New Year's at the In-Laws in Japan

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Every New Years in Japan, my wife and I go to spend a few days at her mom and dad’s house. I like her mom and dad. It seems like they like me too. They are very nice to me. This year they are especially nice because we have a son. Perhaps if we have two sons, they’ll be twice as nice to me next year. On second thought, no, they are sufficiently nice enough as it is.

Things have changed a lot in Japan over these past 15 years or so. It wasn’t that long ago that in Japan the entire country came to a grinding halt about New Year’s time. Yep, you name it, they were closed. This situation really threw a wrench into my New Year’s festivities considering that I am a gourmet and the only thing open from January 1st to about the 3rd was the local convenience store and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Heck, 20 years ago, nothing was open at all at New Years. Even the convenience stores were closed. Back in those days, a convenience store in Japan called 7-11 meant 7 AM to 11PM — excepting Sundays and National Holidays — when they were closed. This was also a problem for heavy drinkers (like me) since everything was closed, that meant you couldn’t get an aspirin to save your life.

I think this situation — everything being closed in Japan at New Year’s — went on for a few hundred years, so the Japanese women all got together and made what they call, Osechi Ryori — it’s the Japanese version of Turkey-till-you-puke (like they have in the USA). You see, in Japan, the women have had to work their fingers to the bones for all those years — and Japan used to be a desperately poor country — so all the women got together and decided that they’d all take off from January 1st until the 5th or 6th. That’s where the Osechi Ryori comes in.

The Japanese women all decided that they needed some time off too, so they made Osechi Ryori. I know this must have an old history, because this food will not spoil even if it hasn’t been refrigerated for several days.

I love Osechi Ryori. The first time you eat it, you’ll love it too. But just like good old turkey back home, by about the fifth, sixth, or sixteenth time — what with the fixings and all — You’ll be so sick of turkey — er, I mean, Osechi Ryori, that you’ll never want to see it again.

I think most American folks can imagine quite easily what I’m talking about here. Just think of Turkey Hell excepting we’re talking about little fishies and sweet scrambled eggs like you get at a Sushi shop.

The very first time I came to Japan, it was New Year’s. I woke up in the morning and walked downstairs and there on the floor were seven or eight Japanese guys passed out drunk as a skunk — and it was only 10 AM. "Wow! I love Japan. What a great country!" I thought. I then started drinking with the rest of the gang and dove into the Osechi Ryori. It was delicious. All the little barbecued fishies and the shrimp-on-a-stick. What a colorful and tasty treat! The other great thing about Japan is that when you drink you never have to drive home. That’s the best. Get so tanked up you can’t walk? No problem! Grab a taxi.

Well, this went on for a few days. I was happy about the boozing from early morning as it reminded me of going fishing when I lived in California. You know, those deep-sea fishing boats that would set off at 3 in the morning? You’d wake up and see the boat captain and say, "Mornin’!" as you cracked open a cold one. (It didn’t matter if you caught any fish if you at least caught a buzz). Anyhow, the Japanese New Year’s festivities were a blast… for about the first 4 days or so. Like I said, I loved the Osechi Ryori the first few times. But by the morning of the 3rd or so, I was ready for a hamburger! And I don’t even really like hamburgers; especially the crummy ones they have in Japan.

Anyhow, that’s the scoop on my New Year’s in Japan for 2006. I’m here, and I’m safe. The drinking has already started and it’s not even the New Year. But, for once in my life, I have planned ahead: I do have plenty of aspirin for even a Japanese-sized New Year’s celebration.

Have a safe and healthy 2006. Happy New Year to you and yours. God bless you all.

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has the distinction of being fired from every FM radio station in Tokyo — one of them three times. His first book, Schizophrenic in Japan, is now on sale.

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