Japanese New Year

Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Year is one of the three most important Japanese holiday periods in the year. The way it is celebrated in family life is in some ways similar to how Christmas is spent in the West. The house is decked out with New Year decorations such as the kadomatsu. New Year postcards (called Nengajyo) are sent. Saké is drunk. Specially prepared boxed food (called Osechi) is eaten. Prayers are said at the local shrine for good fortune for the year ahead. Children are given presents in the form of cash from parents and relatives.

As is typical for most Japanese families, we spent the period from 1st to 4th of January visiting relatives on both Nicewife’s mum’s and dad’s side of the family. This mostly involved talking a lot and eating heaps of delicious food! One new year speciality is a pounded rice-cake called  Mochi which we made at home from rice we harvested in November. Mochi is responsible for a number of deaths each year as old people in particular can easily choke on the glutenous rice ball. We’ll find out this year’s mochi death toll in a few weeks’ time. Nicewife’s dad reckons they must be taking surveys and making calculations right now!

There are many traditions associated with New Year in Japan, but the actual date of New Year apparently isn’t one of them. Up until 1873 Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Given the cultural and religious significance of New Year in Japan, switching to the Gregorian calendar must have been quite an upheaval.

Grandma Cooking Mochi Rice in an Outside Steamer (Well, she's not really doing the cooking - just keeping warm!)





There ‘snow snow in Adelaide

Position of Adelaide and Nagoya
Relative Positions of Adelaide and Nagoya

Nagoya’s location almost exactly mirrors that of my hometown of Adelaide. Nagoya is 35 North, 136 East. Adelaide is 35 South 139 East. This means that if you draw a line extending directly north from Adelaide it will pass through this part of Japan, and it is the same distance to the equator from either city.

Given that we have relatively mild winters in Adelaide and we never get any snow, it always surprises me how much snow we get in Japan. In northern Nagahama in Shiga, where I used to live, the local residents woke up to 80cm of snow this morning. Here we only had about 15cm, but the boys still enjoyed their first experience of playing in the snow.



Rice Harvest 2011

Over the last week or so we have been harvesting this year’s rice crop on Nicewife’s parents’ farm. We’re now almost done – only 1 field to go. Once the harvest is complete there will be enough rice to supply the extended family and a large circle of friends with their staple food for the next 12 months.

This year Nicewife’s dad is using a new compact combine harvester. This one is almost twice as fast as their old unit, although it is still significantly slower than the large models now being used by the Agricultural Services companies that do contract harvesting. That said, using even a small machine is of course much faster and easier than harvesting by hand. The main involvement I’ve had this year has been harvesting rice by hand around the edges and corners of each field – these areas are too tight for the combine to enter.

Rice Harvest Combine

The combine harvester cuts the rice at the base of the stalk, lifts the crop from the ground, separates the grain from the straw, deposits the grain into bags, and either cuts and scatters the straw in the field or collects and bundles it with string before ejecting it out the back like a dog delivering a nicely packaged projectile turd. (Did that lower the tone?)

At home we have two other machines to process the grain. The first separates the grain from the chaff, creating genmai (玄米) – brown rice. The second polishes the genmai creating hakumai (白米) – white rice. The byproduct of the polishing process is rice bran, which in older times was used to make soap but nowadays is more commonly used as an organic fertiliser. At home we usually polish the genmai to about 60%, which leaves the rice with a yellow tinge but gives it a higher nutritional value than white rice.

Nicewife’s family’s fields are some of the last in this area to be physically worked by the family that owns them. Many other landowners are getting too old to undertake the work themselves, and most are finding that their children do not want to return to the countryside (despite it being relatively urbanised nowadays) to take up the reins.

Harvesting by Hand