My family is .000000001% Scottish so naturally we have a New Years tradition of “First footing”. An American tradition loosely derived from the Scottish tradition where the first person to cross the threshold of the house forebode good or bad fortune for the year. In my household growing up it was always the men who were supposed to cross the threshold first and growing up in household full of women that almost always meant me! Since I am starting the New Year in Tokyo, a picture of me on my mom’s iPhone being waved outside the door had to suffice! By the way my family is almost certainly not any percent Scottish, would be kind of cool though as I do enjoy a good Islay peat from time to time.
In any case here in Japan there is a New Year tradition called Hatsuhinode (greeting the first sun of the year) where folks gather seaside or around one of the various lakes that flank Mount Fuji to view the first sunrise of the year for good fortune. New Year celebration in Japan is similar in scope to American Christmas where time is spent exclusively with family & friends and festivities may last an entire week. (Christmas in Japan is more of a romantic holiday and typically mean’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, and spending time with your sweetheart).
January 1st on my way back from Osaka, I stopped briefly in Shibuya for the New Years eve count down. That Sunday morning I missed Hatsuhinode, I slept right through sunrise but for me New Year’s day would still be auspicious. I was invited to Asakusa by a friend to celebrate the New Year with him and a few of his acquaintances, a spirited group of friends who are a motley crew of female business owners and teachers hailing from both Tokyo and the Seoul, South Korea area.
From the time I met up with my friend and, I think I’ll call them my Korean and Japanese “Noo-Nim” which is Korean for “Big Sisters” I knew we were going to have a blast!My Newfound Sisters: “he told us you we’re African American, since we were having trouble finding you we told him we’ll grab a megaphone and ask every African American guy who walks past”: “Hey are you Brandon?! Hey are you Brandon?!” (I was cracking up!) After a few laughs and introduction we then waded through the sea of flesh to show our Korean accomplices the many sights of Asakusa. On it’s best days Asakusa is an overcrowded tourist trap town situated in the Taito-ku part of Tokyo. Asakusa is home to a Kabuki theatre, Museums, Sumo stall’s, and traditional Japanese food’s pre-dating the Meiji restoration so this is the place you go if you are in town sightseeing and want to experience the feel and taste of ancient Edo-era Tokyo. Asakusa also provides convenient access to the Tokyo Sky Tree tower, and the famed Sumida river.
The Battle of the Yaki’s: Tokyo v.s. Osaka
Tokyo and Osaka have a long history of sibling rivalry akin to Los Angeles versus Orange County, New York versus Boston, or Baltimore versus Washington D.C.. This rivalry tends to manifest itself in various ways including sports teams such as baseball club the Osaka Tigers (Hanshin Tigers) who have only won the Japan World series once in it’s 76 year history and Tokyo’s (Yomiuri Giants) who have won more Pennant’s than any other Japanese team. There’s Tokyo-ben and Osaka-ben, two different Japanese dialects of which Tokyo-ben is considered standard Japanese and Osaka considered to be rebellious and improper Japanese, and there’s also the notion according to Osakan’s that Tokyoites tend to be cold and unwelcoming, and that Osakan’s according to Tokyoites are uncouth and bit rough around the edges. For New Years Night I personally created a new rivalry: Osaka Okonomiyaki v.s. Tokyo Monjayaki.Osaka is popularly known as “Japan’s Kitchen” giving birth to such classics as Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki, and also boasts a whopping 22 Michelin rated restaurants! Okonomiyaki is something that on paper seriously doesn’t make sense to my western taste buds: A savory pancake stuffed with Octopus bits, cabbage and pork topped with worchestsire, mayo and dried fish flakes??? It defies all convention, and it really shouldn’t taste good but does! It’s something about that mayo when it melts and saturates the pancake, it adds a nice tangy balance to the bold worchetsire sauce, and both sauces then meld with the warm gooey interior of the pancake followed by the delightful chewiness of the bits of octopus…. as surely as sushi and ramen have become popular in the United states & world wide, I predict that Okonomiyaki will have it’s moment in the west soon!
Tokyo’s proud rendition is known as Monjayaki. Monjayaki is a bit more complex than Okonomiyaki. It is essentially a “frying batter” and you eat it straight from the grill using a mini spatula while it’s still cooking. The basic ingredients are very similar to Okonomiyaki but it never truly cooks up into a tangible solid due to an excess of dashi (fish stock), and so this I think is the key advantage Okonomiyaki holds over Monjayaki.
I’m not a fan of participation awards but these guys are Honorable mentions:
Chilled tofu covered in Shirasu (baby fish) topped with miso paste and green onions
Park Geun-Hye v.s. The People?
Always curious about the wealthfare of citizens around the globe I like to gain a point of view from a local perspective. I asked my new found friends how they felt about their governments (South Korea specifically). In case you didn’t know South Korean government is currently steeped in a moment of flux. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye was impeached by South Korean parliament over an influence-peddling scandal last month, and their constitutional court now has to decide whether or not to confirm the impeachment. As with any country there are divergent sides of opinion, but my friends expressed the general consensus that for the time being they’re at least satisfied that that the protest has been peaceful so far.
As South Korea is my neighbor, I hope the best for the country. Southeast Asian and East Asian countries are reaching a bit of a boiling point of late and, its too soon to tell but it feels as if something’s going to spill over soon.
Bellies full and in good spirits we wrapped up our dinner party for the night. Now I’m a Christian bloke so I don’t believe too much in luck, viewing of the years first sun or being the first to cross the threshold of a households door will predict the outcome of the year but, if the saying that “how you spend your New Year’s will determine how you spend the rest of the year” than it’s good foreboding as I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend the coming year than with friends new & old!