Happy New Year!!
2014 had come and gone. Though many anxiety-provoking events transpired during the year (such as the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian passenger jet, the rise of ISIS, and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa), as far as my family was concerned, it was a fairly good year. In particular, 2014 witnessed a significant change in my life in the form of retirement, which I have been enjoying for the last 5 months. At the onset of my retirement I defined my 5 priorities (daily exercise to maintain health, playing golf to stay physically active, writing, painting/drawing, and playing the piano) and I have kept to them thus far – more or less. For this New Year, 2015, I want to maintain my routine activities as often as possible. Some might say of such a new year’s resolution, “How boring!” True, it does not include a trip to Antarctica or parachute jumping, but I don’t consider it boring. I am still in the phase of exploring “intellectual adventure.” (The caveat here is that Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide when he renounced “intellectual adventure,” embracing “the hot darkness of physical action.” So, I should never give up on the intellectual adventure. Blaise Pascal might be quite right when he said in Pansees: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”)
In Japan, families enjoy the special new-year dishes called “osechi ryouri.” Osechi consists of a great variety of cooked dishes that last 3-4 days. Historically, it started as celebratory dishes at court to mark the new season during the Nara period (710-794). Among the four seasons, the season that starts with a new year was the most important. During the new-year days, humans were not supposed to use the hearth unless they prepared the gods’ food, mochi (glutinous rice). Over time the custom became so popularized that the average families began to practice it as well, in more elaborate forms. (The cultural history shows that democratization is the crux of changes.) This custom also shows the wisdom of folks who wanted to free women from their daily cooking jobs. These days, the dishes are placed elegantly in jubako, layered-boxes. Since odd numbers are considered good numbers in Eastern cultures due to their indivisibility, each layer has an odd-number of dishes, each of which shows some significance. For instance, black beans, “kuro-mame,” is used to wish for good health in the New Year, because “mame” means health in Japanese (a rather inane pun), while red sea-bream “tai” is a fish often used in auspicious occasions because “medetai” means festive in Japanese.
In the past these osechi dishes were prepared by each family, but these days it seems they are bought. For instance, Japanese restaurants take orders for osechi-ryouri. Many of these osechi dishes are arranged beautifully in many layers of boxes. Since I have lived in the US, for a long time I could not enjoy osechi-ryouri because Japanese restaurants that took orders for osechi tended to be located at least 70 miles away; but, this year I could order one from a new Japanese restaurant, which is located about 30 miles away.