Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu! Happy New Year and welcome to the Japanese Year of the Snake! This particular Oshogatsu was special for a variety of reasons, but the most interesting of which is the fact that my boyfriend is a snake, so this will be an auspicious year for him. There were a few other interesting serpentine coincidences, but we'll get to that in a minute.
My particular tradition of Shinto is called Kaigen, which means "opening of the eye." It is a Shingon Buddhist syncretist path, and because of that it is just chock full of Zen Buddhist influences and mysticism. So as a lead in to my biggest holiday of the year, I begin with an observance of Rohatsu, or the day the Buddha attained enlightenment. I make a dish called oryoki in huge batches, and I eat it throughout the month leading up to Oshogatsu. The purpose of the dish is to be a meditative practice, both in making it and in eating it. Every day that you have it, you are to be so mindful of the eating that you experience new flavors and textures. Also, because it is a vegetarian dish, it is also a means of purification.
Oryoki, make with 7 kinds of rice, 16 kinds of beans, millet, pearl barley and mushrooms. Though this year I did not include the mushrooms because my boyfriend wanted to join in my observance but rather dislikes mushrooms.
Well that sounds all nice and spiritual, doesn't it? Unfortunately it didn't quite go down that way this year. And it wasn't for a wont of trying, either. Every time I turned around, I was being gifted with food or having to attend some kind of dinner or holiday function. So I didn't end up becoming quite as pure as I would have liked. But I would rather be sociable and thankful for gifts than be a rigid jerk that keeps turning people down because of my obscure practices. I don't really think that is in the spirit of my faith anyway. Who knows. Maybe all of that was a test to see if I would choose to be holier than thou and high handed, or be with my peoples and be grateful for their thinking of me this holiday season. Maybe I'm making excuses, but I think there's a certain purity to be attained by spreading and sharing joy and happiness.
One of the many seasonal get togethers I had to attend was a Christmas dinner with Jacob's family, who do not exactly approve of the whole gay thing. They had met me once before at Thanksgiving, and I just kept a low profile. This time, I made my move. I was then and still am determined to win them over and be accepted by them. So I offered to cook. I made walnut and cranberry rice pilaf stuffed roasted Cornish hens, whipped sweet potatoes, and a vegetable medley tossed in herbed oil and garlic. Now Jake's stepdad, who is a sheriff, is also a pretty decent cook and is generally underwhelmed with other people's culinary skills. But during dinner, all he kept saying was, "Man this X is good!" My face was impassive but I was grinning ear to ear on the inside. The next day as we were preparing to leave for home, a stunning moment happened: the sheriff hugged me goodbye.
Um, I mean... I think I might have made progress... ;)
Leading up to Oshogatsu, I go through a pretty much month long ritual cleaning process called osoji. There are many reaasons for osoji - to purify the space and make it ready for the biggest holiday on the Shinto calendar, to clean out anything that may have become a malevolent Tsukumugami
, or object that has become a spirit, to make room for new influences by removing objects representing old attachments, and to give new life to old things by repurposing them or giving them new homes. I did this with a bread machine I had but never used. Osoji lasts right up until the close of Omisoka, or New Year's Eve.
Some scenes from osoji this year. The upper left is my bedroom. Since this is where my kamidana, or altar, is kept and is essentially my shrine, it gets cleaned the most intensely. I took out the bed and all the furniture and cleaned all of it.
But I am especially proud of how clean and orderly and usable my pantry became! Not that I like to cook or anything... especially since this is spice pantry #2.
I had a helper this year! Despite how cold it had been, this brown shield bug (aka stink bug) landed on my arm and kept me company through a large part of my cleaning.OMISOKA
Omisoka is New Year's Eve, and has plenty of traditions of its own. It is the day that you officially put the old year and its affairs behind you, but you also prepare that which you are carrying with you to journey with you into the coming year. This year I had to do things a little differently. Typically I do all of my year ending observances after sunset in that time between the days, but since Jake had to go to work that night, we decided to have our observances early. There was a small ceremonylette where his guardian officially released Jake to my care and gave us his blessing. I then served the three of us my yearly spin on the traditional Omisoka meal. Soba, or buckwheat noodles, are the traditional food, made into toshikoshi (roughly translated as crossing over or year end/year beginning noodles). My spin on this dish is called Triple Threat, because the number 3 is sacred and has a special importance to me. This year's Triple Threat had extremely tender filet of beef, chicken and shrimp tossed with the soba in a homemade citrus teriyaki made with orange-banana-pineapple juice. In addition to the juice this year, I added cranberry peach balsamic vinaigrette that Jake and I bought on one of our farmer's market trips earlier in the year. This was my way of adding an element of us to the crossing over noodles.
After the meal was finished and Jake and his guardian left for work, I finished the very last of osoji. With some of the house debris I swept up, I also wrote up and burned my regrets in the for the year in the fireplace to prevent them from following me into the new year. Once the ashes cooled, I swept out the fireplace and removed the ashes from the apartment. Usually I scatter them in the little garden behind my house, but the ground was somewhere between wet and frozen and would not have been a good idea. So they just went in the trash bins in the alley out back. The very last acts of the day were to open up all the windows (despite the bitter cold!) to let the New Year in, and to begin making osechi ryori, which is the traditional Oshogatsu feast.
