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Fried Cricket Anyone?
(Japanese New Year)
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Fried Cricket anyone? A traditional Japanese New Year
<An extract from my online diary>

Thursday 3rd January 2002

Happy New Year of the horse!

Well, my week's break is over now, but what a great holiday it's been! I tell you, mother's are just the best hosts in the world. Myself and my girlfriend, Kae, took the five hour train trip west to her hometown of Toyohashi. Essentially, we spent all day every day eating - I am now 3kg heavier than I was this time last week. We did occasionally venture out, either to the local Mister Donut or when driven to Kae's Grandparent's houses 15km away for more food. Oh,we also saw the Harry Potter film which has been a huge hit in Japan - I personally think the attempt to transfer the book to the big screen should not have been made, although it is doing a good job of promoting British English which is a rare thing over here.

As in the UK, New Year traditions are centred around eating, drinking and watching television. This suited me down to the ground - I really cannot recall the last time that I simply vegeed out without a care in the world and not a responsibility in sight. Much of our time was spent huddled around the Kotatsu (heated table) watching New Year specials, whilst drinking beer and eating all sorts of snacks.

New Years Eve itself was really lovely. At about 10.30pm we forced ourselves up from around the Kotatsu and made our way over to Granny's house for Ramen and Soba (they look like spagetti, but are not made of pasta - I forget what it is they are made of). Then, once the NHK (Japan's BBC equivalent) special had finished at 11.50pm, Kae, Kae's mother, her aunt and I trundled off to a local temple, from where we could hear the low pitched "dong" of a huge bell (see picture below). We were lucky, the bell, usually strictly out of bounds to the public, was open for us to swing the rope-suspended log into the side of it. In Buddhism, it is believed that there are 108 desires regarding sense, feeling, and time in every person. In order to erase these desires, the bells are rung 108 times to dispell them and their bad effects.

Fancy a fried cricket or crunchy crab?
The huge bells rung 108 times at all temples on New Years Eve.

After a warming drink of Amazake (a hot, sweet wine and rice mixture) offered to us by the wife of the priest who was chanting inside, we moved onto a shrine. No bells here, but instead, seven traditionally dressed drum and flute players. They were adding to the great atmosphere created by the large crowd of locals who were enjoying the fires, Sake (rice wine), and general superb atmosphere of happiness, love and celebration. That's how my Year of the Horse began, and may it continue for everyone with the same feeling of positivity and joy.

Earlier that day, Kae's mother had taken us for a "traditional country style meal", which consisted of about fifteen seperate dishes (each). Two of the most notable ingredients were whole freshwater crabs and fried crickets (see above). It was also my first time to eat raw fish and raw egg. I must admit that I hesitated initially, but heah, you'll never learn anything if you always shy away from the unknown. The crabs, although small, still looked vicious, and I really wasn't sure whether my teeth were strong enough to grind their pincers sufficiently so that I could swallow them. No problems on that score though, it turned out that they were just like Pringles. The crickets, with their pin sized legs sticking out were even more off putting, but once again were quite delicious. To work off the weight we'd put on during the feast, Kae and I decided to hike up the local mountain by climbing 1,425 steps that date back to 708AD. If anyone knows of a staircase anywhere in the world with more impressive statistics do let me know! At regular intervals were many little Buddhas wearing knitted hats (such as the one below), which served to encourage us to continue our marathon trek, as did the coke machine halfway up. One of them even had a green Parker jacket; it quite suited his moss-covered figure. On the way back it was time for the long-awaited return of hitchhiking to my life. The freezing temperatures (much of Japan is now covered in snow) ensured that we were picked up after a mere 10 minites of trying. I was delighted in that I understood the basics of much of the small talk en-route.

New Years Day breakfast took the form of "Mochi". Perhaps Japan's most famous traditional food other than Sushi, Mochi is a sticky rice mixture. The making of it is quite a spectacle (click here for photo), involving two people, a scooped out log and a huge wooden mallet with a metre-long handle. I have never come across any other food like it. It comes in many flavours, both sweet and savoury, but always has that unique cosistency. Unfortunately, it is responsible for quite a few deaths every year, elderly people being particularly at risk as if it is not broken down enough in the mouth it can easily block the throat. The government this year has publicly endorsed the use of vacuum cleaners should a mochi-emergency case arise. Fortunately I survived my encounter being well-aware of the dangers.

UPDATE: from the Japan Today Website (4th January 2002)

20 treated at hospitals for choking on rice cakes Friday, January 4, 2002 at 17:30 JST TOKYO

- Twenty people in Tokyo, mostly the elderly, received treatment at hospitals from Sunday to Thursday after choking on Japanese rice cakes, traditionally eaten during the New Year holiday season, the Tokyo Fire Department said Friday. The fire department called on the public to exercise caution in eating rice cakes, which are made by pounding sweet rice and are very dense and chewy. Fifteen of the 20 people hospitalized are 65 years or older, the department said. (Kyodo News)

Well, it's back to work for me now. I better prepare a big space in the corner of the room for all my cards and presents that I know will be arriving soon for my 24th birthday on January 13th. (Januaryu 13th I said).

Take care wherever you are.

Joseph

Mochi, the traditional New Year dish
A wee little Buddha with a warm head
New Years fire

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