sushi had indeed arrived, just to keep us busy between courses. Around 5:30PM, we started making sounds like we had to go, since we had arrived around noon and didn't want to overstay our welcome. But wait! We hadn't had dinner, and Ishiseki-san has already started to prepare a new feast. Anyway, "Chibi Maruko-chan", the most famous TV cartoon in Japan, was on soon, so we (quite happily) stayed for dinner and the show. Chibi Maruko-chan is Japan's answer to Bart Simpson: she's a little bit of a bad girl, often inciting her friends to make trouble, and she's an under-achiever in school. These are *not* generally acceptable traits in Japan, but somehow she seems to get away with it all (and still be popular with children and parents alike). She is sufficiently famous that lots of salarymen sing the theme song at karaoke bars. This year, at the snow festival in Sapporo (in Hokkaido), there was a larger-than-life-size ice sculpture of her, too. In any case, dinner was, of course, scrumptious: delicious fish soup, handmade Chinese-style eggrolls (made without meat, specially for Cathy), and a beefsteak for me. (I don't eat that much beef anymore, but this was quite special.) Afterwards, Ishizeki-san rolled us out of the door, ran us to the bustop, gave us bus tickets in case we didn't have change (and you don't even need exact change, here), and sent us on our way. Whew.

The following week, we got to return the favor. In mid-afternoon, I met Ishizeki-san, Mayumi, and her trusty chaperone at Ishibashi station and walked them to our apartment. Mayumi brought some wine, the chaperone brought some fancy (sweet) dessert, and Ishizeki-san brought stunning flowers and (oh no!) more oranges. In about five minutes, Ishizeki-san arranged the flowers in an way that still impresses us almost a month later. (The flowers are still almost like new: this is one benefit of uninsulated Japanese apartments.)

Cathy was inspired (and a bit awed) by Ishizeki-san's feast, and had cooked up as much of a storm as is possible in our small, under-supplied kitchen. We sat at the kotatsu and started with vegetables & dips, moving right on to the minestrone. Later on, we moved to the table for the main meal: spaghetti, stuffed mushrooms, and italian bread. The mushrooms were the biggest hit: they all wanted the recipe. Mayumi's red wine went perfectly with it all. (Ishizeki-san had about three sips of wine, and it went right to her face. This happens to lots of Japanese, including her daughter Naomi, when they drink. But in her case it's even more extreme than usual.) The chaperone's dessert, Ishizeki-san's oranges, and some ice cream finished our bellies off for the evening. Back at the kotatsu again, we pulled out several picture books about Washington State that Susan St. John had sent us (thanks, Susan!) and started taking reservations for their promised visits to Chez Nottle.

I walked the three of them to train and taxi, and headed home. Cathy and finally felt that the New Year parties were over, and we could start trying to make our resolutions come true.