This year's toshikoshi soba.
And a photo of last year's burning of regrets, because I forgot to take a picture this year.OSHOGATSU
Officially Oshogatsu began at a few minutes after midnight with a few "happy New Year" and even a couple of "happy Oshogatsu" texts. Even though they woke me up, I did not stay awake so I don't really
consider that the start of the day. However that does go down as both first texts and first wish of happy New Year. I guess it also counts as first sleep too, since I went back to sleep.
I suppose I should take a moment here to say a bit about what Oshogatsu is. Sure it is the celebration of the New Year, but it is also a festival of firsts. We believe that the events of the first day of the year and the impacts those firsts have on us set the tone for how the year will unfold. The whole purpose behind celebrating all of these firsts is to simply pay closer attention to the ordinary things that happen in your life. Even something as mundane as sighting the first sparrow of the year is important, because it was the first time you saw a sparrow. And yes, that really is a thing.
The first texts not withstanding, the first first was hatsuyume.
Hatsuyume - first dream
The first dream was pretty hilarious, and probably brought about by my friend who hung out with me while performing osoji. It went something like this: I was asleep, and Jake came home and hung out to read for a little while in the living room before coming to bed (which is a pretty common practice, actually). In my dream, I was awakened by a blood curdling scream from him, followed by him bellowing, "CAMERON HELP ME!!!" So in my dream, I leap out of bed, bull rush my bedroom doors and reduce them to toothpicks as I smash through them, run into the living room and pick up the couch fully prepared to bludgeon Jake's attackers with it. However when I get there, there are no ninjas, pirates, ninja pirates, Tea Party-ers, Westboro zombies or even Jehovah's Witnesses. It's just Jake with his face turned as far to the left as he can manage, his eyes squinted shut as though he were in pain, and his right arm extended and waving frantically at me with him chanting, "GETITOFFGETITOFFGETITOFF!!!" So I put down the couch, calmly walk over to him, pluck off the brown stink bug that dared to invade his person, toss it out the window, then return to bed.
Hatsuhinode - first sunrise
The first sunrise is pretty important, because it is officially the beginning of the first day of the New Year. I celebrate this by toasting the sun with a juice cocktail I call "sun juice." It is the same orange-banana-pineapple blend I use in Triple Threat, only this year I ran out! So I simply used orange juice instead. The sky was completely overcast, so there really wasn't a sunrise to see. But I know where the sun comes up this time of year, and I checked the almanac for the time, so I knew when and where to be.
Hatsuhinode - first sunrise
Myself and Jake, respectively, with our toasting goblets.
Hatsuki - first fire
The lighting of the first fire has lots of obvious symbolism - bringing light into the new year, purification, banishing - all that happy Pagany goodness. This year, unlike the previous couple of years, it was actually warranted because it was COLD! So it also had the symbolism of bringing warmth and comfort and was practical as well as ceremonial.
Hatsuki, the first fire, with Jake's Yule tree lit up in the background and my cat Bruce looking on in approval.
Hatsushinmotsu - first exchange of gifts
Jake was so excited about hatsushinmotsu that we did that next. He got me an amazingly ornate kamidana (altar, residence of my household deities), and I was blown away by it. But as he got a good look at it, he realized it was not the one he ordered and it broke his heart. I felt so bad for him because he was so very excited to give it to me! He got me a design with three doors, which I have longed for forever, but the one that was sent only had the one door. I still love it. It was the first time anyone had really done anything to honor my faith and show their support for me. So with hatsushinmotsu, I got some unexpected firsts: first sadness, first joy, first heartache (both good and bad), first surprise and first first display of support for my religion.
Look how beautiful this thing is! And that look on my face is one of concern, because Jake was just so crestfallen.
Gifts on Oshogatsu are all about your wish for them for the new year. So all of my gifts to Jake were aimed along these lines. He wants to go back to school for meteorology and he has a great love and fascination with weather. So to encourage his dreams as well as his imagination, I got him a meteorology textbook and his favorite weather movie ever - Twister. I also got him Tornado! just because it has Bruce Campbell in it. I also wanted to encourage his sense of play and just give him something nice for being so good to me, so I gave him Final Fantasy 8 - a game he has been pining for since I've known him. I threw in FF Anthology just because. I do almost everything in threes, so my last set of gifts were items for his altar that I have collected from around the world in my many adventures to show my support for his faith and to encourage his continued practice.
Jake proudly clutching his weather related goodies.
Waraizome - first laughter
The first laughter was brought about by both Jake and the cats, who were in a very playful mood. Here is Fuzzbat playing Ambush the String from under the couch:
Hatsudayori - first exchange of letters
In the past this is done through nengajo, or New Year cards. However, Jake opened his the day it came in the mail and I found myself with no letter to exchange. So this prompted an impromptu trip to the store. Along the way came many more firsts! This was the first walk, first trip to the store, first art photography, first meal, first donut, and first purchase! Though I didn't make the purchase because I somehow forgot my wallet.
