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The New Year’s Holidays Defined by Mother’s Homemade Osechi Dishes

In Japan, I grew up in a so-called “nuclear family”—a family that consisted of a father and a mother and me, their only child. Both of my grandfathers had already passed away when I was born, and my grandmothers were in places more than an hour drive away from where we lived.

What I remember from the New Year’s holidays in Japan is the osechi dishes and the ozoni soup (a soup with rice cake) that my mother made. She always prepared all dishes for the New Year’s holidays by herself and never asked me for help. In Japan, as soon as the clock strikes midnight on the night of December 31, the moment it turns into New Year’s Day, people across the country pay their first visit of the year to shrines (called hatsumode). However, my parents both hated crowds which I think is the reason why they never took me for hatsumode. As a Japanese, perhaps I’m a very rare case.

At 18, I left home in Kyushu and moved to Tokyo to attend a university there, which is when I started living on my own, but every winter break I went home by plane. For me, the New Year’s holidays meant eating my mother’s osechi dishes. But I never helped her or went for hatsumode.

Even after I started working at a publisher in Tokyo, I did the same thing. At the end of every year, the day after the last day of work, I would fly to my parents’ house from the Haneda airport. In the heyday of the bubble economy, I had the money to spend for my own use, and I went on trips abroad in places such as Hong Kong and Paris almost every Golden Week or Obon Week. But I always went back to my parents’ house for the New Year’s holidays. It felt natural to me that I should do so every year.

In my late 20s, I moved out of my apartment in Tokyo, quit my job at the publisher, and left for America. I had visited Los Angeles a few times on trips and liked the place so much that I actually wanted to live there—and finally I turned it into action. Luckily it only took me six months to get a job at a Japanese community magazine in Gardena, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, as they thought that my work experience as an editor suited the position. I was able to get the visa for workers in specialty occupations. And at the end of my first year in the US, I learned that they didn’t have long holidays for the New Year even in the Nikkei community.

I did not know that in America, people celebrated Thanksgiving more as a special occasion for families to get together than the New Year’s holidays. In Japan, every year I went back to my parents’ house and had my mother’s osechi dishes even after I had left their home, but for the very first time in my entire life, just before I went into my 30s, I made a decision not to visit my hometown for the New Year’s holidays.

Different ozoni in different places

It’s been more than twenty years since I moved to the US. During those years, I got married, obtained permanent residency, gave birth to two kids, and became a freelance writer after my younger daughter was born, quitting my job at the community magazine where I worked for eleven years. My eldest son is seventeen years old now and will graduate high school in half a year. My daughter will be in the final grade in middle school this fall.

January, 2013. My daughter at the mochitsuki (rice-cake making) event at her Japanese school. I had never made mochi in Japan. We might have more opportunities to take part in Japanese traditions here in the Nikkei community in the United States than in Japan.

The preparation for the New Year’s holidays—which had been my mother’s task for nearly thirty years since I was born—is now my responsibility as a wife and mother in America. Luckily I don’t have any problem with getting the food that I need, as there are many Japanese supermarkets here in Los Angeles. We can find a variety of vegetables, including mizuna (potherb mustard) which I put in ozoni, and even bamboo shoots and taro for chikuzen-ni (simmered vegetables).

As my husband is also from Kyushu, I make our ozoni exactly as the one that I’ve been eating since childhood, a clear soup with untoasted round-shaped rice cake (mochi). There is no need for argument for taste. Even within the same country, people in different regions of Japan eat different kinds of ozoni. Instead of clear soup, miso soup is more commonly consumed in some regions, and mochi can be toasted or untoasted. I heard that in Kagawa Prefecture, their mochi in the ozoni soup has sweet bean paste inside. Different ozoni can be seen in different places.

My daughter’s favorite osechi dish is herring roe. I can also get this (an unsalted one) at a Nikkei supermarket in my area, though it’s a little expensive. And my son loves sweet rolled omelet. What I do is get both herring roe and rolled omelet at the supermarket, cut them into small pieces, and line them on a plate. That’s it. My mother, however, even made kuromame (sweetened black beans) and kuri-kinton (sweetened chestnuts with mashed sweet potato). My osechi is a non-homemade, easier version.

Three years ago, we cancelled our summer trip to Japan due to the Great East Japan Earthquake and instead went back home at the end of the same year to my parents’ house for the New Year’s holidays. I was expecting to see my mother’s homemade dishes but she had made a reservation at a fancy Japanese-style restaurant. I did enjoy the food there, but at the same time couldn’t help thinking that my mother had aged too, while I was in the US. I felt like Urashima Taro, a guy from an old Japanese folktale who finds himself ages in the future after spending some time under the sea.

By the way, my son wants to go to Japan after graduating high school. He says that he wants to live close to my parents—his grandparents—if at all possible. Maybe he’s trying to be a good grandson, taking my place (their daughter) to fulfill filial duty. Will there ever be a day when my son fondly thinks back on the New Year’s holidays he spent with his family in Los Angeles in a faraway land of Japan?


© 2014 Keiko Fukuda

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