First meal, which also happened to be the first donut! And it wasn't just any dount either. It was the Holey Donut!
First robins! There were first squirrels too, but for whatever reason I did not feel like taking pictures of them. I am still holding a grudge against them for destroying my feeders that I use for hatsusuzume.
Which reminds me! Hatsusuzume, or first sparrow, has eluded me ever since I started documenting my Oshogatsu observances. Every year I would hear them, but I never saw them. This year, I finally broke that trend. I give to you, with much fanfare, HATSUSUZUME - the FIRST SPARROW!
Sparrows are lucky, and a sign of good fortune. There are lots of tales about sparrows, and are so important to Shinto that you even get to visit the Sparrow Clan when you pass through a torii gate in the game Okami. But even if they weren't auspicious, I would still take their picture because I like them.
After we got back, poor Jake was so tired he promptyly passed out. So I filled out his card that we got while out, and began making osechi ryori.
Osechi Ryori - New Year feast
There are a host of traditional foods that are made for Oshogatsu, but some I can't make simply because I can't get the ingredients. Others I have tried to make but never got it right, like ozoni. Also, I typically take a personal spin on the osechi classics, but since I had guests this year (another double first!) that were looking forward to traditional Japanese fare, I kept it by the book for the most part.
Kohaku Namasu - red and white salad, made with daikon, renkon (lotus root), carrot, red cabbage and shredded broccoli. The red and white combination is considered lucky and auspicious.
Homemade sesame ginger dressing for the kohaku namasu.
Tataki Gobo - burdock root in soy with sesame seeds. Burdock's long taproot represents longevity and stability.
Iridori - chicken and root vegetable stew, made with chicken thighs, daikon (prosperity), renkon (wisdom, enlightenment), gobo (stability), carrot(auspicious color), onion, satsumaimo (sweet potato), satoimo (taro), and seaweed in broth.
Lobster (ise ebi) and Shrimp (ebi) with Yam Noodles (shirataki), stirfried in leftover Triple Threat sauce as a symbol of carrying over some of the old and combining it with the new. Both shrimp and lobster are traditional osechi foods because of their bent backs. They represent the old year, so eating them is symbolically taking into to you that which you want to nourish you from the year before.
My Tai. Tai is sea bream, but it is impossible to find here. It is also traditionally preserved in salt, and I just can't tolerate salt crusted anything. So I went with mahi and I poached it in a traditional sake based marinade. Sake is a symbol of wealth and celebration. Steamed right along side are some mixed Asian vegetables like bok choi, carrots, and squashes. I poached/steamed everything in a tightly sealed foil packet.
For dessert I served up the usual assorted mochi tray. It comes with three flavors - red bean, black bean and peanut butter.
First house guests, over to enjoy the osechi feast. I swear they were enjoying themselves. I swear.
Before the guests arrived and dinner was served, Jake and I did hatsudayori.
Hatsudayori - first exchange of letters. In this case, a card given to me by Jake.
While dinner was cooking, I accomplished a few other firsts. I attempted Kakizome, the first calligraphy. Something had gone wrong with my ink, though. It kept clotting up on me and was very difficult to use. So this year's calligraphy isn't all that great. I also did the year's first craft, a tradition started by accident last year. This year I made new spice stocks for the year. I also wrote my kigo haiku.
New hope dawns
With the setting
Of old fears.
Kakizome - first calligraphy. It is the kanji for the name Katsumi, which means "self-control." This is the name I chose for Jake when he decides to officially become part of my house. Interestingly and completely unknown to me until I looked it up, the second kanji is the kanji for snake. Auspicious choice, considering it is the Year of the Snake and he is a snake sign!
First craft - the making of spice rubs. This one happens to be tandoori.
Even though there was still heavy cloud cover, I attempted to capture hatsubanshyoo using the same method as hatsuhinode. I had no idea where in the sky the moon would be, so could not attempt to capture hatsusuki, or first moon. I know it was out there, because it set around 10:30 in the morning.
Hatsubanshyoo - first sunset.
This year, I also got to enjoy the first visit to a friend's house, as well as my first good deed. And I cannot confirm it, but I could have sworn I saw the spitting of snow at some point during the day, so there was the potential of hatsuyuki (first snow). That would have been highly auspicious indeed! As always, I closed out the celebration with hatsumode, or first shrine visit. I prayed at my kamidana while Jake observed. He had never seen me at my kamidana before, so he absorbed and learned my customs. After that, I cuddled with him and closed out the best (and longest!) Oshogatsu I have ever had.
Even though the weather was grey and cold, the entire day was filled with good feeling, excitement, anticipation and hope. There was much love and camaraderie and friendship, and I can't think of a better way to kick off the new year. I certainly hope that this is the foreshadowing of the coming year, because if it is it is going to be a great one.